The thing is, James Baldwin came back.
Various social media timelines of mine have exploded in outrage since the Ferguson verdict last week, like the timelines of most Black folks. But in 2004, I left Harlem to live in Paris for seven years, mostly for personal reasons but partly over Iraq War politics. My “followers” know this, and they’ve been raising their voices louder to me lately about leaving the country themselves. How else to deal with a nation that continually batters the psyche of its Black population like an abusive lover? Enough, people are saying. The tide of lives lost over the racist agenda of America’s police forces is too massive. They say they want to leave, they’re looking for my ex-pat advice, and I can’t blame them.
KRS-One, one of my top-five MCs, said something in his 2003 Ruminations essay collection that always resonated with me:
“We helped to make America great, so why can’t we help to make another country great? Anywhere we go, we are going to bring our African-American culture with us and transform the place we decide to live in. Why do we believe the United States is the only place where we can live and prosper? Is this not a slave’s mentality?”
I felt that; I spent my 30s living that idea abroad for almost a decade. I was following in Baldwin’s footsteps.
In 1948, he left Harlem for Paris himself, escaping a claustrophobically oppressive Jim Crow culture that made him feel like he’d die if he stayed. The most I can say is that I felt voiceless under the Bush administration—I’d personally protested the ramp up to the Iraq War. I was impassioned and principled and didn’t want my tax dollars paying for America’s bullets and bombs. So I left.
But, Baldwin eventually came back. He returned to the U.S. years later for the Civil Rights Movement. He couldn’t and didn’t ever really abandon America or, of course, African-Americans. His fleeing, like mine, was a personal reprieve, but not one that divorced him from the souls of Black folk. Add to that the fact that France sounds great on paper, but one turns a blind eye to history like the Paris massacre of 1961 at his own peril. (French police gunned down anywhere from 70 to 200 peaceful African protestors demonstrating against the Algerian War, dozens of bodies dumped in the Seine River.) I experienced nothing but love in my time there—the city adores American Blacks to the point of fetishization—but Paris is no utopia. As far as I can tell, there doesn’t seem to be one for people of color.
There’s no country for Black men (or women).
Which leads me to Eric Garner, Ferguson, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley and the endless atrocities that go down between Black people and law enforcement in the U.S. on a regular basis. My sister-in-arts, the poet jessica Care moore, had this to say yesterday after the failure to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo, Eric Garner’s killer, and it stayed ringing in my head:
“We don’t have the luxury of just BEING. just LIVING. just MAKING ART. just being WRITERS. the work of being a Black artist in America is daunting, polarizing, sad, painful, beautiful, amazing and fu*king necessary.”
I feel many things about the lack of even an indictment for choking Garner in cold blood, but surprise isn’t one of them. Of course I feel frustration and the same helplessness I experienced when Bush attacked Iraq after I protested in the streets with millions of others around the world to make our voices heard. But the main, recurring thing on my mind seems to be: what are we supposed to do now?
Black America is dying slowly, not just from law enforcement, but from the cumulative effects of White supremacy. The stress levels, depression, hypertension, psychological damage and more that stem from Living While Black in the U.S. shaves a good five years off our life expectancy compared to White Americans. Any politically conscious Black person stays stuck on the constant horrors committed against us with a mental energy that could manifest who knows what if we had the luxury of focusing it on the law of attraction (for example), self-actualization or whatever other positivist attitude. We’re robbed of that constantly, and that’s almost what angers me the most: this notion of White supremacy taking permanent root in our heads, in our bones.
This isn’t my lane. I’d much rather be talking about the Paul Thomas Anderson movie dropping next week. But resistance and protest can’t afford to not be my lane, not anymore, not for quite a while now. I don’t fly to Ferguson, lay in the street for die-ins, hashtag #blacklivesmatter/ #icantbreathe, wear Travyon Martin hoodies or do the hands-up thing (until recently anyway). I’m guilty of being a cynical forty-something, and unsure about the effectiveness of any of this these days.
From the political to the personal, my wife and I are raising two Black boys in the heart of Harlem. We don’t own a television, and at ages 7 and 9, they’ve never heard of Michael Brown or any of the other victims. They could be the envy of my social media timelines, able to jet to Paris with their dual nationality one day and stay put someplace where the police don’t freely gun down innocent Blacks. I am a race-man by nature and nurture, but am I wrong for trying to maintain some kind of post-racial innocence for them? To postpone the possibility they’ll feel “less than” after I school them on how to deal with police and teach them that this country doesn’t give a fu*k about their lives?
Shielding innocence is one thing, but we know post-racial anything is a farce. What I know too is that expatriation isn’t the true solution to these times, and that even Baldwin’s example shows he returned to usher his beloved America into a better tomorrow. And so what’s the modern-day role of the Black American artist in 21st century struggle? It’s a question I’m willing to live, to grow into the answer.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter and Instagram at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.