“Systemic racism is not something that we made once and we’re still under the weight of. It’s something we recreate every day.” Novelist and professor Calvin Baker joins Zibby to discuss his first nonfiction book, A More Perfect Reunion, and how the historical reckoning that inspired each of his novels helped him put it together. They discuss the myths of race in American society as well as what Calvin sees as the path away from it.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Calvin. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss A More Perfect Reunion: Race, Integration, and the Future of America.

Calvin Baker: Thank you for having me, Zibby. A pleasure to be here.

Zibby: Obviously, from the title, we get a glimpse as to what this book is about. For those who have not read the rest of it, could you give more of a synopsis about what’s in this book? Why did you feel it was so important to write?

Calvin: The central thesis of the book is that we talk about race in a very performative way. We’ve been talking about race in a very performative way for a long time. Americans perform a theater of racial awakening. They’ve been performing this awakening since the revolutionary era, since the great awakening, the generation leading into the revolution when we have a race problem. It sort of gets shunted aside for these bigger concerns. We have an England problem too. What are we going to do about that? Then the Civil War. The constitution to the Civil War. During the Civil War, and we can go back to that later, we have a race problem. Then the civil rights moment. My theory is that what we really have is an integration problem. Race is a construction. We all know that. There’s only so much you can talk about it. It raises the will, but what’s really fundamentally broken is that the society remains segregated. The real problem, the real fear, even for the early abolitionists was, how do you integrate these folks into the rest of a society that has massive prejudices against them? That’s what I wanted to talk about. That’s why I think we’re still encountering now, even as we talk about race, the real question, the harder question, the frightening question is, how do you take apart these structures of racism and do that? You have to integrate people.

Zibby: Great. There’s so much to go into with that, and even from the book. I wanted to just back up and get a little more information about you. I know that you had taught at Yale, which I went to, by the way. Go Yale. Although, I took almost no English classes even though I thought I wanted to be an English major.

Calvin: What?

Zibby: I know. There were all these prerequisites, 129, 127, whatever all those courses were.

Calvin: Major English Poets, Minor English Poets.

Zibby: Yeah, Major English Poets and all that stuff. I just was, no. I ended up taking all psychology classes and reading for fun on the side.

Calvin: You missed the best part of Yale, Zibby.

Zibby: I probably did, yeah. You know, it was all based on this one bad class one time freshman year. Who knows what my life would’ve been like? I don’t know.

Calvin: You might be a book podcaster.

Zibby: Actually, that’s not true. I did take a comp lit class about Proust and all the madeleines and all that stuff, but not English. So take us back. Give me more of a picture of your background and your novel writing and all of that so that we have of a context of this book.

Calvin: How far back do you want to go?

Zibby: Honestly, all the way. Go as far back as you want. Where are you from? Where were you born?

Calvin: I was born in Chicago in the seventies. Growing up, I had this sense that things were changing. I talked to my grandparents about race. They saw the world through this very racialized lens because they lived very racialized lives. My early life in a Black family, I went to integrated schools or mixed schools and had the sense that things were changing and had a real impatience with both the racialized structures I’d hear from my family, but also in the political zeitgeist and, frankly, in curriculums. I went to a school that let me not take a core curriculum. I didn’t go to Yale because they had a core curriculum. Sometime around senior year of high school, I became very, very interested in trying to locate myself. I went to a super traditional high school. At that time, it was an independent school, but it was very conservative in its curriculum. If they could’ve taught us in Latin, they would have. I wanted to locate my own concerns, myself as a Black person in the literature and the histories of this country, but also the West. We know that the forces of migration, the force of movement around the world that we inhabit, five hundred years ago — it started before that. We can go back to the renaissance world, but we won’t do that because it’s early in the morning. In the modern world beginning with the age of exploration, beginning in the slave trade and European settlement and all these things, so much had been erased. I was concerned with filling in my history. That entailed a journey that was rebellious for the time.

I was an English major, but I was an English major kicking and screaming. One of my professors told me I was the best student of my generation. This was twenty years after the fact. When I was there, everyone wanted to kill me. They didn’t know what to do with me. I was asking all these really difficult questions, these really challenging questions. I was asking them of myself as well. That led to my first book, Naming the New World. It was a novel about consciousness, in my mind, and the ways that a specifically African consciousness changes in the journey to America. It begins in pre-contact Africa and ends in contemporary America. I’m really concerned with these questions. How is one changed by these movements? Of course, I think most Americans can relate to this. You have these ancestral stories. My grandparents or great-grandparents were German, but I’m not German anymore. I’m something different. I can claim this German-ness, I can claim this Italian-ness, I can claim this Russian-ness, but I’m different. That question of change. We think of Blackness as so monolithic and static. That led to my second book, which was called Once Two Heroes. It’s about World War II. Then I had these questions about violence and European violence and violence in the collective unconsciousness of the North Atlantic, of America, and of Europe, and what I saw at the time, these twin mirrors of the Holocaust and the slave trade.

If you study these things, and I studied these things, you see there are all these parallels that are rising from what Frederick Douglass called the white book of libel. Really, it’s a group of slanders and slurs that are invented once and are applied and reapplied to whoever the dominant group chooses. These folks aren’t that creative. There’s a single playbook. You can see the same things applied to the Romanians. It’s the same. They’re this. They’re that. They’re lazy. They’re either really lazy or really greedy. They’re oversexed or sexless. It just goes one or two ways. That was the second book. The third book, I wanted to write about America, America, so I wrote this book set in the pre-revolutionary period about a free Black family, one of whom fights in the revolution. This was a phenomena after the House of Burgesses in the seventeenth century. The Virginia House of Burgesses passes a law. Because slavery, at first, was such a nebulous state in America, we forget that it’s a thing that must be constructed. We always think, people sat around and they thought about how you build this. One of the early moves they make, because the presence of free Blacks threatens the claims of slavery — a thriving, free-Black community, you can’t say these people are this and this and this. The Virginia House of Burgesses banishes free Blacks from the then colony. They’re creating all these Black laws. The child of an enslaved woman has to be enslaved. There’s all this race mix — I’m going to use a crude term — going on.

You’ve got all these thorny problems because humanity is complex. History’s complex. We got to simplify this. We’re going to build this thing called slavery in which all of these Africans who we claim are inferior and are supposed to be subordinate to us can be kept in their places so that we can keep making money. Free labor, who can resist that? It’s illegal for a free Black man to live in the colony of Virginia. Dominion‘s about a man who’s emancipated. He’s indentured and finishes his term near the beginning of the time that law is passed. America being America, he sets out West. Then he goes to what would become North Carolina. Virginia was massive. Virginia splits three times, essentially. First, Virginia into the Carolinas, and then Carolina, North and South. All these splits are happening around questions that we recognize today of religion, of commerce. Are we going to be Anglican? Are we going to be what we call now evangelical? Are we going to be a society of corporate agriculture? Are we going to be a society of small businesses? These are some of the intersecting questions that are already playing out. This is why historians say things rhyme. Dominion‘s about this family settling the land, going through the struggles that you go through. Subsequent generations, of course, have different relationships, one of whom fights in the war. I imagined it in my mind then as a sort of Aeneid-like story. Why Aeneid?

Zibby: See, now we’re going back to the same class at Yale. I can’t get away from it. I’m telling you, these Yale English teachers, I don’t know what it is, always back to the classics.

Calvin: Everything goes back to — there’s a reason it’s fundamental. We can all relate to them. The uncanny thing about Virgil, as I read him, is he’s writing this myth of Rome at a time of collapse. It’s the beginning of the splintering. He’s writing this myth from a position of knowing as opposed to naïveté. That fascinated me. The myth of America is always a myth. It’s always a naïve myth. The question is, what if you shift that and you’re writing from a position of knowing? All that we know now, you have to account for. That became fascinating to me, the facts of free Blacks in early America, the facts of these proto-arguments that continue to shape us around race, around capitalism, around religion. That was catnip to my brain then. One of the throughlines of this book is I wanted to center a Black consciousness in all of these works. Most literature has a single use for Black writing and Black writers. Tell us of your struggle. Tell us of your suffering, of your pain. Of course, Blackness is larger than that. All people are larger than that. I wanted to write from a position that wasn’t marginalized, that wasn’t performing myself, the Black self, for white consumption. Now I will teach you about race. Well, you know about race. You grew up in this country. How could you not know about race? Even if you only know the boundaries of race, the lines of race, all of these things that are — I began to talk about these things directly in A More Perfect Reunion. One of things I talk about is the way that our built environment is segregated. Right now, our mental environments, our mental landscapes, our epistemological systems — I shouldn’t use that word this early in the morning — the things that we know, but also where we live, how we live, where we go to school — I remember having an experience of being in New Haven, which I love, by the way. Truly, a special place. I had a late class. After that class, just wanted to decompress in nice weather. I’d walk to the train. I was living in Brooklyn at the time. People, you can’t walk to the train. What are you doing?

Zibby: Yeah. I would take my car out to drive to the train to pick people up, FYI, before it got broken into. New Haven.

Calvin: We’ll come back to that. I remember visiting. I went to high school on the University of Chicago campus when I was applying to colleges. I was visiting Yale. I was like, oh, look, a big, prestigious, wealthy university in the middle of a Black ghetto. already. As a professor, at first, I was like, oh, you’re not afraid of Black people, Calvin. I just walked to the train station. I realized that my trip from my neighborhood in Brooklyn to that campus was moving from one bubble to another bubble, so moving from a space that was racially exclusive — it was Brooklyn, so it wasn’t to the same degree. When you get on the train and you come to this other space that was — again, Yale isn’t mono-racial, but it’s constructed in similar ways. There are all these opprobrium against the other. You can say it’s class, but really, it’s race. I thought, oh, we do that everywhere. The suburbs are that kind of construction. Corporations are that kind of construction. Schools are that kind of construction. When we talk about systemic racism, it’s not something that we made once and we’re still like, yo, we’re under the weight of what a bunch of people did back in the eighteenth century. It’s something we recreate every day. We say subtlety, don’t go over there. Don’t read that. Don’t watch that. Don’t listen to that. Don’t talk to that person. It goes on all the time. It’s a matter of recreating not only the race line, yes, but really, segregation. That’s what I wanted to explore.

This is the subtle part of the book. There are all of these spaces we tell ourselves are integrated. This is what I really wanted to dive into, piercing the veil, or what John Adams called the fig leaf of liberalism. We have all of these spaces that we tell ourselves are integrated, and they’re not. They’re working by a muddier formula. In the book, we look at American politics. We look at Shakespeare because I couldn’t resist myself. We look at Othello. I wanted to look at something that wasn’t racially inscribed in ways that are familiar to us and also ways that are. All the slurs that Iago’s using to exact his revenge or his jealousy upon Othello are the proto-slurs that we continue to now. In Shakespeare, race isn’t constructed there like — there are gradations of skin colors and hair texture, but there’s not race. You’re coming out of a renaissance world when everything’s really just kind of fascinating. You’re like, oh, wow, they have people over here. They do things this way. You don’t have these institutions of race yet. Do you want to talk about Othello?

Zibby: Killing me.

Calvin: It’s why when the marriage between Othello and Desdemona is found out, there’s protestation. She lied to her father. There was no permission. They petitioned the prince. It’s like, he lied, he tricked me. Desdemona tells her story. The prince says, he would win my daughter too. That’s it. You don’t have these categories of race and these inscribed prejudices. I want to talk at that because that’s happening at the same time in England that America is being built. It happens the same time the first colonies are discovered here. I wanted to look at the England that we were coming out of. We look at the revolutionary generations. We look at the Civil War. We look at American culture too because I wanted to go not just chronologically front to back, but also up and down the society. We look at sport, which we tell ourselves is this bastion of integration. It’s just your ability on the field. I talk about Colin Kaepernick to give life to that because he subverts that story. I talk about music, and specifically hip hop, the way it’s performed, the way that it’s consumed. You’re like, oh, it’s Black form or it begins as a Black form, but really, it needs white faces to gain acceptance. It needs to perform itself for whiteness to remain popular. I look at film and television and some popular shows. We look at This is Us. We look at Atlanta, which I love. We look at some of the history of film, so looking at our pop culture and these spaces that we say, well, we’re all present. There’s a myth of multiculturalism, or plurality that we — we know is meant to mean liberals — embrace that isn’t really so or it’s only so under very narrowly controlled circumstances. I’m going to make this myth — it’s a myth that we all aspire to. It’s enriching. It sounds like a supreme court brief.

You asked about my life. I think about integration on a personal — you’re like, oh, I wouldn’t know some of my best friends fifty years ago or a hundred years ago. Never would’ve happened. It becomes that personal. What does a world after the race line look like? It looks like, one, opportunity, yes, but also, affinity. We don’t choose our friends because, hey, they’re just like us. Everything is proximal. You become friends with those people, those persons around you with whom you have things in common. That’s a privilege in a society. You’re like, what a richer world would it be on the other side of that? I think we have this nascent idea of that as liberals. We aspire to it, but only just so. A joke I’ve been making recently in another context is, people are down for Barack and Michelle, but not quite yet with Uncle Jeremiah. You’re like, wait, wait, that’s a little too Black. It’s a little too much. It’s a little too real. There are all of these things that we want to not hear and not know.

We look at the current moment of protest, of uprising, which I think is the fourth significant moment of racial awakening in American history. I think it’s right now. I think there’s the Revolutionary War, I think there’s the Civil War, I think there’s the Civil Rights movement, and I think there’s now. I think there’s something really profound going on now and if it’s sustained, really transformative and perhaps the last time for such transformation in a more or less civil war. It’s predicated upon documentary evidence of things that Black folks have known all the time, white people didn’t want to accept or grapple with because it punctures the veil of American ego. This is, again, liberals. This is because if you’re a liberal white person, you’re probably living an immigrant narrative like my parents or grandparents. It’s the three-generation story. My great-grandparents or my great-great-grandparents came over. They came from Germany after all the textile mills shut down. Everybody was unemployed and broke. They came from the Yiddish belt between Germany and Eastern Russia when pogroms, Holocaust, whole slew of stuff we can take back to the Napoleonic wars — I want to come back to that.

Zibby: We only have two more minutes. We’re going to keep coming back to a hundred things.

Calvin: Zibby, you have to stop me.

Zibby: We need sixty-seven podcasts in a row to get to all your thoughts. I feel terrible.

Calvin: Zibby, they tell me this. I should be succinct. I’m not being succinct. You’re sitting there. We’re just talking.

Zibby: I don’t want to cut you off because I’m very interested in everything you have to say.

Calvin: But this is a podcast.

Zibby: People have no time to listen to podcasts. We’ll have to do it in installments.

Calvin: I should be more interesting.

Zibby: You are interesting. People only have so much time to listen no matter how interesting it is.

Calvin: If you’re a white liberal, you have this myth that, my family came from nowhere. Through hard work, they thrived in America. Beneath that, behind that, there are all these federal programs. We know about mortgage assistance, the GI Bill, all these things from which Black Americans are specifically excluded. That was the condition of these social programs passing. You can’t include Black people. This even includes parts of social security and the ways it was administrated. When I say it wasn’t created once when we built this thing called slavery, it’s been recreated every generation. With the tension of awakening, recreation — we’re going through that right now, by the way. We’re awakening. We know about police brutality. We know about systemic racism. On the other side, you’ve got people fighting tooth and nail to hold onto white supremacy, to hold onto a colonial myth and mentality. Pundits, it’s about class, about this. It’s about whiteness, pure and simple. Because it’s become so deep in the identity and the psyche, people are like, what would I be if I gave this up? They don’t know. They’re threatened by it. Tooth and nail, we’re Americans, but if it means that we might not have white power, let’s strip folks of voting rights. Let’s strip people of legal protection. That’s why I say the challenge isn’t really knowing about race and racial awakening. It’s really integrating all these institutions because that’s the only way you deconstruct it.

Zibby: Amazing. Thank you. Calvin, we will come back to more at some point in our lives. For now, A More Perfect Reunion, Calvin Baker, synopsis, thoughts, and more.

Calvin: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Have a great day. That was awesome. Thank you.

Calvin: You too. Thank you.

Zibby: Buh-bye.



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