In an America on Fire, Baldwin’s Legacy Led Me to Paris
Just as America’s horrors led Baldwin to flee decades before, I waded through my own fear as a gay, black man coming of age in an America burning once again.
No Name In The Street
I was handed one of his books for the first time in my senior year of college, which was embroiled with organizing protests on behalf of murdered Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and more. Just as Baldwin’s life had dragged him along the broken glass of America’s horrors and led him to flee in hopes of finding something more, I waded through my own fear as a gay, black man coming of age in an America burning once again.
“Go to this address and find my friend, Enzo,” my friend’s note said.
My weeks in Paris showed me my first riots. I choked on tear gas as crowds screamed and shattered storefront windows with chairs. Enzo was tall, slim, and had a head of black hair that flourished like a Parisian garden. Enzo was the first boy to ask me to his bed, then stare into my eyes in the late-night hours. I kept a notebook and listed the parts of his body that trembled under my touch. He kissed me goodbye at the airport, and I never expected to see him again. I boarded my plane back to the U.S. with a smile; grateful for the adventure that had shown me deeper political realities and given me an almost love.
The rest of 2016, however, proved ruthless. By June, I was back in Big Sky, Montana, for the second summer in a row working as a housekeeper at a ski resort. That summer, forty-nine people were killed by a gunman at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. By July, the Republic National Convention happened in my home city of Cleveland, Ohio, and countless activists, some of whom were my friends, were threatened by the FBI if they were involved in anti-Trump protests. By August, I was fed up with the constant racism of my white coworkers. At a party with a bottle of vodka in hand, I read each person in the room for filth for trying to defend a white person who said the N-word.
I returned to Ohio a week later and moved back into a basement room in my college town of Athens. Maybe Ohio, my home, could help heal me.
December neared when I sat at a small bar with a friend whom I barely knew. My mind was nuked. And after my fourth drink, I told her the same thing that I’d been saying to so many others recently.
“With the way that things are going for me, I don’t see myself living much beyond thirty.”
Just weeks before, the police in Columbus, Ohio had murdered a black teen, Tyre King. At a vigil in his honor that I’d helped organize, a white man asked, “What makes this kid different than Osama bin Laden? Didn’t the cops say that he had a gun?” The same month, I watched the National Guard, some of which had come from Ohio, tear through the indigenous camp off of Highway 1806 that was in the path of the Black Snake, also known as the Dakota Access Pipeline. My journey to North Dakota was framed by death.
The entire debacle turned my anger into a burning rod I could carry no longer. I cursed the white man out as my friends attempted to calm me down. Even after he left, the darkness followed me. En route to Standing Rock, I fell asleep in the backseat of my friend’s car, jolted awake from a panic dream, and paced the McDonald’s parking lot where we’d stopped for sleep as it rained. I called my best friend and cried to her.
“I had a dream that they killed my brother instead of Tyre,” I said as my voice started to break. “I don’t know how black people survive this.”
“Some of us don’t,” she replied.
There is a degree of death and bewilderment in the artistry crafted by black men throughout our history. Jean Basquiat, a troubled and famed black artist who lived in a decaying 1970s New York, painted Riding With Death, not long before his death by overdose to heroin, which depicts a black man fighting with a skeleton. Notorious BIG’s 1994 album, Ready to Die, hosts numerous tracks that explore the depths of his trauma growing up as a black man, as well as his rage. The heaviest track is titled “Suicidal Thoughts” with the line, “Suicide’s on my fuckin’ mind, I wanna leave / I swear to God I feel like death is fuckin’ callin’ me.”
Despite James Baldwin’s irremovable place in the black, creative milieu, his struggles with mental health and suicide are largely missing from his legacy. Numerous accounts and a biography of the author by David Leeming acknowledged that Baldwin experienced bouts of depression, sometimes drank too much, and suffered nervous collapses (one of which happened at work the day after his stepfather’s funeral).
As a gay, black man myself, I can easily grasp the position that black men can hold as protectors and enforcers of the patriarchy. This position can harm black men through emotional stunting and avoidance. Black people, black men included, still have a long way to go when addressing the grip that decaying mental health or mental illness can have on our lives.
With these statistics more evident today, it is conceivable to imagine the difficulties that Baldwin faced as an artist, activist, lover, and witness as he came of age. Government surveillance was a contributing factor to the mental health of those in the Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam War, and Black Power Movements; all of whom were targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program. Infiltration, political propaganda, and manifesting paranoia were key to maintaining political and social order for the government. As campaigns and movements by groups like the Black Panther Party deepened, so did the toll of being unsure of whom to trust in the ranks among them.
Now, we only need to look as far as Columbus, Ohio, where twenty-year-old black activist Marshawn McCarrel died by suicide on the city’s courthouse steps to understand the relationship between the state and the spectacle it makes of black men’s livelihoods. Even in death, the state found a way to mock McCarrell, who turned his traumas into political action and spoken word, when a Dayton police officer posted on social media, “Love a happy ending.”
Baldwin’s mental health was complicated not simply by his blackness, but also his queerness. Baldwin did not even feel at home in the term “gay,” which may be why he spoke at various points in his life about romantic relationships with women as well. Aside from being excluded from the March on Washington, the rejection of his sexuality by black activists and creatives must have hardened him.
In his last published interview, Baldwin speaks with a tone of bitterness about the poet Ishmael Reed: “He ignored me for so long and then called me a cock sucker, you know what I mean? It’s boring. But I always did say he was a great poet, a great writer. But that does not mean I can put up with being insulted by him everytime I see him, which I won’t.”
The presence of anti-black homophobia is still apparent to me as a queer, black activist and artist. In college, while I organized march after march for black people slain by police, I faced the criticism of other black students for being too radically against or confrontational of the university, which many black students considered “white people activism.” While passing through the main gate of the Oceti Sakowin camp, as I talked with a friend in Standing Rock, an indigenous man snickered at us and said, “Don’t come here to be gay.”
Weeks later while at the same camp, a group of indigenous men cornered me and demanded that I take off a jacket that said “Fuck White America” or be followed around the camp for its inflammatory message. I took their threat as another way to police my blackness into a digestible image, a logic that fails to oppose the stereotype of the violent, angry black man who is really just speaking his truth. During a three-month trip to the Philippines, I held back tears as teenage boys accosted me joyfully in public, as children pointed and laughed at me, and as countless people elaborated to me how I was the first black person to ever frequent their business. Even police officers on the other side of the world played a hand when they offered me a ride to a club when I was lost one night and asked how big my penis was.
As the only black man, let alone gay, black man, that I knew who traveled extensively, I sometimes had to cave inside of myself and try to stamp out the rage at a white logic about the black body that had infected the entire world. Similar to Baldwin, but in a different time, I was hurt and unsure of how to recover.
Baldwin started writing Another Country in Greenwich Village in 1948, two years after his best friend Worth committed suicide. It took Baldwin years and travels to different lands to write Another Country, published in 1962. The writing of the novel was a deep grieving because no matter where Baldwin went, the demons followed him. His decaying mental health, at the time, may have been exacerbated by the PTSD of battling racism in the United States or his penchant for elusive men, whether they be queer or straight-passing. Whether or not Baldwin had a savior of sorts in his darkest, most suicidal moments is beside the point. Baldwin was saved many times, by himself or others, but he could have been saved far more.
Baldwin was saved many times, by himself or others, but he could have been saved far more.
In 1956, after another fight with his lover Arnold, Baldwin swallowed an abundance of sleeping pills and called Mary Painter, a dear friend, who rushed over and forced him to vomit up the pills. As the bile and drugs exited his body, maybe Baldwin mentally birtheda sentiment that he said later in his life: “For every James Baldwin, there are a whole lot of corpses, a lot of people who went under.”
This was not the first time, and would not be the last time that Baldwin thought of or acted upon a suicidal impulse. He spoke at length to a friend about suicide as they stood on a Harlem rooftop at the age of thirteen. In December 1949, he was arrested during his first months in Paris after a mishap over lost bed sheets in a hotel where he was living. He was humiliated by his experience in jail and having the audience in a courtroom laugh at him after his case was dismissed. Baldwin returned to the hotel upon his release. Then, according to Leeming’s biography on Baldwin, he attempted to hang himself.
Weeks after the sleeping pills incident, he had another horrible fight with his lover Arnold upon their arrival to Corsica. Arnold did not want to be Baldwin’s romantic possession and lusted to study music in Paris. Baldwin walked to the ocean after drinking lots of brandy and contemplated drowning himself, but turned away from the idea in hopes of finishing Another Country.
I stumbled into this truth, Baldwin’s truth, along my way: I started college as a writer, left it radicalized, but disheartened with the state of the world, and willing to take jobs around the country in hopes of navigating what place love and rage would have in my life.
I never returned to Big Sky, Montana after that sordid summer in 2016. And I ran from the children’s chants of “Negrito!” in the Philippines to South Korea where I let drunkards fondle my dreadlocks in exchange for free drinks.
But unlike Baldwin, who returned to America and seemed to feel indebted to pushing Americans to actualize a collective vision of making the country more just and was born to a black family, I was the queer child of Jamaican immigrants with a murdered father and virtually no answers about his death. I desperately believed that America and all its savagery deserved to burn to ash for what it had done.
Nonetheless, I found power in acknowledging the mental struggles that Baldwin confronted, that almost destroyed him. Although he survived various attempts at suicide, I wonder how much more rich or validating his life could have been if the larger community, especially the black community, made room for him to be serious, joyous, queer, depressed, nervous, and filled with longing.
In 2018, I traveled to Paris for a second time and stayed with Enzo for three months. I was determined to turn twenty-four in the same city that Baldwin had been at the same age, seven decades before. For those months, I read his work voraciously and fell deeper into my affair with Enzo, who sometimes read next to me. My birthday was on the same day as the Paris Pride Festival. I attended while holding Enzo’s hand and chugging lukewarm beers from my backpack. The parade ended at Place de la République, the same place where I’d stumbled with rioters over tear gas canisters two years before, during Nuit Debout; a reminder of the endless confrontations that life, love, politics, art, and pain can bring.
When my time in Paris came to an end, I moved back to Ohio. I started organizing with a black, queer activist collective, and finally began to ask my family more questions about the doomed men of its past, my late father included. Baldwin once described love as a growing up. In order to grow, I needed the truth, no matter how violent it was. Navigating their destruction made me feel more capable of navigating how the world tried to map out my own.
It is Baldwin’s willingness to relocate, bear witness to struggle, and contextualize how it shapes a life that is his legacy. By writing into it, I am given a chance to be one of his children, capable of honoring his candor and not simplifying his anguishes. If I can do this for him, then I can do it for myself. By facing the doom of my past, both personal and collective, and moving towards a future where no one is silenced, even in death, everyone is heard.