Black churches, black colleges and universities, black workers, the black middle class, black communities in general find themselves between two worlds, one world coming undone and the other out of reach. The resources that once enabled us to think about racial progress persist now in nostalgic longings for a time passed or in invocations of a politics that doesn’t quite fit the moment. People continue to march. But there are voices, young bold voices, emerging that point toward a different path. People like the Reverend Al Sharpton attempt to silence those voices as he invokes Dr. King and profits from the business of racial advocacy. Established leaders proclaim over and over again that folks died for the right to vote while they leverage the possibility of delivering black voters to the polls for political influence and selfish gain. But poor black communities stay poor. Black unemployment remains high. We continue to lose our homes. And black institutions collapse. We don’t live in a world where a lot of truly integrated institutions exist. Black institutions have simply had to disappear and black people have had to adjust to the demands of working and living in predominantly white spaces. Those who could make it across the deep divides have had to adjust. The rest of black America has seemingly been left to suffer a slow death.

What will happen if these institutions disappear altogether? What will provide us with the space to imagine ourselves differently and to courageously challenge white supremacy in this country? Or, as James Baldwin put it, “What will happen to all that beauty?”

Baldwin asked this question as he grappled with the political nature of race. Color, for him, “is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality.” The political reality was and remains that as long as white people valued themselves more than others because they were white and refused to examine their habits and assumptions, others would have to come together, build institutions, and act politically on the basis of color. The question about the status of “all that beauty” is one about what our experiences tell us about being human, and how they offer a pathway for democracy in which the lives of black people matter as much as everyone else. As white supremacy digs in its heels, as the complexity of black identities betrays the lie that all black people are alike, and as the economic crisis continues to devastate black America, we can’t help but ask “what will happen to all that beauty?” We haven’t reached any kind of promised land. We stray between lands, desperately holding on as we see so many people we love fall into poverty, go off to prison, or land in the grave. 

Reprinted from DEMOCRACY IN BLACK. Copyright © 2016 by Eddie S. Glaude Jr. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.