Learning At His Feet
Remembering the past and the present
A child ceases, in his own eyes, to be a child in relation to his parents when they disappoint him, truly disappoint him. The final disappointment that created the irrevocable gap between myself and my parents was the realization they could not be my role models, only my caretakers. When a child realizes this, or is forced to realize this for his/her own sake, is when true entry into the world is confirmed and they seek to engage the Unknown (with or without the carefree confidence of one who is protected, encased in a shelter which covers the fallout of discovery; without, it becomes deadly serious, earnest) in their environment in order to find something – someone – to model themselves after. Pop culture – that euphemism for the industrial machine of cultural appropriation and its monetization – drugs, sex, alcohol, gangs, and inertia are just some of the common engagements that young people find themselves dialoguing with along their quest to find a paradigm from which to spin their identities.
Well, my role models were books. Every book that I had read and deemed worthy, I signed adoption papers and fashioned my inner self – I couldn’t let on to my parents that I had defected, self-emancipated from them – after what I apprehended. At ten years old, Richard Wright’s Black Boy carved in familiar patterns the experience of the foibles endured growing up vicariously fed the wrathful pressures of a racist world through one’s beleaguered black parent – and a child’s innate, cheeky defiance of that reality forced on him. Then there was Roald Dahl and his plentiful catalogue of children’s books which carried within them a fantastic age-(borderline) inappropriate, macabre danger that, to this day I appreciate him for trusting young audiences with. Then there was headier stuff like Stephen King’s It and his other novels which shaped my language to myself, a hidden language only I spoke. I’m obligated to make the redundant statement here: this made for a robust inner world, but a lonely outer one. The other bibliophiles I might have grown up around did not roll in packs because their worlds, like mine, were hidden.
The habit of auto-adoption persisted into my adulthood, and to far less potent effect it still goes on today. But back then I trusted books like a young son trusts his father: a death-like trance of unquestioning admiration and longing. Like I used to trust my birth father; ways, in retrospect, that I never trusted my birth father. The last three novel quasi-parents that I had had (I should count a brief auto-adoption to Iceberg Slim, whose spellbinding narrative of inner-city life had me (over)using the word “cunt”, trying it out on my girlfriend at the time. She tolerated it with a fair amount of ironic humor only because I cut such a pathetic, monotonously imitative figure in comparison to the truly menacing character, a real-life pimp who used the word as a way of life, while I had not the slightest bit of street life acumen to remotely pull it off) left a great impact on me. The late Herman Wouk, whose stunning, experienced prose in Youngblood Hawke and his World War II epic the Winds of War/War and Remembrance still stun me to this day; Robert Jordan, whose Wheel of Time saga stills informs my intelligence on scope of world and deep characters in fantasy writing; Ta-Nehisi Coates, the third and most recent, whose memoir Between The World and Me rebranded my consciousness with a reality that has always tugged at the corners of it. His careful, verbose style, his way of addressing the issues was – is – accurately compared to James Baldwin’s, who is hailed as his intellectual, if not spiritual predecessor.
I had never read James Baldwin as a child. I knew he existed in the way that Langston Hughes (whom outside of the relegated-to-Black-History-Month, public school staple, Raisin In The Sun, I never read) existed – as someone important, someone black and talented, and someone that I ought to know did something with himself and to the world, and that generations later, people still talk about and at times dimly recreate what he accomplished. I read James Baldwin for the first time as an adult, in my early thirties. First: Go Tell It On The Mountain, which piqued my interest. The Fire Next Time lit my senses aflame with a bouquet of one thousand-watt CFLs. It was the prima facie evidence of this work that put him on the short list. Then I read If Beale Street Could Talk. There was nothing else to consider after that. He was in.
That year I had decided it was time to get myself together and to launch my writing career full time, so I turned my attention to more temporal matters and materials that I felt would get me there, an orphan at that point, for no writer had filled those shoes at that time in my life. It was two years after I discovered Coates, randomly from a bus stop advertisement; Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah were also advertised. On a whim, I bought all three. Years passed, but The Fire Next Time never left my mind. Then three months ago, I bought his Toni Morrison-edited collection of non-fiction writings, having decided to stay the course that had made my interest real.
Enter the big shock: his essays, if taken holistically as a single force – the stark honesty, the tenacious censure wrapped in exceedingly dense, rich prose which expressed an eloquent, unrelenting, terminal, impotent rage – of which the central theme was race(ism), caused a defensive folding up inside myself. Something in his writing attacked something inside of me: my inexperienced, lazy resignation. The version of America that he sedulously dressed down in every piece, the way he picked apart its delusion, its crimes, flaws, its potential and the people who largely shaped and were self-imprisoned by these flaws was conFRONTing. The disrespect and violations he was forced to endure before his fame and what traumatized him long after; the horrible, sinking feeling that he was describing yesterday, my/today’s yesterday, and not his time of sixty years ago, compounded and became overwhelming. It was painful, both to read and to consider, that the wheel was still spinning.
I am not blind, nor am I an idiot. America’s foundational pillar of identity is race, and therefore racism. I am an American, and to that extent the color of my skin, by proxy, makes me a product of that identity. I have experienced micro-aggressive, passive-aggressive, sexually frustrated/thwarted, furtive racism; nothing to the magnitude of Baldwin’s. I had been fed the soft-handed, white-washed crap in Social Studies class all throughout elementary, middle and high school, via the media, etc, but of all that was a white expounding on an experience, basically an outsider’s interpretation of an experience they knew nothing about. But you can’t ignore a voice of authority and experience like Baldwin’s. He pulled no punches, and each punch hit a vital nerve. Damn: it was like that? I decided that he was too grim of a parent, no better than my biological ones; no coddling whatsoever, bedside manner as blunt as an antebellum line cook’s (“you ain’t raising me, motherfucker,” my birth father spat out disdainfully to my back. I was fifteen or sixteen and exasperated with our argument, and so I walked away from him in cocky annoyance. I think around this age it is natural for a child to herald the fraying edges of the parent’s – benevolent or otherwise – dictatorship in this fashion. Nonetheless, this is my birth father I’m talking about. I was lucky, in retrospect, he didn’t knock my head off), and it very nearly changed my mind.
With effort, I kept reading, and what I learned through his writing was more than I expected, for across the gap of time he and I share more in common than I would dare to say my birth parents and I do. And this is very telling, because from this perspective a child has no choice but to have things in common with his parents, for the child records, as a matter of inevitability, everything from them – what they teach and what they don’t. For starters, Baldwin, at one point, idolized Richard Wright, who was my first entry into black consciousness. We both hail from New York City. He went to DeWitt Clinton High School, where I took my SAT exams. His home street in Harlem is not far from the neighborhood of the woman who would become my first important, deep, teenage romance…and thereafter a life lesson from which I would never stop suffering.
November 1948: according to him, he threw his engagement rings, fed up with the idea of romance (in many ways), into the Hudson River shortly before leaving the United States on his nine-year sojourn in Europe. He wanted to distance himself from the back-breaking strain of being unwilling fodder to the machine of racism he was sure would kill both him and his writer’s acumen. This was also the very year and month that my birth father came into the world. What Baldwin would describe in his pieces as a “bad nigger”, the image white people fashion to soothe moral discomfort at the disparate treatment of black Americans who don’t follow protocol is what my birth father would become, defiantly be, the entirety of his youth, from age eleven to adulthood. How they differed was that Baldwin, before he realized the folly of this endeavor, took great pains to not be a “nigger” at all, good or bad. My birth father cut his teeth in the decade of death, the 60’s, where America gave little choice as to which nigger you could be, and he chose the path where his fists altered notions of white supremacy one black eye, bloody nose, knotted forehead, bruised midsection and dislodged tooth at a time. Oh, he fought against all shades, but: “I used to fuck them white boys up, boy,” he reminisced with dispassion. The absence of heat in his usually loud, no-nonsense voice made his exploits vivid, authentic to me, as if I had been actually standing there in those Bronx streets watching him battle against the whites who hadn’t left with the resurgence of an economy bolstered by the war some fifteen years before, who had escaped to open, black-free pastures: the suburbs. The white people left behind were the “new” white people, formerly of the dead races Ta-Nehisi Coates named – among others, Italians – who had finally, with their time and dues paid, crossed the threshold from essential below to a part of the fraternal clubhouse of despising the black body. They were by then, in the sixties, just white people with accents. Yes, my father intimidated white policemen, teachers – anyone, really, who stood between him and his right to exist in the turbulent jungle he certainly didn’t create but to which he had to acclimate for his – and his family’s – survival. This was, of course, before he settled into a variance of how many people, black or white in America end up if they are not careful…or too careful; a precarious, defanged compromise of the private dream they were sure would come true with time, effort, and belief. I suppose Baldwin might have gone down that path as well had he not left for Paris. Perhaps he did so subconsciously to make room for my birth father to take his place.
We both share a feverish love for writing which grabbed us at a young age. An aligning catalyst was that we were both shy children and had trouble expressing ourselves with spoken words. For me, it was due to the pressures inbound, living within a household where the single parent raising four children alone (in my mother’s home, my birth father was merely a phantom presence substantiated by the mandate of child support, excepting weekends and holiday breaks, and only held ruling jurisdiction within two doors: his own home, and the school’s) created a hierarchy out of her personal stresses. She became a mother very early in life, a teenager, really, and had had no real chance to fully realize her own potential. Whatever was destined to blossom within her was turned over to her children. Yes, there was a genuine love there, but there was also a bitterness with life and a rage that she could not hide, that she compulsively shared across a spectrum of words and deeds with her kids. My older siblings, two sisters from a different father, while not at the mercy of that rage to the degree that I was – being girls, their oppression was different – took their places within this hierarchy and their frustrations out on the younger. Apart from school, social outlets were forbidden, so the quiet, but attentive pages of my journal and the aforementioned, abandoned books on my mother’s shelves had to suffice. None of these things fostered a strong outward social image, and so, a stuttering wallflower, avid reader and later, writer, I became. Baldwin’s home life in some ways resonated with mine. His stepfather’s identity was formed by the bitterness of the southern black migrant experience of the early ‘20’s, and he was forced to imbibe the poison of unlucky and unqualified hardship in a far less diluted form. He antagonized my father constantly, for of the nine children in the home he tyrannized, Baldwin was the only one not his. Due to the insular nature of my upbringing, I was spared, to a large extent, the outside world’s harm; the outside world – the oppressed wilderness that was Harlem in the 30’s – was the only vista of opportunity he had in his formative years. He got it going and coming. But the distraction of being black while writing (only because it distracted everyone else who wasn’t black) is what carried him toward a sense of familiarity and made him a prime candidate for our craft.
On paper he spoke so fully into being a lot of the frustrations that I also felt, but had neither the space nor the emotional language to articulate, namely the frustrations involved with finding true connections among other people. I thought my mother, who had a hardline, inarticulable mistrust of others, the pioneer; he was the first to plainly state the crippling area of development in intimacy and community that America has in this regard, an area of development that was passed down to me through my family. Trying to find a space to fit in securely, completely was a Sisyphean task, because only small pieces were allowed at a time, and by the time one piece fit, another circumstance would knock it out of place. A child’s world, though infinite in regards to the imagination, is tiny in reality. To wit, the reality of school life operated in such a way that you were either 1). popular by reasons beyond your control: socially-determined good looks (and that meant back then, more so within the black community regardless of sex, being light-skinned), or height, or via the primal magnetism of the athlete and the bully; 2). unpopular for reasons that were your fault. And it was my fault. I lacked the confidence, which was definitely not cultivated beneath my roof, to seize my manifest destiny, because I was all of those things (minus the bully, though to be popular in childhood and actually in some form, always, you have to be a bully. Nature is, in of herself, a force), so by the sin of inaction I was considered impotent, weak, prey for those who seized theirs. For my survival, I became the bookish funny man, the Prince of the Dozens. But of course, no one ever forgets their origins; the child’s experiences calcify into a repackaged torture wheel refitted to compliment the larger body of the adult, who then spins an aggressive modus operandi to keep those experiences relevant throughout his life. Baldwin corroborated a large portion of this experience thoroughly, and I felt every word.
We both share a disappointment with black Christianity – a parvenu of white Christianity, which is to say that it is a poor offshoot of something that was meant for blacks to obey but not fully partake in but grew to become an inseparable, within scope, aspect of black life. The frustration towards the doctrine came from experience – his far more steeped and informed than mine – and the incongruity of its presence with its usefulness in the real world and the minds and hearts of black people pushed him away. But we came from different sides of the doctrine: he from the pulpit (his stepfather was a preacher), and I from the pews. He forced himself into it to avoid the feared oblivion of becoming a fixture of the street, and also to leverage some of the resentment he felt against that same abusive, tortured stepfather into a weapon he could use to gain a power he never before possessed. He commanded, cajoled, manipulated – in suffering, for his disillusionment came within his first year as a youth minister, at fourteen. By seventeen, the ultimatum given by a friend forced him to choose between his self-respect or a lie. It was the way out he needed to quit and never look back. My final break with the church came at thirteen, which was an allegorical catalyst of the tumultuous relationship with my mother. Any visit to a church thereafter was a vain attempt to appease her, whose withered approval – that was all I could hope to get, for her disappointment in me, viewed through her own regrets and still-present bitterness, demarcated the canyon divide which developed in my childhood and cemented as an adult – forced me through those doors. As an adult, I was strong enough to inspire a change in her, however briefly with insight scraped from incremental maturity and growth, but I could not long sustain such a taxing level of leadership and continue to raise myself. With my exhaustion, our disappointment became mutual, and has been ever since.
He died when I was five years old, five years before I would read his literary father. That year, Arthur Ashe was one year from discovering he had AIDS, the world’s population had reached five billion, Aretha Franklin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Michael Jackson released Bad, Prince released The Sign o’ the Times, Prozac became available for commercial use in the US, the Simpsons debuted on the Tracey Ullman Show, and the first Final Fantasy game was released. That year, in France, surrounded by family and friends, my father took his last breath. Twenty-eight years later he would come into my life, and when he did, he would teach me some key things as a human being, as a black man, and as a writer that exist far beyond the scope of his written works. One truth in particular: to be a writer is to have unshakable honesty as the driving force in one’s writing, because the corroboration of your truth – a terror in of itself, according to him, because to hide is to be safe – is the key to capturing the attention and experience of others. This was a fatal, inescapable failure of his truth-telling, because my father told the truth as did Malcolm and MLK, as did DuBois and Garvey, as did the Father of all, Douglass. It seems that a black man’s truth can never be corroborated at large by America, a coalition of well-practiced somnambulists who defend the largess of their dreams with violent, deadly, indefatigable stamina. Universally speaking, perhaps this is one of the founding reasons people lie, why liars exist. Because they fear, far more, their truth not being believed than the loss of integrity by their dishonesty. Perhaps we should pity them, pity ourselves, for we, all of us, are liars to some degree. Our lack of trust, through that fear, that our truth will not be accepted, corroborated, is something that Baldwin fought through, but ultimately, as the other great minds before him, could not fully penetrate with his words and experiences to foster a true understanding of the pressures of being a black man in a “white” world.
Yes, he taught me much, but he didn’t tell me everything. He didn’t tell me that he was gay; not so much as not tell me as accepting it for himself and leaving others to acknowledge or not. We never discussed it. It came out in other ways, the way that steam rises from a boiling pot in defiance of the lid (Giovanni’s Room, Another Country). From his lips, he had had female lovers. In fact, the rings that are to this day rusting at the bottom of the Hudson belonged to the one black woman he nearly went the distance with. Not until two years before his death did he lift the lid to me, and I feel a bit of scandalized irritation at not being trusted with all of him back then.
I am open enough (and even if I weren’t it wouldn’t be less true) to admit that a human’s sexual preference is unisex until it is diverted, irrigated, toward the pasture which is set up for that water’s flow. It is a choice initially, decided by the gate-keepers – the oligarch of morals in our country. The two majority powers on this board (formerly the Church) are advertising firms and influencers paid directly by product companies. Before the current climate of our society, where the choice to (publicly) be whatever sexual being one wants was fully birthed, the question of what I wanted to be struck me like a thunderbolt, triggered spontaneously while sitting at my desk in my seventh grade classroom as my teacher read aloud a fictional memoir dealing with the sexual identity of the narrator. I don’t remember the actual story but as I mentioned earlier, I trusted books completely and I remember pondering very hard about this with an intensity bordering on tears, and asking myself: “Am I gay? Do I want to be gay?” The question was more dire than the answer. At that time, I had no precedent to even make that kind of deep choice (or maybe I did?) but every fiber of my being told me to choose, at that moment. And I did, with every element available to my eleven-and-a-half year-old faculties.
My father’s early adventures in his sexual journey happened, according to him, uncharacteristically, against the nature of a typical Leo, from my experience I know to be insistent (to a grating fault) leaders. He was a lamb, a wallflower, who went with the current whether it was gentle or ravaging. His self-esteem had taken a beating from a very young age from his stepfather and thereafter from the world, and it reflected very much in his sexual choices and awakening. Like my father I carried the sense of being unfinished, unworthy, ugly with me, and like him I was always surprised and excited, nervous and skeptical, when I was found desirable. He had standards and he said as much, but he was powerless before the decisiveness of others. At sixteen, his first lover was a much older man who treated him as a treasure, a trophy of youth. My sexual advent came at seventeen in the nebulous space between high school graduate and college freshman (Baldwin and my birth father disdained college with the same thought: it would be a waste. Although my birth father had five scholarship offerings by the end of high school, he already had two jobs and much later, throughout his life, more money than his college-educated friends), with an acquaintance from my adolescent years. The bittersweet discovery and victory of hidden longing, of the moon aligning with Venus (because I was sure before that point I was going to stay a virgin. I had accrued too many heartbreakingly cruel “almosts” before then, and began to imagine my happiness didn’t lie in this area. Most of my peers were reaching this milestone far earlier and with far greater ease than I, and were wondering, with amazed pity, why I hadn’t. It only occurs to me now that some, if not many of them, could have been lying. In any case, it caused me no small end of personal distress), and the aphrodisiac-like inspiration being away from adult supervision manifested into an experience very momentous, wonderful and in my former, immature opinion, long overdue. With the beginning of the semester, I quickly moved on to another woman, the floodgates never to close again and began, or resumed – this time with the emboldening experience of sex – a jilted career of failing at what I thought was loving very hard in my reflexive, self-possessed, inwardly fragile, outwardly cocksure Virgo way.
By no means do I have my father all figured out. But you can’t, and you don’t (don’t do that. Nope, don’t even try), rush a black elder. They do what they want and say what they want in/on their own time, having earned the right by virtue of their continued existence on this baleful, stress-inducing earth. I guess I should be grateful that he revealed this side of him, in glaring, posthumous truth, to me at all. Given, as I have said, that I hardly believe myself to be his only quasi-offspring, I doubt I would have been anywhere near his favorite in terms of writing. I’ve read enough of his book reviews; even the works of his respected peers – friends – were not spared his clinical censure. His own literary father was hung on a cross (and this ended their relationship) specifically crafted, in his own words, for leaving an impression that he was a good student. From six decades away, I can smell the sulfur in that guileless claim. As the truth looks to me, Baldwin was simply, indiscriminately competitive; his protective, exacting standards on the craft in relation to himself and to others who dared use the written word as proof of life was the smoking gun every time he fired a shot. I have no doubt that I’d be riddled with them. But there is a reward which unfavored children receive that favored children do not: the gift of unadorned wisdom. The favorite, as every parent knows in their heart of hearts, does not listen; they are assured by the romantic neurosis the parent poisons them with that their fortunes are made by the eye (their parents’) and not by the hand. The parent, aware of what they are doing to the favorite but unable to stop, understands that what they know will have to pass on somehow if they are to live through the ages. The favorites are not reliable legatees. And so it goes: the true heirlooms are passed to the passed-over.
His brilliance was terrifying, as was the brilliance of his predecessors because they, like he, told the truth of their time. And they were right; but each generation of black intellectuals (who told the truth; very important distinction) was telling the same truth because the times toward black people didn’t change.
Yes: we have lived through avalanches of tokens and concessions, but white power remains white. And what it appears to surrender with one hand it obsessively clutches in the other. I know that this is considered to be heresy. Spare me, for Christ’s and His Father’s sake, any further examples of American white progress. When one examines the use of this word in this most particular context, it translates as meaning that those people who have opted for being white congratulate themselves on their generous ability to return to the slave that freedom which they never had any right to endanger, much less take away. For this dubious effort, and still more dubious achievement, they congratulate themselves and expect to be congratulated.The Price of a Ticket
By modern standards, I am the more privileged (I wonder what he would have thought of Uber? Fresh Direct? Amazon Prime? Netflix?). The Black Lives Matter movement, in particular, probably would have made my father cringe; almost immediately after its induction, a terrified counter-movement, pitiably, cowardly branded All Lives Matter, a thick wad of reflexively guilty, hateful spittle in the face of the very reason the former needed to exist in the first place, sprang up. And then the police(!) followed with theirs, a redundant clamoring since their institution mirrors in large part the spirit of the first. The MeToo Movement perhaps would have had a different impact on him, as would Colin Kaepernick’s gesture of defiance, which echoed Tommie Smith and John Carlos’. I wonder, if he had lived long enough, how he would have dealt with the reality of the nation’s first black president – though he scorned Robert F. Kennedy’s estimation in 1963, the man turned out to be right, though off by six years or so – and all that it implied about a country that had spent its energy hating him for the one thing he couldn’t, and I’m sure he wouldn’t, change.
He also counseled me to accept my history. He posited that history has often been at the mercy of selective interpretation by those in/with power, and too often does not reflect reality. As much as I would very much like to be, simply, a human, too much had transpired before I was born; too much stolen, too much lost, too much denied for it to be that simple. Yes, to be a human and exist according to my merits and impact on others, as opposed to a story which demands I prove true or untrue would be best. But until then, the (his)story is that I am a black man, and as a black man, in part or in totality, my ancestry is tied to this country through a bondage of humans who weathered the storm of inequity, violence and hatred over centuries and evolved to where I stand now, as one of the first clusters born from their generation to be the closest to date (Gen Z does not really grasp the position they are in; not yet) to what my ancestors could only dream of being. I can’t change what happened, but I can put it – the parts that are true and the parts that aren’t – in its proper perspective as a foundation, the construction of the future of my choosing. No one else’s. This last is still taking some doing, to be honest. Writing – the effort, the pressure, the immersion of it – does wonders to guide me, as it did for Baldwin.
He also taught me to embrace and to learn, not run from, my past; to ignore it would mean to chart a blind itinerary, and that can only lead to more, blind bondage. He taught me to never stop questioning, which is more than fine with me, for I am far from being certain about anything. All I know is that if he had not succumbed to cancer in France while I was on the other side of the world…who am I kidding? I still would be certain of nothing, anyhow. I’m just a bit sore that after poring over nearly forty years of his works, I realize that I lost someone utterly important to me and didn’t know it. I didn’t know that my great, gay, influential, black, literary father, perhaps my last, had died. Luckily for me, he was in love, pathologically so, with writing, and he left all that he had to teach in permanent record. Which makes it that much easier to continue to learn at his feet.