My first real recollection of Representative Donald Payne was during a Congressional Black Caucus gathering in the mid to late 90s, which focused lack of diversity when it comes to creative content and roles for people of color in Hollywood.
I watched intently as this proud New Jersey lawmaker engaged a room filled with stars, writers, producers and just plain old people like me who were personally and professionally vested in this space. And while it is both sad and true that those very same issues are ripe today—some would say even to a more significant degree— I left that session inspired and motivated that somehow and in some way, I was now better equipped to make a difference.
For many years following that session, Rep. Payne would thank me (thank me!) for attending a session that still influences me to this day. I remember it like it was yesterday, saying, “No, thank YOU, for being so forward-thinking and in-tune with how important it is for us to be represented across all entertainment genres”. But he was just that type. A trailblazer and a kind, unassuming history maker who extended social and professional graces your way. But unlike many who shared his title or stature, Rep. Payne never seemed to care if those types of overtures were reciprocated or initiated by plain old folk like me.
My last vivid recollection of the first African American to represent New Jersey in the U. S. House of Representatives was during World Cocoa Day at the Indonesian Embassy. Meetings delayed his arrival, but as soon as he walked in the room, there was excitement. And yes, I must admit that to me, his proud gait seemed more gingerly. Nevertheless, there was no sign that his passion and commitment to global affairs were affected by any malady.
The speaker at the moment literally stopped in mid-sentence to acknowledge his presence, and immediately time was made for Mr. Payne to speak. Though he would have been fine to wait for his turn at the podium, that is the type of respect that Congressman Donald Payne earned (and was due). He was an international giant, and he meant the world to all who knew him. He was our link to Africa and other continents, and was a superb Ambassador for Goodwill.
When I was told last week to expect the news that came yesterday (March 6th), I didn’t allow the natural profound sense of sadness to overtake me. I immediately shifted to my memories of those two encounters as reminders and affirmations of how if one contributes much, inspires many, and lays a multiplicity of pathways for us to change the world, and if we are willing to accept the challenge and grab hold of the baton passed to us by the Donald Paynes of the world, that truly, there is no greater gift that we as individuals can give and receive.