The leader of a course I took this fall mentioned James Baldwin’s memoir, “No Name in the Street” during class one evening, and I went out the next day and bought it. I am not a James Baldwin expert, just an admirer. I haven’t read everything he ever wrote, just a sampling. I cannot tell you anything that Baldwin could not tell you himself, and better. You should read Go Tell it On The Mountain or The Fire Next Time, go watch If Beale Street Could Talk or I Am Not Your Negro. Baldwin opens windows in my brain. It feels like he is writing from yesterday, not half a century ago, reporting from the streets in 2022 instead of 1968.
Lines from Baldwin show up all over the internet, especially if your internet algorithm looks anything like mine. But I hadn’t heard this one, from No Name in the Street, before, and I have grabbed it, claimed it, stocked it in my heart’s library for frequent and eternal reference:
Incontestably, alas, most people are not, in action, worth very much; and yet, every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become.
I have been disappointed again and again by people these last few years – both by other people and by myself. Institutions, individuals, governments and denominations: not, in action, worth very much. I have been disgusted and depressed, thrown my hands up in the air in surrender. And still, even in the midst of this tectonic shifting of belief and belonging, the accelerated erosion of trust and loyalty, the unprecedented miracle of each human being persists. It’s a paradox, requiring more humility and compassion than is regularly at my disposal these days.
But, thanks to Baldwin, I can try: to treat each person as the miracle they are, even while I protect myself against the disaster they’ve become. This is high level hoping, y’all, and I am still a novice. But I am practicing.