Eddie Glaude, Jr. & African American Studies: A Work in Progress

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By Ellen Gilbert

Images courtesy of the Department of African American Studies, Princeton University

“It’s about concentric circles radiating out,” Glaude says of the Center for African American Studies logo that will continue to be used to symbolize the new department. “It’s the opposite of being a ghettoized silo.”

The newly created Department of African American Studies at Princeton University must surely be one of the most compelling examples of the expression, “to cast a wide net.”

Formerly called the Center for African American Studies, the department asks its undergraduate majors to “think carefully about the complex interplay between political, economic, and cultural forces shaping the historic achievements and struggles of African-descended people in the United States and their relationship to others around the world.”

“Princeton’s outstanding faculty members in African American studies address cultural, social and political issues of urgent importance to our students, our nation and the world,” Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber observed when the Center’s new departmental status was announced last May. “By approving the establishment of a new Department of African American Studies, the trustees and the faculty of the University have provided Princeton’s students with new opportunities for learning, and they have deepened our commitment to support scholarship of the highest quality in this vibrant field.”

Chairing the new enterprise is Eddie Glaude, Jr., the William S. Tod Professor Religion and African American Studies.  His own “skill set” is highlighted by examinations of “American politics, intellectual traditions, religious thought, and history,” and a glance at the specialties represented by other core faculty in the department confirms the sense that there’s a lot going on here; art and archeology, comparative literature, English, the history of science, psychology, and sociology all have places at the table.  Students concentrating in African American studies will choose from one of three thematic subfields: African American Culture and Life, Global Race and Ethnicity, and Race and Public Policy.  “I have been undeservedly lucky to have the most amazing colleagues in the world,” Glaude writes in the acknowledgments to his new book, Democracy in Black. “The Faculty in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton is thoughtful, committed, and decent.”

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Reaching a Wider Audience

It seems fitting that Glaude’s Democracy in Black, which is subtitled How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, is being published by Crown, a New York-based trade publisher, rather than by an academic press.  Three of Glaude’s previous books, In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America (2007) Is it Nation Time? (2002), and Exodus! Religion, Race, and Nation in Early 19th Century Black America (2000) were published by University of Chicago Press. A fourth book, African American Religious Studies: An Anthology, which he coedited with Cornel West, was published by Westminster/John Knox Press, a satellite of the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, in 2003.

“This book is my first real attempt to speak to as broad an audience as possible,” says Glaude of his move to the world of commercial publishing.  Responding to what he sees as “a moment of genuine crisis,” Democracy in Black is Glaude’s account of “how we got to here.”  “Here,” he explains, is a place informed by the assumption that white values are what count the most.  The profound challenge facing society, he says, is to “shake loose of the American ideology, the Puritan sense of specialness that God has sanctioned whites’ existence.”  One way to deal with this challenge, Glaude says, is to look at individual and institutional “practices and habits” in order to identify – and address – what he describes as the “value gap” behind inequality on the Princeton campus and in the world at large.

At Princeton, there’s been no wasting of time toward this end: early in October the Department of African American Studies, in collaboration with the Department of Psychology, and the Princeton Center for Behavioral Science and Public Policy, presented the first of six programs in what is being called the “Inequality Science Series.”

Subtitled “Wise Ideas and Best Practices to Close Achievements Gaps,” the first program was moderated by Princeton University Dean of the College Jill Dolan. Panelists included Geoff Cohen, of Stanford University’s Graduate Schools of Education and Business; Greg Walton, from Stanford’s Psychology Department, and Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, of Columbia University’s Department of Psychology. Sharing the premise that “inequality has a psychological dimension to it,” their presentations got down to nitty-gritty behaviors observed in laboratory situations that have the potential to be “tilted” in order to obtain different outcomes.  “Small things” can have big results, they suggest.  Instead of dismissing an inadequate response to a question, some “wise criticism” about how an answer might be improved says, “I believe in you” to the student and paves the way for continuing efforts that result in more polished performances. Future “Inequality Science Series” presentations will also include speakers from other universities as well as members of the Princeton community, and will examine gaps in medicine, housing, and linguistics.

In her introduction to the October program, Dolan cited last year’s uptick in student activism on campus, and wondered about the tensions between assimilating into Princeton’s traditions and changing them. Mr. Eisgruber made it clear whom he believed stood to gain from these efforts at a celebration of the Department’s creation. By “understanding the impact of race on the life of the university, all of us will benefit from what the department does,” he told an enthusiastic crowd at the Carl Fields Center.  He paid tribute to his predecessor, Shirley M. Tilghman, who recommended an expanded curriculum after a 2006 task force report suggested that reflections on race and the experiences of black people should be diffused throughout a liberal arts education in what Tilghman described as an “indispensable element in a preparation for life in this country.”

Tilghman and Eisgruber might well have been inspired by the words of social activist Grace Lee Boggs, who died at the age of 100 just a few days after the October 1 “Inequality” event.   “There are times when expanding our imagination is required,” she once wrote.  “The radical movement has overemphasized the role of activism and underestimated the role of reflection.”

Which is not to say that activism is far from Eddie Glaude’s mind. “America has never been the shining city on the hill,” he told an audience at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 2012. “We’ve always been a work in progress.”  Glaude likes to remind you that he was a student of Cornel West, and West is one of the dedicatees of Glaude’s latest book.  (The other is Glaude’s son, Langston, and together they are his “inspiration to keep fighting until the last breath.”) Speaking of his son, Glaude proudly observes that “whenever he says his name, there’s power.”

Displeasure with Obama

In conversation, Glaude uses the word
 “combativeness” to describe the “fight” to “rid democracy from its dependence on white supremacy.”  Nor does Glaude mince words as he expresses his displeasure with Barack Obama’s presidency.   “We’ve come so far as a nation that we can elect a black man to be president of the United States,” he writes in his new book, “but racial inequality gets worse on his watch.”  One of the reasons for this, he believes, is that “Obama refuses to engage directly the crisis sweeping black America.”  Glaude quotes Cornel West’s observation that “we ended with a Rockefeller Republican in blackface.”  He notes that West started out with high hopes, participating in some 65 campaign events for candidate Obama, the man who, Glaude writes, “was ideally our black progressive antidote to the conservative policies of the Bush years.”

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“Why Are You Here?”

Glaude spent his undergraduate years at Morehouse College, an all-black, all-male institution in Atlanta, Georgia whose goal is nothing less than “to produce academically superior, morally conscious leaders for the conditions and issues of today.”  It was a formative experience for Glaude, who sees religion and black studies as inextricably entwined and essential to “understand one’s being in the world.”  He says that Morehouse taught him “how to think,” drenching him in the “history of the black man in the service of democracy.”  He went on to earn a Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton.

A student at Brown University, Langston Glaude is having a very different kind of undergraduate experience than his father had at Morehouse.   A pivotal episode–and a particularly ironic one considering that Langston Glaude has a dual major in Afrikaner and Urban Studies—occurred during Langston’s freshman year.  Unable to participate in a scheduled field trip with his group in an urban studies class, Langston and his girlfriend followed up on the assignment to observe “one of the richest neighborhoods in Providence” with an early evening visit to an area park.
Here is Glaude’s description in his new book:

A bit later a police cruiser slowly drove by. The officers stared at him.  The police car abruptly made a U-turn, turned on its blue lights and drove onto the sidewalk, blocking any possible exit. An officer got out of the car. He shined a light into my son’s face, then at his face, and then near the shrubs and bushes… never saying a word. Langston finally asked, ‘Officer, can I help you?’ The cop responded, “Who are you? Where are you from? And why are you here?’ My son told him he was a Brown student and that he was completing a class assignment. The officer told him that the park closes at 9 p.m. Langston said, ‘I know, but it is only 7 p.m.’ The officer repeated, this time more forcefully, ‘The park closes at 9 p.m.’ At this point, his partner came around the car with his hand on his gun or Taser.  My son put his hands up and said, ‘We don’t want any trouble. We’re leaving now.’

Just an hour before Langston called his father with the story, Glaude learned that he been elected president of the American Academy of Religion.  “That didn’t matter,” he writes. “My status as a Princeton professor didn’t matter.  I knew that. I teach about this stuff. But this wasn’t an intellectual argument or an example in a book. My only child was telling me the police, one of them with his hand on a weapon, told him that his body was in the wrong place. He had reason to fear for his life.”

Glaude describes himself “fuming” at Langston’s story, and his anger is evident in a keynote speech Glaude delivered at Colgate University’s 2015 commencement.  Speaking with passion about the importance of what he called “turning our backs,” Glaude told students, “You and I must seize hold of the idea that a different arrangement of things is possible.” By “turning our backs” he meant rejecting the unacceptable, from “unintelligent and uninspired action” to “those who believe in disposable populations.”