“Is it time to do a James Baldwin?” is an inside joke. A cerebral one at that. It’s one I like to break out ever so often among my friends when a racial episode occurs. Usually, it’s only my black gay friends who get it. For those of you who don’t, I’m happy to explain it. James Baldwin (who black and gay people should have at least passing familiarity with) was a black gay writer, poet and social critic from the early to mid-19th century. Really he was one of the first to detail the experience of growing up black and gay in America and discuss the unspoken race, class and gender issues that …
“Is it time to do a James Baldwin?” is an inside joke. A cerebral one at that. It’s one I like to break out ever so often among my friends when a racial episode occurs. Usually, it’s only my black gay friends who get it. For those of you who don’t, I’m happy to explain it. James Baldwin (who black and gay people should have at least passing familiarity with) was a black gay writer, poet and social critic from the early to mid-19th century. Really he was one of the first to detail the experience of growing up black and gay in America and discuss the unspoken race, class and gender issues that impacted our country. Close friends with Nina Simone and Maya Angelou, he knew and influenced everyone from Allen Ginsburg and Marlon Brando to Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy. More relevantly, after becoming so worn down by the racism and homophobia he faced, he famously moved to Paris as a young man and became an expatriate.
So, when I say, “Is it time to do a James Baldwin?” I’m basically asking if it’s time for me to go.
That may seem cowardly or a bit glib but in light of recent unrest and racism, most recently due to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; it’s become less of a joke and more of a very real desire. I desire to escape from the quiet and seemingly relentless erosion of the black male personhood. Just saying the joke gives me a bit of hope that maybe there’s an alternative to this “post-racial” nightmare that our country has become. It’s a way to make myself smile and feel less sad when I find myself discussing yet another death of an unarmed black man. Black people deal with this increasingly prolific act in different ways. Some protest, some cry, some write eloquent Facebook soliloquies; I…joke about it. Not just that, I would go on to imagine how I would handle the situation differently. How I wouldn’t end up like Trayvon Martin, or Jordan Davis, or Eric Garner, or Darrien Hunt, or Tamir Rice…. or Michael Brown.
Funny enough, I very nearly had the opportunity to test my theories in the real world. While visiting a friend in San Diego, I found myself being followed by a SDPD patrol car. I thought nothing of it, especially due to the fact that it was around noon on a beautiful sunny Saturday. Surely, they weren’t really suspecting me of being up to no good. Moreover, I’ve lived in L.A. long enough to know being followed by a police car every once and a while is part of the life of a black man. Straight or Gay. I mentioned our new admirer to my friend and kept on my way. I laughed about it, reverting to my go-to defense mechanism. Still, my shoulders never truly relaxed until they finally pulled away. It wasn’t long before I found myself making excuses to justify why they were following me. “My car does look shady,” I told my friend. It really does, hasn’t been washed in months and due to damage from a previous accident my friend was seated in the back, leaving my passenger seat strangely empty. Looking back, I can’t help being uncomfortable at how quick I was to justify why it was ok for the police to follow me.
What made the situation more surreal was it came after my friend lamented the ways in which telecom and social media companies can track their users. Essentially, in his own words, “making us slaves.” Fair point, I thought at the time. That was until after making a right turn, I noticed I was being tailed again. This time by a different police car. Two police cars followed me back-to-back within ten minutes of each other. Did I mention it was a beautiful sunny afternoon?
This second police car went on to follow me for several blocks, through several turns as I made my way to a taco shop. I couldn’t help thinking to myself, this area of town seemed pretty normal for a black person to be in. But there I go, justifying their actions again. In the end, I don’t know if it was a concerted effort or a sick profiling coincidence but it happened. And, I laughed it off… I laughed at my friend’s incredulous reaction. I laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation. I couldn’t even help making a joke in reference to his privacy fears, “Now, this is slavery.”
But as the saying goes, somewhere behind that joke was the truth. I was deeply unsettled. Nothing like that had ever happened before, not even in L.A. Still, despite my uneasiness, I couldn’t help indulging myself and imagining what I would have done if it had happened a third police car started following us. I remember telling my friend how I was going to pull over and confront them. Get right out. Walk over to the police car. And ask the police officer what I could do to get them to stop following me…
Just writing those words, I can’t help but chuckle. Because I’m too aware that if I had done anything close to that there’s very real possibility I could have ended up dead, at the very least in jail. I don’t have the luxury of indulging in power fantasies. I probably never did. Lately, I’ve become very conscious of where I am and what I am doing in relation to any police officer. I’m hyper-aware every time the LAPD pull behind me even when I’m just sitting idle at a red light. I’m aware of walking in their vicinity to go home. To be honest, I just feel… unsafe around them. The irony isn’t lost on me. Especially, when I consider the motto of the LAPD and many other police departments is “To Protect and to Serve.”
When I was younger, I use to assume that included me but I don’t live in a fantasy world. More importantly, I can’t assume that being gay and an effeminate gay man at that can diffuse the threat I pose as a black man. To be honest, I think it did. I think it helps for a host of other issues. But ultimately, having black skin is a threat. No matter the shade. No matter who I am. No matter where I went to school and what I’ve done. Acting a certain way, not wearing a hoodie, not listening to rap music, I don’t think abstaining from those things will save you anymore. I don’t think it will save me from becoming a casualty of a callous system.
The lessons I was taught by my father and other black men as a boy seem to be working less and less. I’ve found myself making jokes less and less. When it gets to the point where a black man with raised, empty hands is still considered dangerous enough to kill, maybe it’s time to go. When it gets to the point where saying “I don’t have a gun, please don’t shoot” isn’t enough to keep more than a few bullets from being shot, maybe it’s time to go. When a black man being choked says “I can’t breathe,” and the officer still doesn’t loosen his hold, maybe it’s time to go.
When a 12-year-old boy is shot for holding a toy gun… maybe it’s time to go.
Deep down, whether I want to admit or not, I know the truth. The racism that James Baldwin knew and ultimately made him leave the country isn’t really gone. It’s just changed its form. It’s become a thing no one talks about and no wants to admit still shapes people’s ideas, values and actions. And I don’t believe that my colorful, fun looking outfits; soft spoken voice and polite manners would keep me from meeting the same fate if I found myself in the wrong part of the country. I may not look like a thug or an asshole but I am still black. And for more people than I would have ever thought the threat people of my skin pose is enough of a justification to end a life. And so, I have to be honest… now more than ever, is it time to do a James Baldwin? Is it time to take my chances abroad?