Review: “Democracy in Black” by Eddie Glaude Jr.

One of the better things that has happened to me in the last year or so is that I have been more intentional about carving out time to cultivate my independent reading habit.  Sure, everyone says they read but we all know there’s only really two types of readers: those that buy the books and say they are and those that buy the books and actually read them.  For a long time, I fell into the first category.  My library shelves were full of half-started books.  Complete with authors I thought I was supposed to like and for which it was politically incorrect to not have in my collection.  Last year some time I made the conscious, yet tough, decision to simply read more.  It didn’t happen overnight, but like getting and old car to first start, and then warm up, picking up a book and actually reading it has become habitual yet again.  Part of that habit is also making sure to pick up a book I intend on reading from beginning to end, Democracy in Black: How Race still Enslaves the American Soul was one of those books.

Eddie Glaude Jr.
Eddie Glaude Jr.

Eddie Glaude, Jr. is an associate professor of religion and African American Studies at Princeton University and his previous two books very much followed the academic path of converting a dissertation into a book and a second book on his current research topic.  This third book, however, is a book that is meant for the public beyond the nominal sense of which the other books are publicly available.  One of my close friends had mentioned that Glaude was coming out with a book last December and I told him, “It’s already on Amazon pre-order.”  To date, Democracy in Black is the only book that I’ve ever pre-ordered, and I’m glad I did.  I didn’t know quite where he was falling with the book–academic or not–and it was clear by the first pages, sans footnotes, that this was a book intended for the masses.

The book began and ended with the events in Ferguson with the backdrop of the Age of Obama.  The temporal intersection of these events has been one of those topics that not many people have written about yet.  2016 promises to be a year in which publications by black authors will undoubtedly tackle the topic.  Glaude, in 2016, provides a particular perspective on the Age of Obama that previous years and previous authors could not: there is no need to hope for what Obama can be.  While some may color it as cynical, I chose to read his analysis of the Obama years as one of stark reality, one through the lens of recognizing what he has termed the value gap.

Admittedly, once I read Glaude ticking off the statistics of just how bad it is to be black in America I rolled my eyes.  I remember saying to myself, “I already know this stuff.”  I also found myself wondering was this approach for me or for my white brothers and sisters who may pick up this book.  This led me to more internal questions: do the white people who read this book already know this stuff–hence them picking up the book? or are random ignorant white people going to pick up this book and be transformed because they understand the concept of the value gap?  Nevertheless, I kept reading.

Glaude does what many black folk do at dining tables every weeknight, through text messages to other black friends and co-workers after a microaggression at work, over Christmas dinners and certainly at beauty-shops and barbershops across the nation: attempt to properly diagnose what the hell is wrong with this country.  I would surmise, part of this is from the idea that we can’t fix the problem (more like problems) without properly addressing the root concern.  My bookshelf is filled with books from the last seven years from seminary and forward that have attempted to do that.  The bookshelves of my parents house that have Haki Madhubuti, Frances Cress Welsing, Lerone Bennett, Toni Morrison, Cornel West and Lerone Bennett are similarly filled with people who have conceptualized the same issue surrounding how white supremacy was part of the founding of American democracy and the ways that the outgrowth of race and racism have so unequally disaffected black America.

Mid-way the book, Glaude switched to doing what I considered to be great cultural criticism.  The front half of the book was established along the lines of social science analysis, heavy in statistics and replete with stories that gave a human aspect to the numbers while the back half seemed to be more reflective of his lived experience.  And anyone who is familiar enough with my writing knows why I found the second half much more engaging.  Among that which I enjoyed the most was his treatise on HBCUs in the context of black institutions as free spaces.

Without these organizations and the forms of black politics they facilitate by providing what social scientists call “free spaces”– spaces where folks learn self-respect, public skills, and the value of civic engagement–we lose one of the crucial ways to close the value gap.  These institutions enable a political vision of American democracy without white supremacy.

Glaude also held the president of the United Negro College Fund’s (UNCF) feet to the fire, Michael Lomax, for his accepting of money from the Koch brothers.  One of the quips was acknowledging the rock and hard place that the venerable institution find themselves stuck in-between by not accepting the money.  Echoing the famous UNCF quote “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” he retorted that “And a soul is a terrible thing to sell,” upon accepting $25 million from the Koch brothers.  This ability to play the rhetorical dozens–or in more contemporary terms to shade people–in book form provided some anecdotal wisdom that is part of African American life and culture here in this country.

With a book published in the final full year of the Obama presidency, it disavows the reader from any notion that Obama will do anything different in the ultimate year of his lame duck-ness and Glaude is keenly aware of this.  The cultural critique he asserts about the Age of Obama is one of the best I’ve read so far.  And to that point, I appreciate the redemption of Cornel West in the midst of this.  Again, Glaude plays social scientist and political scientist and connects dots on the black politics in the 20th century in ways we don’t see in the mainstream media and perhaps in ways which modern black politicians aren’t even aware of themselves.  As he closes out the book, he offers three ways in which we can have a revolution of value.  The serendipity of highlighting the esteemed Rev. William Barber, II as an embodiment of a revolution of value was not missed as Barber’s book calling for a “third reconstruction” was released the same day as Glaude’s.  Finally, Glaude actually offers a real, tangible and actionable response to all of this:

We need to do something that bold.  Something that will upset the entire game.  In 2016, we should call for an “electoral blank-out.”  We vote in the national election for the presidency of the United States, but we leave the ballot blank or write in “none of the above.”  This isn’t your standard call for a third-party candidate or an independent black political thrust.  Nor is it a rejection of our sacred duty to vote.  Exercising the franchise is sacred….  Elections are important, but they are hardly the work of democracy. For too long we’ve been sold a bill of goods that this person or that one will do what we need, if only we can get them elected.  This promise wants us to believe that voting is democracy.

The emboldened text is my emphasis and the italicized one is direct from the quote.

I can appreciate the imagination it took to cobble the disparate pieces of black America–the designation Glaude uses in the book–and bring them together in a sense that didn’t fall into the habit of making black life reductionist and singular.  I think there were moments in which he might have in one section and didn’t in another, but I would argue that that’s indicative of the way most black people live and operate their lives; some moments require them to be black for the whole and other moments they are merely one of many.

For much of the book, Glaude takes this diagnostic approach which I get, but I’m not sure if I agree that it’s the best way to address race in this country.  I get it because it’s familiar.  It’s what I grew up hearing from all of the great centers of African American culture that is the South Side of Chicago and beyond, but I got older and suddenly the disillusionment of life settled in and I’m not sure that’s the best approach.  For me, I could easily see white liberals grab onto the concept of “value gap” as the new catchphrase for understanding black malaise in much the same way whites seemingly co-opted Ta-Nehesi Coates’ notion of “the struggle.”  For many, it was just an intellectual play-thing, a transfixed curiosity, only to be discarded once the next black person offered a new idea.  Coates, for all of his righteous indignation, didn’t require white folk–or black folk for that matter–to do anything!  To use Victor Anderson’s notion, I do believe that there needs to be a transcendent move beyond ontological blackness, and for much of this book, it didn’t read as though Glaude necessarily believed in that notion.  However, after the mid-way point as he begins putting forth cultural critique, he writes

If we are going to change how we see black people, white people–and only white people can do this–will have to kill the idea of white people.  It is the precondition of America’s release into a different democratic future.  If we don’t do this, we condemn ourselves to whatever tragedy awaits at the end of our current path.

democracy-in-blackI couldn’t agree more.  Moving beyond ontological blackness almost certainly requires the dismantling and disavowal of ontological whiteness.

For the first time, I live tweeted this book.  Which I’m not sure is  sacrilegious to a text or not, but old methods and sensibilities be damned.  As a result, one of my friends who pastors a church in Kentucky asked would this be a good book his church could read.  And I answered yes.  This was a good book to read while snowed in over this extended weekend, and a relatively quick one.  Quick in the sense that the readability has a wider swath than some of the more academic books that have been published on similar topics.

The book closed on the events of Ferguson, fitting the protests and marches of Black Lives Matters not as the continuation of Selma–something that so many tried to do–but as the springboard to a new envisioning of democracy, “a democratic way of life without the burden of the value gap or the illusion that somehow this country is God’s gift to the world.”  This is a democracy in black.