Eddie Glaude: How Will You Tell The Story?

During assembly on Friday, October 25, Dr. Eddie Glaude, chair of the Department of African American Studies and the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies at Princeton, spoke to students about the inequality that is "sewn into the fabric of our society" and the urgency of leading lives that are a concrete example of who we need to be. Arieyanna Davis '20 introduced Glaude (see end).

Paraphrasing playwright, novelist and activist James Baldwin, Glaude said, "To act is to be committed. To be committed is to be in danger." And then he asked: How do we orient ourselves in a world shot through with evil and inequality? How do we imagine ourselves as particular moral beings, where, in the shadows, there are those who are suffering daily?

History, he said, is how we tell a story — it reflects who and what we value. What we leave out of that story (out of history), is what makes us safe and comfortable. The United States was based on the idea of democracy, but it was also committed to the institution of slavery, a contradictory construct. It built itself on the idea that the color of one's skin affords certain advantages ... and disadvantages. When we exclude (or minimize) the contradictions in our story, we are blinded to who we need to be to be a better people.

Looking out at the students, Glaude said, it was hard not to think of his own son. While a student at Brown University, his son was in a park in Providence. A police officer asked the young Glaude what he was doing in the park after hours. The student said he was on a class assignment from Brown, adding that the park would close at 9. While leaning into his gun, the officer said that the park closed at 6. Glaude's son left the park, having been educated by his parents about what to do in this kind of situation.

When his son was younger, Glaude brought him outside to watch the police bring a white teen neighbor home to his parents after getting in trouble. “I said, ‘They brought him home. They would not bring you home to me. I would have to go get you....’ What does it mean to live in a world when you have folks who have to endure that kind of tax? How do you imagine yourselves as human beings, what kind of story do you tell yourself when you are comfortable in a world where that happens? Where there are parents who have to worry about their child every time they walk out the door, where children have to figure out how to defend themselves in a world that tells them their lives are not as valuable as other folks?”

Glaude spoke directly to the JBS students of color. “As you walk in this space, day in and day out, you have to struggle with seeing, and believing, fundamentally, that you belong here. You have to understand what you are capable of. For all of you, the world conspires to make you small. For you particularly, the world conspires to confine you into a box. And the question you have to grapple with is, will you be complicit? You have to imagine yourself in expansive terms, and not buy into the belief that somehow these people have something more than you, and that you have to step outside of who you aspire to be, and become something that you are not comfortable with. If we are going to undo this world, we have to dare to be. I’m sick and tired of having to mute myself in a world that’s uncomfortable with me. Don’t learn that habit now. Tell a different story about how we came to be here. Tell a different story about the nation so you can imagine justice in a much more robust sense. The world depends upon you.”

In a world of unbridled greed and selfishness, some don't want to accept that the United States is not a white nation. “It’s up to you to imagine who we will be,” Glaude said. “What they’re doing now (all of the adults in the room) is shaping the world that you will inherit, that you will step into. What kind of human beings will you be? Will you be the kinds of people who are comfortable with the evils in the world? Will you be folks who are content to wallow in sentimentality, and tell yourselves that you’re really good people, but then turn your backs on the evils of the world and be those milquetoast liberals who say that they are committed to justice, but in their deepest hearts are just as selfish as everybody else? Or will you be transformative agents? Will not just your words, but your lives, be a sermon? Will you be an example of who we need to be in order to be better as a country? To act is to be committed. To be committed is to be in danger. Because if you stand askance to the world as it is, you will be the object of a certain kind of scorn, the object of a certain kind of attention. But sometimes you have to sing off-key to be heard. I hope over the course of your journey as you do the work you do at this wonderful school with these wonderful professors, that you do the hard work of excavating your commitments, understanding best you can who you aspire to be. Tell yourself a robust story about the suffering that defines the world we live in, so you can be an answer to that suffering.”

In response to questions, Glaude added:

  • have a robust idea of what justice is ... make it concrete ... build a more just world around you, following your passions
  • work toward a world in which whiteness (which is only a social construct) doesn't mean anything
  • don't waste a lot of time trying to open the eyes of willfully ignorant people ... your energy is finite ... use it to build a world where ignorant views can't breathe

After assembly, more than five dozen students and faculty continued the conversation with Glaude.

Eddie S. Glaude Jr. is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor and chair of African American Studies at Princeton University. He is the former president of the American Academy of Religion, the largest professional organization of scholars of religion in the world. He is the author of several important books on African American religion and philosophy. His recent work, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, has been described as “one of the most imaginative, daring books of the twenty-first century.” His most recent book, An Uncommon Faith: A Pragmatic Approach to the Study of African American Religion, was released in November of 2018. He is currently at work on a book about James Baldwin. Glaude is also a columnist for Time magazine and a regular contributor on MSNBC. Whether he is teaching in the classroom, writing in popular magazines or offering commentary on television, Glaude is driven by a commitment to think carefully with others in public.