Some days, I miss James Baldwin keenly.
When I look to today’s thinkers, activists, creators to reflect the world back to me, so I can better understand it, I miss him. He is such a teacher for me, one whose lessons I will likely still be struggling to learn until I die. I watch him speaking. I read his words. His insight, his fierceness, his incredible grasp of context, and his deep intelligence are coupled with such a searing compassion that tears spring to my eyes. This combination of gifts is something I have to cobble together from a wide variety of sources otherwise. Baldwin had it all.
Even in the midst of fiery anger, Baldwin sought to teach, to open, to connect. A greater spiritual teaching, a greater human teaching, I do not know. I miss Baldwin when world events turn tragic, when the country I reside in seems on a collision course with disastrous greed and alienation. I miss his voice. I miss his intellect. Most of all, I miss that deep compassion.
In “The Fire Next Time” which is my favorite of his books, Baldwin writes:
“To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.”
That is at the heart of my religion. That is my attempt in my spiritual practice, in my political engagement, in my friendship, in my loving, in my sorrow. Read that quote again. He talks quite rightly about the effort of loving – which is another important lesson. Loving requires presence, it isn’t just something that comes or goes on a whim. To love is to be present with what is, to see things clearly, and to feel with all of this. To love is to stand firmly, and not to run away. Today is the 50th anniversary of the Woolworth’s Sit In. Those people loved enough to sit down as all manner of indignities, violence, and hatred rained upon them. Filled with love – likely coupled, I feel certain, with some measure of fear and anger – they simply sat, because to not do so would have been to fall out of love.
When we fall in love, we know what is important. Baldwin taught us that, too.
The world requires this loving presence of us all, in order to heal, to learn, to grow. Justice requires loving presence. Equity requires loving presence. Integrity requires loving presence. This sort of love gives us a power that shines from within, and helps us to better illuminate the world, together.
James Baldwin offered us that love in every incendiary piece of writing, in every laugh, in every speech. I hope he offered the same to his family and his lovers, and that they were able to offer it back, kiss for kiss, laugh for laugh, struggle in and struggle out.
If it is possible to miss someone I never met… James Baldwin, I miss you. That is all.
I will keep showing up to loving presence and clear thought, to the best of my abilities. I will seek out those who challenge me to grow. And I will send love to you, fierce love, wherever you may be.
I recommend taking 25 minutes to watch him here. Perhaps you will see what I mean.