On Saturday, April 17, Cleveland Public Library’s Writers & Readers series brought authors Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. and Caroline Randall Williams together for a conversation surrounding race, justice, activism, history, hope, and the writers who have inspired and moved them.
Glaude is the chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University, an MSNBC contributor, and author of, most recently, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. Williams is an award-winning poet, young adult novelist, and author of Soul Food Love, as well as an activist, public intellectual, performance artist, scholar, and writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University.
This Writers & Readers event, which was moderated by The City Club of Cleveland CEO Dan Moulthrop, took place only days before a verdict was reached in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer charged with the murder of George Floyd.
“I think we’re in a fight for the soul of the country right now,” Williams said as the discussion opened. Glaude agreed, calling the present moment one of “profound transition” for the nation.
“It’s a moment of crisis and possibility,” Glaude said. “The [Chauvin] trial is where we’re coming to terms with at least 40 years of policing that assumes Black communities should be surveilled, contained, and incarcerated.”
History & Hope
During the virtual event, Glaude and Williams discussed the need for Americans to grapple with their nation’s enduring history of racism, a reckoning that is a prerequisite to real progress.
“I think the burden is on white America to figure out how to stand admitting what has been done,” Williams said. “I think there’s a lot of fear in admitting shame. I think there’s a lot of fear in preparing to relinquish privilege—a lot of fear in figuring out how to acknowledge privilege in the first place.”
“Part of what we have to understand is that the country is broken,” Glaude added. “Baldwin says that ‘hope is invented every day.’ To say it’s born every day is to keep despair at bay. What we choose to do in this moment is in our hands. If we choose to double down on safety and comfort, we seal our fate.”
Glaude and Williams referenced the work of James Baldwin several times throughout the event. Williams shared her favorite Baldwin quote—“I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually”—and Glaude shared one of the many lessons he’s taken from the great author’s work:
“Baldwin taught me how to love and rage,” he said, “and how to sit in both.”
In addition to Baldwin, Williams and Glaude discussed other authors who influenced them, and they recommended a range of books that address justice and imagination: The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois; Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi; Caste by Isabel Wilkerson; Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates; Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice; and the works of Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, William Faulkner, and Anton Chekov.
“Radical acts of imagination,” Williams said while discussing the work of science fiction legend Octavia Butler, “are a way toward liberation.”
Time to Act
When Moulthrop asked what action Americans can take to further the fight for justice, Williams focused on voting access.
“One thing I want people to know right now is the status of voting access where you live and to figure out how to make it better and more accessible,” she said. “Voting is our only hope. We have to make sure everyone can do it and have access to it.”
Glaude, meanwhile, said he’s ready for people to clarify their conception of justice and then get to work.
“If you think you shouldn’t go broke because you got sick, then fight for Medicare for all. If you think you should be able to work 40 hours a week and have a roof over your head and meals, then fight for a fair wage,” he asserted. “The issue that you care about is right in front of you. You have to get clear on what you are committed to, then act on it.”
Glaude and William’s conversation during this pivotal moment in American history is part of the vision of the Library’s Writers & Readers series: to engage authors, academics, and public figures in discussions surrounding the books and stories that have shaped their lives—and, in this case, to consider how to reshape the nation for a better future.
“I’m grateful to be in spaces like this,” Williams said of the Writers & Readers forum. “It’s a privilege to speak with people who care about your imminent concerns, and to air that with right-minded, history-shaping people is a gift. I am humbled and refreshed by spaces like this right now.”