Photo Courtesy of Yesmine Abida and Tatyana Brown

Radical Community Building: Lessons from Baldwin and Friends

Our solidarity took concern for our friends’ wellbeing, and evolved it into a shared belonging that defies spatial boundaries taking into account the diversity of backgrounds represented in my friends group.

I often picture a misty living room, several active cigarettes making a cloud of smoke that escapes a window overlooking the streets of Paris. A dim lamp light shines over handwritten pages, words scratched out, ideas taking form. This scene repeats itself often as James Baldwin sits with his friends to review his work at the crack of dawn.
During his Paris years in the 1960s, Baldwin formed a troupe of generous readers who provided avid listening, critical feedback and encouragement to each other's works. As a result, writing became a communal process where individuals from across disciplinary backgrounds — artists, activists, actors and other writers — sprawled across sofas and kitchen tables, engaged in avid debates with each other. Baldwin’s creative process took shape through drafts and edits that were deeply enriched by the people in his close community and the relationships they built through critiquing and sharing their ideas with each other.
Baldwin’s community of creative collaborators was essential in shaping his later work. Our definition of community is informed by Black feminist theorist bell hooks, who prescribes love as the base unit for building a community. Hooks considers love an act rather than a feeling, in which someone “extends one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth.” Importantly, she situated the need for community in one’s personal healing, as “rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion.” Hooks’ theories on community building have emphasized the importance of building relationships in the pursuit of our higher selves — selves that are also kept accountable for harm.
This higher self is often associated with characteristics of honesty, vulnerability, trust and accountability, among others. The question of which type of relationships can allow this much honesty, vulnerability, trust and accountability to exist is a subject of fascination. What exactly has to be taken into practice in a friendship for it to be created? Baldwin tended to gravitate towards a certain type of relationship that allowed him to achieve these very attributes in his work. In his process of writing about the condition of Black American, he tasked himself to answer layered and often painful questions. The pushback rested on the fundamental idea that he and his friends loved each other and that they wanted to be sharper together.
The relationships radical Black thinkers like Baldwin and his friends formed in the 1960s are examples of bell hooks’ love ethic in action. Baldwin’s relationships rested on a loving critique. For instance, in his 1971 conversations with poet Nikki Giovanni, they went back and forth in agreement and disagreement about relationships between Black American men and women.
Baldwin said, “You can’t say you demand [a man be a man], you have to suggest it.”
Giovanni urged, “That’s your ego that says that. No, I demand it. Now you deal with that.”
They lightly laughed together and Baldwin caved, “Alright, okay. I’ll even go with that.”
Their relationship had a particular dynamic, one where they were both able to receive constructive critiques openly.
Similarly, Baldwin’s relationships rested on solidarity. The cultivation of these friendships, in a historical context where Civil Rights movements gained popularity in the United States, became an urgent means of survival. They were bound by solidarity and an awareness of the political condition they each landed in.
Baldwin’s relationships rested on creating home away from home. As they remained in Europe, they had to find community while witnessing major political events from afar. Their friendships were no longer singular units of social interactions, but rather social webs that formed a community, a community whose members were remote from their places of origin.
We can learn a lot from the deep sense of generosity of spirit that characterizes friendships between radical Black thinkers. The circumstances that gave rise to their relationships are oddly reminiscent of my friend group now.
In our friend group, we often talk about community, but I have always pictured Community with a capitalized C, since it implies that it is something much bigger than us. It is about the formation of bonds across individuals, that despite differences in upbringing, identity or background, the winds of coincidence have brought us together. Community care is so deeply interlinked with self care, because it is only when the Community as a collective is well, that I am well. It is as important for me to check on myself as it is to check on the Community around me.
Our solidarity took concern for our friends’ wellbeing, and evolved it into a shared belonging that defies spatial boundaries taking into account the diversity of backgrounds represented in my friends group. Wanting the highest level of wellbeing for all the home cities of my friends becomes an inherently political question. We develop a hope that each other’s mothers can access healthcare, that our younger sisters can walk the streets at night, that our favorite local sites are not taken from them by colonial forces. Suddenly, the conditions of my friends’ homes become entangled with us and our hopes for the present and future. Whether we are a twenty minute drive, or twenty hour flight from home, friendship has become a pivotal part of our college experience, because it has kindled a home that very much defies the boundaries of Saadiyat Island.
Home started to become shapeshifting, as it was no longer just where we came from, where we grew up or where we were, but rather it became the place where we could find our loved ones. Cairo’s bustling streets, Ramallah’s mountains, Puerto Rico’s shores, Abu Dhabi’s downtown corner stores, Nabeul’s healing breeze, among many other locations, could be called home. All of these places earn a close place in our hearts, as we had grown to yearn for them, for the reason that it is an integral part of those in my community.
We have seen scenes similar to Baldwin’s writer’s room but with different characters. We contemplated how to situate ourselves in a world where capitalism further privatizes, climate change creates lingering doom, wars displace our friends in a Visual Arts capstone studio while one of our friends paints a mural, in the Howler Radio studio or at a marketplace table over noodles. Against this backdrop, community is essential.
In these four years at college, I’ve come to realize that community is about sharing time, space and our mutual commitments, to ourselves and each other. Our stories brought us together, and we spent time together reflecting on the experiences that shaped us. Along the way, we’ve built friendships and redefined the values and causes that are most important to us, with solidarity, compassion and love.
Tatyana Brown and Yesmine Abida are contributing writers. Email them at
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