James Baldwin and Radical Love
My new book is out! You can order here: In The Camp of Angels of Freedom: What Does It Mean to Be Educated? Click here to read about and find a registration link for a free interactive workshop based on the book.
My new book—In The Camp of Angels of Freedom: What Does It Mean to Be Educated?—started with a group of paintings. The COVID pandemic put an end to my practice of painting human beings from life, sitting a few feet apart in my studio, breathing the same air. When I began to consider how to paint, I was inspired to translate a series of drawings I’d done to the larger scale and different medium of oil on panel. I called the subjects “angels of freedom,” not thinking of cherubs on pink clouds but of angels as messengers between realms, especially between ways of seeing and thinking that no longer serve and new pathways to possibility. The first painting I did was of James Baldwin, who to me is the avatar of radical love and its power to slice through hypocrisy and lies.
Once I completed the 11 portraits making up what I called “The Camp of Angels of Freedom,” I realized I also had to write about them. Part one of the book collects those short memoirs, exploring how I encountered each person’s work and how it changed me. That led me, as is so often the case, to write part two, entitled “What Does it Mean to be Educated?” The chapters in part two explore my own educational journey as an autodidact, my adventures in higher education, and my alarm at the stark reality emerging as social goods such as education are converted to profit centers for the few.
Below, I share part of my memoir focusing on James Baldwin. I hope you enjoy it! From In The Camp of Angels of Freedom, chapter two:
I think often of the use Baldwin made of love. This is from The Fire Next Time:
Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
I am still in awe of his love. I know how to love, but my love is almost always directed to a known heart, a known face, a known touch. I would like to be a person who feels that fierce love for . . . who? Humanity, nature, my people, my gender?
I see it all the time on social media, friends declaring “I love Black women!” or extolling Ahavat Yisroel, love for fellow Jews. But every human category includes people who extend themselves to heal or help and others who seek to do harm. No category of belonging inoculates its members against embodying envy or resentment, bitter revenge or misdirected fury, states of being I am unable to meet with love, whether in myself or others. My feeling for autodidacts comes closest. Belonging to that cohort engenders fellow feeling, the love that desires only the well-being of the beloved.
But no matter how I parse the categories, I can’t always get to the mighty love Baldwin expresses with such beauty and power. I care, I do my best to extend that caring, but I have a hard time getting my arms around the meaning of this radical, universal love. Often, the nearest I can get is awe at the determination and perseverance so many must summon even to inhabit their lives, a compassion for others that eclipses one’s own pain.
Baldwin’s love daunts me. By daring to love and believing in redemption despite it all—despite it all!—Baldwin allows me to see that the fault lies within myself. I am still trying to repair it. I’ve been writing to repair it.
I first encountered Baldwin’s work when I started high school, facing the stark choice between trying to live up—or down—to ambient expectations or hacking my own path through default reality to the mysteries I knew were waiting. The impression left by his writing was more real to me than the everyday conversations, the posturing and pettiness of high school life. Another Country is about a jazz musician, Rufus Scott, who seeks love but finds despair in postwar racial and sexual contradictions. When my mind drifted away from whatever the teacher was saying—to me, most of it was one drone, a steady hum of irrelevancy—I saw Rufus standing on the bridge, lying in his room, or walking cold city streets, and despite the fate the novel foretold, his presence reassured me that if I could hold out, something better might follow. I could not have said then that it was Baldwin’s voice that persuaded me to reject the stories others told, the ones that made me smaller, more lacking, more other, lonelier. But since then, he has always been in my mind, a beacon pointing to love.
I’ve been told that we live three lives: the first, figuring out what we’re doing here—more in the sense of an underlying developmental or spiritual task than of an occupation; then the life in which we accept, and, if diligent and lucky, complete that task; and finally the one in which we perceive and embark on a new challenge and opportunity. Baldwin has been my companion in all three: discovering my path of helping to repair the shattered vessels of our collective life, pursuing it despite setbacks and missteps, and, finally, understanding whom I am here to serve.
There is a Baldwin revival going on nowadays, with beautiful films and biographies, endless social media memes, and copious sharing of half-century-old talks and essays that seem as new as now—and in the fashion of the day, with commentators eager to make their bones by debunking their elders. The latter is the feature I like least about twenty-first-century American intellectual life. It reminds me of the turkey vultures I see on some dry New Mexico afternoons, circling a corpse in the hope of making it a meal. But I don’t think Baldwin’s contributions can be obscured by this carrion dance. “Love is strong as death,” says the Song of Songs. I think it is stronger.
I reread Another Country forty years later. My second marriage was on the verge of collapse. I had recently studied with a rabbi who taught an ancient spiritual practice, a structured process of asking higher powers to intercede for someone in distress. The seeker recites psalms and prayers of protection, humbly requests aid, then waits for an assignment to arise in the mind. It might be almost anything: studying, writing, praying, singing, or any other practice that is to be performed wholeheartedly for a specified time.
Just before the High Holy Days that year, I decided to ask my deceased parents for help. The assignment I received involved visualizing them—I saw their young faces bending over my crib—and recording what I experienced each morning for several weeks. I wasn’t very far into the assignment when I heard my mother’s voice. “Why should I help you? You’ll just forget about me.” I could see her point. Other than lighting a yahrzeit candle each year on the anniversary of her death, I seldom thought of her. I asked what she meant. Every morning after that, her voice came through with the same message: “Go to the cemetery.”
I planned to leave in a day or two to visit with friends in Seattle, to attend services and get some rest, but I couldn’t leave without heeding Esther’s voice. What I found at the cemetery shook me. Next to the graves of my father, grandparents, and other relatives, each marked by a simple bronze plaque set into the earth, was my mother’s grave, which bore nothing but a small plastic label, already faded. My brother, who had inherited the entirety of her meager possessions, had failed to purchase a marker. With my aunt’s help, we bought a plaque. I never heard from Esther again.
When I unpacked in my friend’s guest room in Seattle, I was surprised to find a copy of Another Country awaiting me on the bedside table. I opened it on a key moment. Staring down from a bridge at frigid waters, Rufus curses God, asking this question: “Ain’t I your baby, too?”
When I first read the book, my young life was different from Rufus Scott’s in almost every way, but his words wound themselves around my misery like a second skin. Forty years later, reading them again, I felt the same.
From James Baldwin, writing about worlds so different from my own, I understood that art can be a bridge to empathy and understanding, spanning even the coldest waters. In his work, the distance between personal and political disappears. He taught me that the little stories of our own lives always open into the big story crying to be told. No one is really fearless, but Baldwin seems so, making plain the fierce love and desire that can overcome—that are all that can overcome—the wounds that goad us to retreat from vulnerability, from truth, from life.
“But Beautiful,” sung by Billie Holiday.
Order my new book here: In The Camp of Angels of Freedom: What Does It Mean to Be Educated?
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