Barry McNamara  |   Published March 20, 2016

‘Democracy in Black’

Glaude shares thoughts on overcoming race issues during Thompson Lecture
  • Dr. Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. and his recently released book. The Princeton University professor recently gave the Samuel M. Thompson Memorial Lecture at Monmouth College. (portrait by Javier Sirvent)
Princeton University professor Eddie Glaude, Jr., shared several insights and stories from his book, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, at Monmouth College’s annual Samuel M. Thompson Memorial Lecture on March 17.

Chair of Princeton’s department for African American studies, Glaude is a “public intellectual,” frequently appearing on television and radio talk shows, encouraging and emboldening fellow citizens to rise to the profound challenges of what he called “our interesting times … perilous times.” He certainly did that during the question-and-answer session, when a Monmouth student shared how hard it was for people in his west Chicago neighborhood to see beyond their grim daily reality.

Glaude, who spoke several times throughout the evening about the power of imagination, replied that he understood the loss of hope in such neighborhoods, where “there are folks who can’t imagine themselves living to their 21st birthdays.”

“It’s the hard work that will change those situations,” Glaude told the student. “It’s about setting goals and having a local focus. Maybe the neighborhood has a difficult time obtaining fresh food, like a head of lettuce or a good tomato that doesn’t have wax all over it. You work on that problem. You’ve got to turn the soil over, right? And when you work on such a local problem, and you achieve success, you begin to think ‘We can do that. I can do that.’ And then those concentric circles of what can be done in the community get wider and more expansive.”

In the course of providing that answer, Glaude assured Monmouth students, who were a large part of the overflow crowd, that they were in the right place to effect change.

“They want to kill liberal arts education, because they want you to be narrow in your scope,” he said.

During his detailed discussion of imagination, Glaude referred to philosopher John Dewey’s idea of “dramatic rehearsal,” which involves “letting the mind run ahead of the evidence.” Glaude illustrated the point by telling about the time he first jumped a ditch in his boyhood home of Moss Point, Miss. – picturing a successful landing on the other side even though he’d never attempted the difficult leap – which enabled him to join his older brother for a pickup baseball game.

He also cited 19th-century English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who wrote, “To be greatly good, a man must imagine intensely and comprehensively.”

“You have to see past conditions to envision the possible,” Glaude added. “My book grapples with the suspension – the atrophy – of imagination, and with an inability to empathize with others.”

Glaude then introduced the term “value gap,” which he defined as “the belief that white people matter more than others.” To illustrate his point, he told of an older black couple who were evicted from their home in 2012. They were hurried through the harsh process with no support allowed from their neighbors, while their dog, Sheba, received much better treatment, with the Humane Society showing up to make sure it had a new home.

“Some people are disposable,” said Glaude of the lesson taught that day. “They simply don’t matter.”

He added, “Now I’m not saying that 2016 is the same as 1965 in America, or that 1965 was the same as 1865. … My challenge to the idea of American exceptionalism is this problem: the gap between our performance and our creed.”

Glaude said that some will look at past problems in the U.S., such as slavery, or women not being allowed to vote, or children being forced to the workplace, and say they are no longer occurring – “See? We’re good.”

But unconscious biases, such as “built environments,” easily illustrate the value gap that has stopped the race conversation from moving forward and having the effect it could.

“Malcolm X said we need to stop the ‘sweet talk’ – we need frank speech,” said Glaude of the famous human rights activist.

Like Malcolm X, Glaude realizes that his views are controversial, including his criticisms of President Obama when it comes to issues of race. To that end, he shared with the audience the reaction from a radio host in Gulfport, Miss., who had him on the air: “He took me to the altar, and it wasn’t for prayer.”

Glaude closed his talk by discussing a needed “revolution of value, changing our view of government, changing our view of black people and of white people, and changing what we ultimately value. .. We need to stop valuing greed, selfishness and narcissism … and we need to hold people in power accountable.”

He asked the students rhetorically “What is your charge? We must imagine the possible, and that puts us on the path to freedom.”

Samuel M. Thompson, for whom the lecture series is named, served in the philosophy department at Monmouth College for 46 years. After graduating from Monmouth with a degree in English in 1924, he earned master’s and Ph.D. degrees in philosophy from Princeton University. Most notable among his publications were two popular textbooks: “A Modern Philosophy of Religion” and “The Nature of Philosophy.” Thompson died in 1983.
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