I left the office of my first adult job on the day that I was fired with a bottle of Titos vodka in my bag. The sun gleamed as a rarity on that Seattle day, puncturing the waves off of Colman Dock as more white yuppies transported themselves back and forth. Deep down, I knew it. I was screwed and maybe I had been from the start. I had unknowingly fallen into someone else’s idea of how my future would be.
From birth I had been an anomaly: born at 24 weeks, deemed mentally disabled for the first few years of my life from the stunt in development that all the blood transfusions and surgeries brought, and my father murdered a few months after I was born. A Jamaican family did not give much space for a book-loving, eccentric young black boy. Books brought knowledge and my family brought me to programs meant to carve out black excellence.
I found writing at a pivotal time during my coming out process in high school. By college, I decided to enroll as an English major at Ohio University. Most of my classes talked of white writers who belonged to countries that colonized. I’d been taught so well in the realm of white reality that most of the characters in my stories were white.
James Baldwin came to me on a sleepy weekday in Athens, Ohio. He awakened me to the notion that black men searching for a deep, nourishing love could still find ways to give love to the world around them. As a queer figure of his time, I was convinced that his story surely tethered to mine. He had been rejected and made soft by the violence around him; rejected by many black men, like Eldridge Cleaver because of his sexuality, tried to make sense of a racist world with religion, and eventually fled to Paris at the age of 24.
His book, Another Country, arrived to me just as my Seattle life fell apart only months after graduating college. Paris burned into my mind and so did the story of James Baldwin entering a restaurant and throwing a glass of water at a white woman after being refused service. This explosion of rage in him became the reason that he needed to leave. To him, it was easier to find himself in Europe than to face the brunt of White America’s barrel aimed at him.
For me, Paris was a continuation of the journey I’d embarked upon after the shooting death of Michael Brown just day before my senior year at Ohio University. His death marked me like many other people, forcing us into action not only for him, but for ourselves.
I booked a cheap flight to Paris for the month of April and arrived as the sun was gleaming with two James Baldwin books and the address a friend had given me written down in a notebook.
“Find them and you will have a place to stay for a while,” my friend told me.
The house was in a suburb of Paris, accessible by a bridge that overlooked a canal with small boats. Kids rode bicycles through the tiny side streets or played soccer. Pigeons gathered in the small square near the house. When I arrived the house, it started to rain and the breeze rattled the windows.
Everyone that I met was abuzz with the movement sweeping through France. It was titled “Nuit Debout” and opposed the French government's attempt to pass stricter worker regulations. Videos of shattered store windows, burning police cars and shattered ATM machines as a result of the protests reminded me of Ferguson and made me a wannabe player in the chaos.
Enzo was my main contact in the house that my friend had led me to. He had dark hair, wore a battered brown jacket and rolled cigarettes with long, pale fingers. His frequent laughter pulled me in. I began reading Giovanni’s Room when I realized that I felt soft inside whenever he smiled at me.
A few nights into Paris, Enzo’s best friend was arrested during an evening of protests. I’d attended the rallies earlier that day and witnessed the mayhem as hundreds of riot police attempted to control the crowd. They were equipped with helmets, batons, shields, guns, armored vehicles, tear gas, tasers, and pepper spray. They kept us trapped in small side streets for so long that people from the apartments above us threw water bottles down to the crowd.
The weather was hot as the crowd burst through a line of police. We navigated the maze of central Paris as car windows were shattered and tear gas was deployed. I stumbled and choked my way into the central plaza of the city as rioters threw glass bottles at the police. It was the first time in my life that I felt I’d experienced something reminiscent of a war zone.
That night, I bought cheap wine and listened to everyone worry about their friend in jail. The dining room in the home became the recipient of many ashed cigarettes and bread crumbs. It became late. Enzo smoked cigarettes as everyone else went to bed. In the silence of the dining room, he attempted to wash down the worry for his friend with wine.
“I shouldn’t have gotten distracted. We went there together and it’s a rule — you look out for your friends,” he sighed and ashed the cigarette he was holding. “The government is always trying to silence us at every turn, ya know? That’s why I don’t work and I help maintain this house as a space for the right people.”
I moved his glass of wine further away from him and smiled.
“Enzo, you’re a good person. You care and you don’t try to hide it. All of your friends are too. Bad things happen to good people all the time. What matters is how you chose to survive it.”
Enzo nodded and turned his gaze to me fully. Suddenly the room felt smaller.
“Have bad things happened to you?”
I rolled my eyes a little bit in response, tried not to smile and then saw that he was serious.
“You’re the one that bought all of this wine. Maybe it’ll help me learn more about you,” he remarked.
His forwardness knocked the wind out of me and reminded me of a New York article I’d read months before that stated “no feelings is stable” in Giovanni’s Room. Baldwin wrote it as a way to explore “what happens if you are so afraid that you finally cannot love anybody.” In actuality, Baldwin had pegged my deepest fear. If my family had already largely denied my sexuality, if my own black community could ostracize me as an adolescent, how could I ever expect to go out into the world and love or be loved?
Despite the bravery needed to go to Paris, I was still fearful of rejection. Enzo, however, made me want to overcome my fear.
“My father died when I was eight months old… Imagine growing up and having this weird association of ‘I’m alive because he’s dead’. One day, I hope that my relationship with him can be more than this morbid thing. Maybe I’m hoping he wrote a letter to me before he died or… I’m looking for something in France that makes sense of everything happening in the world right now.”
Enzo nodded and asked more questions. The wine’s impact paled in comparison to the closeness building in the room. Enzo, in turn, talked about the deep ideologues that he shared with his friends about radical community care. For a while, he had taken college courses and then decided that the potential for dramatic change in France was more important. I admired his resolve.
Eventually he suggested that we watch a film, “You are not in France for long. We have to spend time together.”
We watched Wild at Heart, a 1990 film that followed the sultry journey of two lovers, Lola and Sailor, as they go from one illegal act to another while on the run. Our thighs touched underneath a blanket during the entire screening and afterwards, he invited me to sleep in his bed with him.
My feelings for him solidified as we searched each other’s bodies like maps in the darkness of his room. The other country that Baldwin talked about in his novel must have been metaphorical, but also related to the magic of falling for someone and establishing moments of refugee. After all, Baldwin had fallen in love with a Swiss man, Lucien Happersberger, shortly after arriving to France. He understood this in his bones.
Paris brought more beauty. There was the day that I met my friend, Ian, and ate pastries in the nearby streets of Sacre-Couer. All of the history surrounded as we talked about our lives after having only met on the flight to Paris. While sitting in the Notre Dame Cathedral, I cried because the opportunity to be black and appreciate beauty always seemed so short-lived.
I decided that if I lived with enough courage, I could rid myself of the trap of constantly living out someone else’s truth. The only truth that I could muster up for myself was that I wanted to be loved and longed to transform the spaces or the people around me. Enzo, for a moment, enabled that goal in a way that no one had before. I loved days when we would roam Paris — attempting to steal clothing or watch a film in a language that neither of us could understand. One night after the arrest of Enzo’s friend, we sold beer in the central plaza where many Nuit Debout activists gathered. I got lost in the crowd and only felt relief when I saw Enzo’s face. We rushed off and kissed feverishly in the hallway of a random apartment.
“I want you to make love to me,” he asked in a soft voice.
We rode our bikes to his home. In the warmth of his small bedroom, he stroked my face and called me beautiful. We laughed like children as I fumbled while putting on the condom. I shivered as his long fingers and red lips swam across my body. Late at night as we showered with the windows open, I swore that we could hear the entire country — trucks dragging along, babies waking from slumber, and riot police returning home. We fell asleep afterward, folded together like tectonic plates after a massive shift.
It was on the frontlines of Paris and in the wrinkles of Enzo’s bed that I learned being both present in life and black could be an act of beauty. If James Baldwin could turn the hardships of life in racialized America to pages that were adored by the masses, then I could surely be sensual in the way that he once described, “to rejoice in the force of life itself and to be present in everything that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.”
I finished Giovanni’s Room and Another Country days before returning back to the United States. With its ending pages, I finally understood that a book and a month in another country with a person could convey a lifetime.
As we drove to the airport, I smoked cigarettes that been rolled by Enzo’s fingers and played a CD by Jackson 5. With the windows down, the sun was heavy and high as I tried to wake up my mind. Enzo and I kissed with instinct when it was time for me to leave. I headed to security with a photo booth picture of us and the notebook that I wrote in during that month in hand.
Both were lost on the last flight home.
By the end of James Baldwin’s life in 1987, it seemed the world had eaten him up. He retreated to France, probably smoked too many cigarettes and died of stomach cancer. His last works, such as “No Name in the Street”, were disheveled, yearning and beautiful. When I think of the calamity that was his life, that is my life, I think of the question — can a black boy’s life be more than a graveyard of moments that we are conditioned to be too afraid to seek?
My immediate answer is “yes”, but the fate of James Baldwin and many others who have passed employ me to explain. Yes, we can avoid the graveyard, but what may matter more is how we resist the age-old notion that we are doomed. I must be vigilant of the world’s attempt to harden me as I carve out spaces, here and abroad, that are inclusive of soft and powerful black men, like James Baldwin. Doing so will help me find the words to answer questions that the world will continue to ask me.