“Behind my face, there was music…”
— James Baldwin, Just Above My Head
“Blame it on them things untold.”
—Maxwell, “Symptom Unknown”
Roughly half my life ago, in 1992, I was twenty-five. My sister Kate sent me an envelope of photo enlargements she’d made. There were photos of mountains in Colorado outside Salida, where she’d lived since becoming a teenage-runaway in the 1970s. There were a few photos of her apartment, which was also her studio, where her artwork and whatever else tended to pile up. Other pictures included her friends from Salida: artists and bikers, a few Vietnam vets. These people were mostly strangers (if not just plain strange) to me; they looked trapped in lost scenes from Easy Rider. Six years older than me, Kate was different. A mystically talented artist, self-taught, she was hard to be close to and utterly impossible to keep a distance from.
And after a dozen or so photos such as those I flipped to the next and saw this:
My first thought was Okay, so who’s the light-skinned dude with the white lady? I felt a familiar warmth. Connective. Something that soaked through the feeling of stark whiteness that imposed an unbridgeable distance between my family and me whenever I spent time with them. Like everything about Kate, the photo came from far-elsewhere. And it also felt close-by, like touch. My sister’s touch, which I’d known both intimately and in fear as a young child before she left. I recognized the feeling of warmth, but this wasn’t my sister’s warmth. It was a warmth from what I’d call Blackness. For me, Blackness signals another kind of feeling for family, both more and less twisted. A closeness. I smiled at the photo, leaning closer. My sister knows him? That’s good: that my sister knew someone Black—anyone, and closely, as the photo intimated—felt to me like a small victory against the raging reign of American apartheid in the early ’90s.
Then, after a beat, my next thought: Wait, that white lady is my mother. And next: Wait, that’s my WilliWear suit! I swear it happened in this order, in this way, a kind of recognition you move toward, with care, up close, like peeling the thin skin of foil from a Hershey’s Kiss. The kind of recognition that emerges from the details outward toward the general.
Small stuff. I knew it was my suit because the bottom button was always coming loose and falling off. And so, not owning a needle and thread, I used to pull it tight and wrap the thread around. It would hold for a few hours and I seldom wore the suit. I’d bought it at half price and even in the oversized and baggy early ’90s—picture the dancers in Lalah Hathaway’s video for “Baby Don’t Cry”—the suit was a little too big for me. But, looking at the picture, I recognized the business with the button, the hands at work. The wrists. I looked back at my mother’s serious face. I’d never seen that seriousness in a photograph. Maybe that’s why I hadn’t recognized her at first. Only then did I look back at the young man’s face. That light-skinned dude: He’s me.
Then it fell into place, kind of. This was my mother’s father’s funeral. That’s my older sister Mary’s house. Her couch. That’s Mary’s hand behind my head holding a cup. Kate was there, I realized—a rare visit. A visit from me at that point was rare enough; I couldn’t bear the pain of psychological splitting that came from being physically close to my family while some invisible distance—their whiteness—cast its estrangement between us.
The photo: That’s me, all right. June 1991. I’m twenty-four.
Details: The cut on the left side of the bridge of my nose is still fresh from the previous weekend, at James Madison Park, when Maurice tried to pin my layup to the backboard. I beat him going right. He swung from behind and missed the ball and slammed me across the face and sliced my nose open. I was sure it was broken but it wasn’t. I think I scored. I remember someone—Greg Velasquez—offered to take my spot, but I played the rest of the game wiping the blood with my Flyin’ Illini T-shirt. The scar is still there today, testifying in the way scars do. That shirt is long gone, and it wasn’t really mine anyway. It was my girlfriend, Lisa’s, Flyin’ Illini T-shirt autographed by Steve Bardo.
Maurice was good people, though. I liked knowing him. He needed to cut his fingernails. Like just about everybody else I knew in Madison, Wisconsin, at the time, Maurice was from Chicago. Hat turned to the left, always left, he worked washing the storefront windows on State Street near campus. When he wasn’t working, he was mostly, like me, ballin’ at James Madison Park. Solid player who maybe more than occasionally smelled like beer or something stronger on the court; left-handed, what people sometimes call a “natural” athlete, the kind who’d smoke a Newport waiting for next after a loss. The kind, at the time, we’d have called cockstrong. Hard ankles.
Details: Even today I’d recognize Maurice’s thin calves and unlaced Jordans, the way his left wrist slow-curled around the ball when he dribbled, as if begging some fool to go for a steal or call it a carry. Even today from a hundred yards I’d recognize how Maurice’s jump shot slipped around his left ear and launched from behind his head, making it difficult to block and making it clear no coach had ever left an impression. I never knew Maurice’s last name, but I knew his sharp, menthol breath, the deep-ridged curve of his back; and I knew exactly how fast and how far he could pivot to his left in one step, which put him a step behind me going right and was why he missed the ball and why I have a scar on the left side of the bridge of my nose.
By the time Kate sent me the photos, it had been a year since the funeral. As I stared at the picture in slow recognition and recalled that bloody afternoon at James Madison Park: more connective warmth. I could taste the mundane violence of men’s intimacy with each other. I felt grateful for these memories. Then another memory came out of the blue. It rode along with recognizing, in that strange, Hershey’s-Kiss-foil-unpeeling way, the white lady and some dusky-bright Black dude in that photo—my mother, my suit, the wrists with the thread and button, and then, finally, me.
Here’s the memory that came back. Earlier that day in the photo, I passed my Aunt Mary, my mother’s sister, in a doorway between the living room and kitchen. I’d just arrived to the funeral repast. Aunt Mary lived in Florida; I probably hadn’t seen her in ten years, maybe more. We both turned to the side to make way for each other in the doorway. She scowled. It struck me at the time because stories about this aunt seemed always to emphasize her wide-open and breathless enthusiasm for everything. This certainly wasn’t that. And it wasn’t grief, either. It wasn’t quite disgust. It was as if a foul odor or news of a crime had bled into her presence. It was momentary and almost certainly more unconscious than conscious. The look said, The offense will pass presently if I just let it. That look. It was exactly the look, years later, I’d see someone—Reetika Vazirani—give to a cloud of car exhaust while she waited for it to clear before walking through its space. That look.
If there’s a white world, this is the way it looks at what it thinks it’s not.
When we came abreast in the doorway, Aunt Mary stared down at the floor at an angle. I was semi-estranged and nervous with my family. But I gathered up a so-good-to-see-you tone in my voice and said, “Hi, Aunt Mary.” In an instant, her foul look blinked into confusion and then vacuum-vanished into unbelieving recognition: “Eddie.” Her smile pulled across the blank stretch of almost neutralized disdain on her face. That’s the word: disdain. A bright-red lipstick speck remained on her front tooth, as if resisting her smile all by itself. We hugged and passed through the doorway. Then the moment evaporated from my mind as if I hadn’t seen it. But I had seen it. And something of it lingered like the shadow of a cloud that stays on the street long after dark. That moment flashed back to me with an electrical rhythm only when I flipped to Kate’s photo and felt—as though touched by my sister, and in the presence of my serious mother—the softness of that WilliWear suit with the iffy button, and the nearness of the light-skinned Black dude. Me.
Which mostly, as far as this world will testify when put on the stand, isn’t true. I mean about me. Even allowing for lightness, no matter how light, I’m not a Black dude. And yet there had never been a way for me to be white either. Period and permanent. Like I said, I was twenty-four when my sister took that photo in 1991, so this truth had already been a conscious one for me for more than half my life, a condition revealed at angles, often oblique, and by slow degrees. The idea of a person whose identity is racially nonbinary was unknown to me. As far as I knew, one had to choose sides. To the degree that I became conscious of this necessity to choose sides, I became certain that no one would make me choose the white side. I’m not sure if the idea of a racially nonbinary person exists today either, but if it does—and to the extent that we have identities that aren’t cruel and arbitrary impositions—that’s me. And even if that idea doesn’t exist, and if identity is just a cruel imposition, that’s still me. And that’s what this essay—a few fragments of memoir, after all—is about.
“Guess it was a symptom unknown,” sings Maxwell in his song by that title from 2001. “Guess it was the way it was cold.” When I play that song, driving through Athens, Georgia, where I now live, and think about all this, I can hear that this irreconcilability between selves likely stems from twin American simplicities: first, that our experience take place in separate racial terms; and second, that we be recognized only insofar as we can be reduced to one dimension. So maybe Maxwell’s right, it’s all about “them things that you hold.”
I’m not exactly sure to what extent these simplicities—one-dimensional and mono-racial—inhibit other Americans’ ability to recognize themselves and be recognized by others. It inhibits mine in the extreme. To live has meant finding ways—in experience, and later in the telling of it—beyond these violent and fraudulent simplicities, which lie about our actual lives and our actual possibilities. Of course, saying it this way is itself an oversimplification; our truths are far more granular and contradictory than simple rules allow. But it’s the power of these rules that makes digging toward those possibilities such hard work.
So now, in my mid-fifties, when I’m touched by my sister Kate’s photo and recall my initial thin-foil-spiral of recognition, of both myself and my aunt, I hold those moments near to me, and so hold them near to each other. I can see why the clouded memory of my aunt’s face would follow the act of recognizing myself in the photo. We’d both been surprised by unexpected encounters with Black men. I was surprised that my sister’s life in the Colorado high country involved such a young man. And my Aunt Mary was clearly surprised to be encountering such a person in her niece’s doorway after her father’s funeral. And, as it turned out, those unexpected men were the same person.
By then, for years, I’d been sifting and slipping the reactions and expectations of white strangers and acquaintances. I arranged them according to how much I figured they could be trusted. I gauged that by how far away they felt when they were nearby. Mostly that meant far enough away that they couldn’t be trusted very much at all. The day of that funeral—in the name of family, and almost certainly conditioned by my immersions in Black families—I’d stupidly agreed to show up and be present myself, or try, only to once more encounter the ways white people feel far away from where we actually are. We? (And here, now, for instance, I wonder at what age my pronunciation of aunt came to rhyme with gaunt instead of can’t.) My aunt and I had both reacted as one does in such situations, like unexpectedly catching an image of ourselves or someone else in a mirror, when we glimpse something beyond what we force ourselves to see. Or when just such an unexpected something—or someone—glimpses us. In short, such moments offer a little truth, an angular revelation. If we don’t refuse to acknowledge what we’ve seen.
But how different our reactions to that young Black man were: mine an instinctive leaning toward, a warm current of connection: If my sister can know him, I felt, she can know me. Family. And my aunt’s reaction, a leaning the other way in disdain and probably in fear. Also family. And I sit here, now, with the strangeness of it up close. The strangeness of it is me. And yeah, I’m scared too. And I wonder whose reaction I trust less. Hers? Mine? Or yours right now?
I wonder about our training in disdain, in distrust. How mirrors and mirroring work in creating trust on the one hand, and distrust and disdain on the other. My life straddled divisions that the world said were racial, and were therefore regarded as natural. Expectations within and around me based on those divisions policed my life at every turn, a policing I’d defied since I was a child. In this there seemed no models to follow. Images of what it means to straddle racially divided worlds in nonbinary ways are mostly absent on the one hand or offered in images of futility and stupidity on the other. How have appearances and recognitions been aligned for us, against us, in ways that police and quarantine who and what we take ourselves to be?
In his final novel, Just Above My Head, James Baldwin’s protagonist, Arthur Montana, a politically engaged gospel singer, demonstrably Black, meets a Frenchman, ostensibly white, named Guy Lazar. The two steal a long weekend in Paris from the unrelenting demands of Arthur’s schedule and indulge in an intense love affair. Their “deliberately, consciously stolen” time together occasions Baldwin’s penultimate portrait of how the power and peril of people’s color—known still to the world as racial identity—mixes with the chemistry of erotic, personal, and cultural life. Where do the limits and the possibilities of our selves and our relationships intersect? How recognizable are those intersections? How real are we in their midst, or far from them? In these pages, Baldwin meditates on what Arthur and Guy unearth in each other, up close, and also on what Arthur sees, hears, and feels while watching an international crowd listen to an American blues singer perform with a multicolored—or so-called interracial—jazz trio, “piano, bass, and slide-trombone.”
Within arm’s reach of Guy, and far away from home, Arthur wonders anew about power and the private, about personal signatures we script in historical ink. Arthur is no stranger to how history manifests in a person’s life, the way it can influence, even dictate, the way we see, feel, and think. He knows the impulse to escape history’s influence in private havens. But Arthur also knows how to engage history, how addressing history directly can forge indispensable connections among people who are committed to this kind of difficult work. Through that process, Baldwin wrote elsewhere that “history becomes a garment we can wear, and share, and not a cloak in which to hide; and time becomes a friend.”
In the novel, as the trio plays, Arthur listens and looks out at the international gathering of Europeans and Africans. Baldwin allows that each group comprises people who are “more or less, the same color, and this would not even have been a question, had Arthur found them in New York, or in Boston.” Arthur and his author know all too well that in “the harsh, democratic light of these metropolises, they would have been the same color, whether they liked it or not.” Color is imposed by historical power regardless of personal preferences and allegiances, the reign of that power looms over and between us and lives within us all in our cells, in dreams and desires.
But that’s not all there is to it. If it was, no one would survive having his or her identity reduced to one dimension. None of us would be here—not as us, anyway, as we know ourselves to be. And we are here, the scars prove it. And Arthur realizes that he’s neither European nor African. At the same time he’s listening to an “American trio” perform with a “blues singer from Memphis,” the combination of which creates something that disrupts history’s would-be racial categories: European, African. A music that comes “from, after all, let’s face it, the Lord alone knows where.” Arthur also knows that wherever that “Lord alone knows where” happens, he’s native to that action.
Together with this mysterious chemistry of color and culture, Arthur has the taste of Guy’s breath and body still in his mouth. In his mind and body, Arthur bears years of performances in freedom-movement venues wherein, primarily in the eyes of each other and themselves, Black people revolutionized their images against the force of history, which also happened “the Lord alone knows where” and happens continually. Black indigeneity—at least in North American terms—is always, in part, contemporaneity. One’s origins trace to a happening, a perpetual one. This is how “time becomes a friend.” All of this lives in Arthur’s cells, dreams, and desires too. Courtesy of the author who invented him, Arthur knows there’s no escaping history, “the unanswering and unanswerable thunder and truth of history—which is nothing more and nothing less than the beating of his own heart, his song.” And Arthur and his author know we don’t “own” our hearts, much less our songs, which has a lot to do with friendship—friendship with people and with time—too.
Arthur knows there’s no escape and also no way to be reconciled. This turbulent combination of the personal and historical compels his close attention to the crowd, a complex and lucid mirroring. And Baldwin continues, “But, truthfully, if one really looks at them, though they are, anonymously, the same color, they are not, intimately, the same shade. Different histories, and different hazards, are written just beneath the skin, these histories and hazards accounting for the subtleties of shade.” As Arthur’s vision sharpens, Baldwin goes on, “And these subtleties are in their eyes—if one wished, ruthlessly, to pursue the matter, in their names. They are, therefore, not only what their history has made of them, they are also what they make of their history.”
As if into a mirror, I look back at that passage. I look at it closely and then as if from far off. I look slowly in that thin, foil-unpeeling way: “anonymously, the same color”; “intimately, the same shade”; “ruthlessly, to pursue the matter.” So the difference between color and shade is the difference between the anonymous and the intimate. This distinction Baldwin draws bears some serious attention. More unpeeling. Also, according to the vocabulary in this particular mirror, there’s something ruthless about the pursuit of these reflections.
It’s that thing about how shades of “different hazards, are written just beneath the skin.” And there are hazards and then there are hazards. By the time we read all of this in Just Above My Head, we know that Arthur dies during a bloody seizure. His brother Hall tells the story to us. Arthur died in the bathroom of a London pub at the book’s outset, five hundred pages ago.
I first encountered this novel in the fall and winter of 1987, in the months coinciding with Baldwin’s own death in St. Paul de Vence, France. I turned twenty-one on December 25 of that year. As it had happened, my best friend and roommate, my brother, Riccardo Williams Jr. had died that August, the week before his twenty-first birthday, on the South Side of Chicago. A sickle-cell crisis killed him—a seizure in his blood. We’d been inseparable. In fact, thirty-whatever years later, we still are. Brothers. After he died, I was told that dealing with Ric’s death meant dealing with his absence. People said he was gone. Shaking heads: “Man, you lost your ace.” Maybe even I said it. But what I felt was actually a presence as vivid as anything I’d ever known. It felt like cold flame flying through my limbs. I didn’t know what to do. It felt impossible. Everything did.
Ric’s death was intimate, personal; it was a hazard of shades. And it was dangerous too: In his death was a force—one that had to do with color—that threatened to erase who I was. Because, anonymously, as far as anyone could see, we never knew each other. Couldn’t. The segregated world that most people lived in asserted an uncrossable distance between us. According to those people, that distance was racial, it was a fact. Almost ubiquitous, this division could assert itself anywhere, in small gestures and grand statements alike. In a place deeper than language could rescue: If that division was a fact anywhere, then it was a fact everywhere. This meant there was nowhere for me to live. There was nowhere to be where someone’s embedded assumptions about color (or something) wouldn’t aim a glance at me that missed Ric’s presence in my life; it would always be just a matter of time, usually brief, before this happened and time was no friend of mine once again. How was I going to live when any moment could become an enemy?
In addition to the already intense pattern of crossings and ambiguities up to that point in my life, at age twenty, the presence in me, and in my life, of my dead, Black brother, Riccardo Williams Jr., changed everything about—and forced me, maybe ruthlessly, to force changes in—how shades shade color and how colors color shade. Shades and colors, the intimate and the anonymous, the historical and the personal had all smashed together. Things had changed. If asked exactly what had changed, I’d have answered in the new futility of speech itself: everything.
These changes would not play out in the abstract, or on paper. The question of writing about any of this was still far, far in the future; that was a possibility—really a necessity—utterly unknown to me at the time. The changes would have to happen in me and in the world; in fact, somehow, through me they’d have to happen to the world.
From here, I can see how these smashed-together necessities—anonymous and intimate—bring into existence that light-skinned dude in my sister’s photograph. Could the intimate name the anonymous? Could shade change color? That would have to happen. I’d have to make it happen, or there seemed no way to live. Like I said, I’d been doing this all my life, coloring shades and shading colors, but Ric’s death and his resulting, paradoxical and lethal-if-invisible presence in me amplified these dynamics and made its necessity absolute.
That summer, 1987, Whitney Houston remade The Isley Brothers’s classic ’70s soul ballad “For the Love of You.” In the first days after Ric was dead, driving in the streets or riding my bike with a Walkman, I played this cassette again and again. “Ain’t no place I’d rather be than with you.” In the song, Whitney is “drifting on a memory,” and I could feel that for sure. But I also knew the past was no place to dwell. So what place was left? I didn’t know. I’d stand on the wall of our ninth-floor balcony in Madison, a college junior. With my dead brother gone—which somehow meant he was there with me, in me, just beneath my skin—I’d play Luther Vandross, Phyllis Hyman, Anita Baker, Loose Ends, songs we’d played and sang together. Chaka Khan sang: “I went to him, down with the fever. And you know he had the cure.” In moments of inexplicable happiness, I’d play Surface’s hit song from the previous spring or recite Slick Rick’s “La Di Da Di,” and “don’t cause trouble, we don’t bother nobody.” One by one, as months passed, I’d introduce Ric to new releases up there, or wherever he was. If there’s a god, let it be responsible for Make It Last Forever. Keith Sweat’s album arrived that fall like a prayer answered before it had been prayed, which has to do with culture and history and Baldwin saying that, when we get them connected, “time becomes a friend.”
Somehow the happiness in those songs hurt the worst; it made me feel split in two. So mostly I kept the storms quiet. I’d dim the lights in the bedroom and climb onto the balcony wall and stare out wondering if I was really thinking about jumping, or just falling. The past was no place to be; the future had vanished. Out of nowhere, songs delivered an emotional clarity, but all else was opaque. I let these songs play into my confused sense of intimate and anonymous hazards. The songs spun through colors and shades and pain. They poured pain and pleasure back and forth until it wasn’t exactly clear which was which, a mystery I needed very badly, as if that mysterious mixture offered a structure for other parts of life to mix together too. I rode along in those sounds as if moving through a thick solution. I’d always traveled in music, but this listening was a different journey. And it kept changing.
During the spring and summer of 1987, before Ric’s death, one of our favorite songs was Smokey Robinson’s “One Heartbeat.” We sang it as easy pleasure, “slow motion baby.” A miracle had happened to us, a connection neither of us saw coming. In a movie, even then, I’d have seen the setup: friendships like these were invitations that ushered tragedies into dangerously intimate parts of ourselves. Juice, Boyz N the Hood, Above the Rim, and a dozen other films would testify to this danger, but they were still a few years in the future. So I didn’t see it coming at all, not a glimpse. My mother called me in L.A. to say that Ric had died (I said, “Really? Ric who?”). After his death, standing on that balcony wall, I felt song after song plunge into me—pain and pleasure, shade and color. I stared out at the distant red lights of three radio towers blinking in and out of sync across the lake. The round metal of the guardrail pressed into my ankles as I stood there looking out, a hundred feet up above Dayton Street, wondering about difference: between shades, between colors, between leaning and falling, between backward or forward.
“We paint a picture walking down the street,” Smokey sang. In the months after Ric’s death, there was an intolerable howling-vacuum in meeting people on the street who, now, couldn’t see him, Ric, my man, walking with me. This loss was personal, intimate, in that way it was also universal. But somehow it felt historical, and in that way powerfully—maybe lethally—anonymous. Somehow, in a way the world wouldn’t tell me to my face, color was mixed up in this. Race. It was as if no structure could order the volatility of this loss (a friend, yes, a brother, but also a whole way to be in the world), especially when the result felt much more powerfully present than anything lost. Physics says nothing is lost; history says everything will change. Loose Ends sang “You Can’t Stop the Rain.” At times I could feel a question travel my arms and legs: Why are you listening to this song over and over? On its surface, it’s a song about futility, about inevitable things that can’t be stopped. “There will come a day when the lightning will crash … Everything we’ve known all gone in a flash.” Was there a powerless comfort in that? I hoped not—I hated that sentimental shit. Or thought I did. So, then…what? How many times did I have to listen before I heard the answer? My body heard it first. All of a sudden the question stopped moving through me. I felt it stop. And my brain got the telegram: “If ‘You Can’t Stop the Rain,’ you be the rain.” Then you can’t be stopped.
The electrified question of anonymous—often termed racial—distance and dissonance in the American experience had been taunting and toying with me my whole life. I’d answered that toying and those taunts by shading myself. I’d done it since I was a child, and maybe always. Now color had me cornered. Shades couldn’t cut it. The world’s inability or refusal to see my dead best friend’s presence in me was about color. It was personal and also, somehow, historical. I’d have to respond to his death as both loss and presence, personal and historical, shade and color. I’d have to make all these qualities pour into each other or I would cease altogether to be a person, to have an experience I was a part of.
There are hazards and there are hazards. Some hazards are different and, indeed, are “written just beneath the skin.” They are interior, which sometimes is the hazard. So these hazards had gathered together with a hazy hail of other hazards into an anonymous compound that, I felt, would kill me if it couldn’t be brought to the surface, couldn’t be written beyond—not beneath—the skin. Ultimately, all of this would have to happen in my eyes, in my name, and in my body.
In order to survive, I’d need to testify to an experience whose origins are here, happening now, and to an identity to which relationships—in my case, ones often called “inter-racial”—were at least as important as the so-called facts of my birth. My experience wasn’t an individual one. People’s lives and, now, my best friend’s death, had happened to me, mine happened to them. Wasn’t this what actually comprised a culture, a society? And if those people were Black, then what did that make me? Here I began to sense that a cage had been erected around me, one designed to separate me from myself.
In that electrified space, caged by an ultimatum I could feel but not understand, a presence accompanied me that people could no longer see. It traveled with me in whatever I did. So it was that I began to read and reread passages from Just Above My Head, as Hall Montana tells readers about his beloved brother’s life. In a way that was closer to what you do with food than what usually happens with books, I’d been reading Baldwin since I was a teenager—essays, mostly, scouring his pages for proof that I existed, for clues about what was happening to me and my friends.
On those pages, or somewhere just beneath them, I learned that “race” is a lie, an anonymous othering. Its force isn’t personal, has nothing truthful to do with you, it turns upon myths about what people are not who they are. It’s inherited, static, and designed to kill. And Baldwin is saying that “color” is also about what a person is, but it’s historical not biological, and it’s dynamic. Cultural. And shade, even more interactive and dynamic, is about how history becomes personal and vice versa. Shade accounts for how the particular vitality of people’s passage through history keeps colors changing as our lives take on reality in each other.
In those fall and winter months in 1987, and into 1988, ripped by grief and not really knowing how to mourn, or why, or, now, how to live, or why, I read and reread the concluding passages about how power and the person contend. Baldwin wrote:
“It is impossible to know what future can be made out of an alabaster past so resounding, and an ebony past so maligned, but some key may be found in the palette which experiments with colors in order to discover shades, which mixes shades in order to arrive at a color, or color, which, by the time one has arrived at it, and by means of this process, always bears an arbitrary and provisional name. Shades cannot be fixed; color is, eternally, at the mercy of the light.”
I was twenty. Then I was twenty-one, and in deep trouble, a trouble that felt permanent, and in a way it felt like it had to be permanent. I was injured. But healing felt like it would be lethal, a paradox. In a blurry and smashed-together way, I knew that in the improbable case that I somehow got over this particular loss, that getting over it would itself be a loss—another kind of death—and that would be far worse. Perfectly paradoxical, there was no way to be reconciled. I couldn’t think through this dilemma at the time, but, man, I could feel it. I’d have to live it. I could feel that fact, which probably means I’d already long been living it. Meantime, all prompts in the American world seemed to urge avoiding such permanent trouble if possible and, if not, the push was to get over it ASAP and get on with life. But could trouble like this be avoided? By who? And how? Had an American mythology about “race” created a people—white people?—who could avoid such things? Or who could get over it? If so was “race” a way to not only script divisions between people but to also provide a mythic division between a person and their actual life? Here I heard two brothers arguing about trouble that wasn’t going away. The voices were from Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues”: “But there’s no way not to suffer—is there, Sonny? … No, there’s no way not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem—well, like you.” At the end of the story Sonny, on piano, plays a version, an improvisation, of something like himself. His “fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others.”
I couldn’t really understand the twisting-in and turning-out of what I would later recognize as Baldwin’s “Jamesian” prose. It didn’t really matter. I couldn’t understand the cooly intimate and anonymous flames in my body any better. And the songs on the balcony could only take me so far. But in Just Above My Head, I knew this was one brother speaking for another. I would read that passage out loud—mostly to myself, and at times just for the rhythms (“alabaster past,” “one who experiments,” “arbitrary and provisional”). Something in the rhythm of those phrases and sentences felt like proof. This pain was real. So was I.
Somewhere embedded in those paragraphs was a way to go on living. It had to do with what Baldwin called “the palette which experiments with colors…which mixes shades.” So I never jumped. Again and again, I leaned back off that balcony wall, stepped down and through the sliding glass doors, and went on to see what would happen next. Maybe the intimate could defeat the anonymous; maybe we could name the anonymous in private and in public. If I—if we—could do that, then maybe history could be made into “a garment we can wear, and share, and not a cloak in which to hide.” Maybe time, maybe even death, could become a friend.
Like I said, by the time I was twenty, the clashing of color with shade was nothing new. I knew there was a battle going on between me and the world, and I knew a huge part of that battle was about color, or what people supposed was racial. This was nothing new to me. Ric’s death had simply upped the ante on this battle to lethal stakes and radically narrowed the room to maneuver.
In fact, not too long after my foil-unpeeling recognition of me and our mother in Kate’s photo, another memory returned to me. Like passing my aunt in the hallway after her father’s funeral, this scene also followed the twirling rush from how Kate’s photo revealed, as if from another angle, my position astraddle racially divided territory, the dynamic intersection of colors. Scenes like that were everywhere in my life. From teachers to friends, lovers to police, I’d watched people attempt, again and again, to find a place to put me. It was as though I could see myself slide across the slippery domes of their eyeballs until some notch or niche could be found for me to rest in. I could see and hear people doing this. I could usually figure out pretty much where they’d put me and then, to the extent it mattered, I’d find ways to push and nudge back until I felt like some tolerable accommodation had been reached. I used to think—here and there I might have actually said it—when I’m lucky, for a few minutes I can pass for myself. Maybe that’s all any of us gets.
And in ways I was increasingly conscious of, I was aiming my life toward venues—dancefloors, basketball courts, and sexual life—where the truths of identity could, most importantly, be shared. Venues where those truths could also be tested, even proved. In basketball, for instance, I was that dude a defender could either stay in front of or he couldn’t, and everybody could see it. Musically, you were either at home on the dancefloor—meaning with others who were at home there—or you weren’t. And lovers had to learn how to give themselves to each other, and to receive, or at least to try.
The idea of such testing and proving—to say nothing of sharing—as a writer hadn’t occurred to me yet. I wasn’t a writer, which wasn’t so much a fact as it was a possibility I’d never even considered. But I was a basketball player, I was a music connoisseur, a deep listener, and I was a dancer. I was a student (though most of that experience felt like something closer to picking locks). I was always in love. I was an industrial laborer, though I assumed—wrongly and partly due to shame—that this had little relevance to my actual life. I was maybe 10 percent of a rapper. I used all of this to author a sense of self and community, a world where, like Sonny says, I could make it seem—well, like me. In these worlds, our lives involved each other. We mixed “shades in order to arrive at color.” To me, all this added up to a life worth living. Otherwise—if it all boiled down to pushing money back and forth across some segregated table or another—I really didn’t see the point. Might as well just step forward off the balcony wall.
But in rare moments when I caught that sliding-across-domes-looking-for-a-niche thing happening with my eyes, I could see the whole dilemma—and myself—in a different way.
So here’s the second scene. During the summer when I was fourteen, between eighth and ninth grades, I worked with a Black best friend of mine, Keith Alexander, doing conservation work in the Cherokee Marsh in Madison, Wisconsin. For those weeks, I pretty much lived with Keith, his cousins, and his grandparents in their house on Mifflin Street. We slept in his basement. We snuck into his older cousin’s room while he was at work and listened to Chicago radio on his cable hookup. “Here’s my number and a dime / Call me any-y old time!” To Skyy’s “Call Me” and other songs from around that summer (I remember Keith’s singing the falsetto part, the best part, in Raydio’s “You Can’t Change That”). We practiced dance moves wearing Keith’s older cousin Damon’s leather-soled loafers: “You may change a dollar bill / But let me tell you one thing / You won’t change the way I feeeel” (Yup, the word feel rhymes with bill). In the mornings, around dawn, Keith’s granddad or sometimes his older cousin Yolanda took us to work.
This Mexican kid we knew, Arturo, was also doing this program. The point was to get high-school science credit, which I didn’t need. Keith said he did need the credit. Plus he knew a few other kids in the program. Keith said, “Come on, Ed, man, don’t leave me hanging.” The project was to build elevated walkways through the marsh. We worked all day doing things like carrying decking and nailing it onto the support beams. They gave us lunch, after which Keith and Arturo and them usually went behind the bathrooms and got high. I didn’t do that, which meant I just put up with them laughing at dumb shit half the afternoon.
Yolanda or Keith’s granddad would pick us up in the afternoon and take us back to his house. Or some days we took the bus, or walked. (One time we tried to hop on a train, but they’re way faster than they look.) Like I said, we stayed in Keith’s basement. No one came down there, and it was always cool and dark. Sunday morning, we went to church with Keith’s grandmama. I didn’t have the right shoes. She told me, “Baby, you just wear these.” I already knew Damon’s Stacy Adams loafers were too big for me. But I acted surprised when I put them on and wore them anyway. At church one Sunday, the preacher said “a father should be in the home.” I thought about that. Mine wasn’t. Keith’s neither. We looked at each other. And then the preacher said “mens didn’t need to be out there running in them streets, carrying on and”—how did he put it?—“Hallelujah ho-mongering!” I had no idea what “Hallelujah ho-mongering” was. But we repeated that shit like it was one word all the next week: “Yo, go get that other box of nails and don’t be over there behind the bathroom Hallelujah-ho-mongering.” Arturo and Keith and them other high kids laughed and laughed. We all did. So that’s pretty much how things were going along.
One of those weekends, two of Keith’s older cousins from Chicago visited. One of them, the younger one, Tony, hung out with us the whole time. We roamed all over. He slept next to me in the basement. Tony noticed our intricate “VL” handshake that twisted and slapped and ended with our right hands making a V with the middle and index finger and a L with the index and extended thumb. He kept saying how the little gang we’d started at Marquette Middle School wasn’t a real gang: “Y’all don’t know nothing about no Vice Lords.” That was probably true, but it was important to our crew at school all the same. Tony said, “At least y’all ain’t trying to be Folks.”
Now, one thing I’d learned was that when a dude stands too close, he’s “all up on you.” That’s bad. By this time, I’d also learned that when a girl gets close to you, she’s “all up under you.” That’s not bad. But: I’d also noticed that both situations lived nearby to fights. As a rule, I tried to avoid real fights. I didn’t admit it, but hurting people physically on purpose was repulsive to me.
So all weekend it seemed like Keith’s cousin Tony stayed all up on me and kind of all up under me, too, all at the same time. We went to the court at Tenney Park, then to the beach. We stayed at the beach until we got kicked out, which didn’t take long because Tony showed up all loud and throwing up his hands and calling out “all is well” over and over and then began to play a game throwing stones at people in the water and trying to play it off. Tony said he was a blackbelt. All up on me, he said he could spin and kick backward but then stop his heel right in front of my face. I said no thanks, but that, if he wanted to fight, he should try getting all up on that tree right there. I’d watch.
Tony laughed and said to Keith, “Hey, your boy cool, you know that?” When he said it, though, it felt more like an all-up-under-me thing to say. It’s in the way you say it. After basketball (which Keith hated), the beach that didn’t last ten minutes, and Tony’s all-up-on-and-all-up-under-me-at-the-same-time Kung Fu work with the tree, we swiped our lunch from the supply room of an office building. Then we sat on the bridge over the lagoon in the park and ate what we’d stolen. Stolen? Keith said it wasn’t stealing. Holding up his little bag of Doritos and a pack of Hostess HoHos and waving his arm at our warm cans of Pepsi, Keith confirmed proudly: “We fount these.”
Just then, Tony threw all his empty wrappers in the water and jumped off the bridge into the lagoon. Holding his chin up with obvious difficulty, he said, “Y’all niggas come on.” We said no way. That water nasty. He said I needed to jump in because, after the beach, my hair had already dried all crazy on my head. I still said no way. As he struggled to swim and started to kick up foam he said, “Okay, go ’head look goofy,” and swam through the green water to the bank. He said something else while he swam, but I couldn’t hear it because of the splashing. Tony couldn’t swim for shit but I couldn’t tell if he just called me a faggot? I ignored it if he did. Or tried. Either way, there was some all-up-on-and-under thing going on all weekend with Keith’s cousin. But I liked him, how he seemed to effortlessly cleave and scorn the air he moved through, like air was some invisible enemy of ours he’d beaten with skills that were the opposite of his terrible swimming.
But here’s the point. It was one of those days after the weekend we hung out with Tony. I was home. Maybe getting clothes to take back to Keith’s. There’s a bedroom downstairs in the back of the duplex. It’s on a hill, so there’s a door to the outside back there too.
So that day I’m in the basement and I walk past the open bathroom door. In the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of the mirror. But for a second my brain tells me that the mirror is a window and out the window there is a white boy walking in the backyard. At this my mind’s chin points up and in the white boy’s direction. Then someone in my head says, “pfff—hair stay looking goofy.” Then I feel my brain lean toward me and ask, like with an elbow in the ribs, “Yo, who’s the white boy in the backyard?” Someone else in my brain says, “He need to backyard his goofy-hair-having-ass back off somewhere else ’fore he get his head peeled.”
It’s like the running stream of riffs about all the white people around us from the weekend is still happening—which it is—in my head. And also I had that feeling like: Am I wrong, or was Keith’s cousin trying to be both all up on me and all up under me all weekend? And did he call me what I think I heard him call me while he was trying not to drown, splashing through that nasty green water to the bank of the Tenney Park lagoon? I’m not sure. But now I’m here alone. It’s just me. And now—yo, there’s some white boy in the backyard. And then, almost in Keith’s cousin’s voice, I hear myself think, Man, fuck that white boy. Almost. Then another part of my brain informs me that that is not a window: “All y’all know that’s a mirror, right?” Then it hits me. So if that’s a mirror and here I am by myself looking at that mirror, then—well, yeah, then that white boy is me? But that doesn’t fit at all. And we know what happens then.
A whole crowd of voices. “What me?” one voice asks. “Who says that’s me?” asks another. Then it’s one of those everyone-talks-at-once situations where the loudest one wins no matter what kind of shit they talking. “Okay, it’s me. But that white-boy-part ain’t me.” “Who says?” someone asks. “Who’s asking!?” “Man, fuck you.” “You don’t know me.” Now everybody’s all up on everybody in my head. Instinctively, as we’d do in such an argument, I feel the impulse to turn toward someone I can tap and say, “Yo, tell ’em. I ain’t got to say shit.” Then I’d cross my arms and stand there while whatever it was got told because whoever it was I tapped said what needed to be said. That’s how that worked.
But there’s no one to tap.
In life, all this everybody-all-up-on-everybody’s-noise was common enough, and no one seemed to keep track of who meant exactly what behind much if any of it. It was just a pool to swim in; together. So why was I all up in my head and tripping now?
And there I was at fourteen, in the basement of our rented half of the duplex, thinking about it as if for the first time. What it all meant. I stood there in that basement thinking that I would decide who and what was important to me and become whoever and whatever I needed to in order for it to matter.
And I know that when fourteen-year-old me said “I will decide,” he assumed he wasn’t doing it alone. He assumed—wrongly—that there would always be someone to tap. Assumed I will decide meant Just ask somebody. I thought if I was wrong, let the world prove it. Squared off with whatever the mirror was gonna try next. Or let it be a window. I stood there thinking: Let it try. And try it would. And then, man, how the people to tap disappeared, like a soft last breath from dying lips.
Or maybe it was me who disappeared.
Every day, when I wake up, I sense that the whole dilemma is right there against my eyeballs all over again. And after these few decades of life, it’s the same thing, it’s the same trip, really. The choice seems to be either pass for white (which feels like death) or pose as Black (which has never been the point). And my determination scurries like a rat in a cage searching for a way to prompt people to acknowledge some viable, if only momentary, connection between my identity and my experience, which must be a version of an undiscovered or unadmitted American experience, a sense of ourselves and other people that happened here. And happens still. It would seem like a mundane fact that our identities are our experiences, and our experiences involve each other. But in my experience, this fact seems inadmissible to the court of identity. So every day, “color” (which Baldwin said works “anonymously”) lurks, or leaps, or just lays up and waits, and, when stamina allows, I get busy coaxing and conjuring shades (that operate “intimately”) to narrow the division between my experience and my sense of self, that division that the world calls racial.
In the third decade of the twenty-first century, it feels like those twin simplicities I mentioned earlier—that our experience is one-dimensional and that, if there are multidimensions, they lie within boundaries set by genetically inherited racial signatures—still reign over us. Unlike color, which is cultural and historical and produced by relationships, and shades, which are ever-changing, the favored approach is racial—reductive, systemic, and fixed. And while it would seem that racial identities are collective, they actually function individually like private property. A would-be collective based on a lie—like race—lacks the force of vital relationships and, without that force, is just another mob. These dynamics mostly stifle and deny the complex (perhaps nonbinary) action that constitutes my life as a person, a partner, a parent, and even as a should be Pavlić, the roots of which I’ve attempted to describe here, mirrored in a few maybe futile flashes. And mobs can only attack. All the while, the world broadcasts its message: Shades need not apply; color is fixed, it’s racial.
A few years after my shifts standing on the ninth-floor balcony impersonating the rain, I found my way to putting words on to pages. I met Yusef Komunyakaa, who showed me I’d already been writing and hadn’t known it. By then, cornered in the mid-nineties and following Yusef’s cryptic (mostly facial) responses to my fledgling poems, writing became a last-ditch way to be the rain. I mean, what did I know? It was a Hail Mary, a shot at the buzzer. I went for it. And I kept on with Baldwin, deep with him, reading, rereading, and reciting. More than a dozen books and decades later—in mid-May 2022—almost exactly fifty years to the day after it happened, I discovered an incredible talk Baldwin gave on a Friday night (May 26, 1972) at the Inner-City Theater in Los Angeles. I was five years old then. In all my reading of and about Baldwin, I’d never seen mention of this talk. Not a word. Actually, in a letter to his brother David that no one’s allowed to see, he mentions it. But that’s it. Listening to the garbled archival recording, I was, as I often am, moved to type it all out. Baldwin spoke to an audience affiliated with the Committee of the Arts to Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners. Davis’s trial for murder, kidnapping, and criminal conspiracy had begun that March and would end with her acquittal on June 4, a little more than a week after Baldwin’s appearance in Los Angeles.
Baldwin begins his talk by mentioning that he had “had lunch with a little boy, my godson, who is four years old, who really is sort of gingerbread color; he’s legally Black.” This would be David and Sharon Moses’s son. He told the audience that the purpose of his talk was to “suggest to you what the actual intentions of this country are toward this boy.” Speaking extemporaneously, Baldwin recounted a harrowing and visionary hypothetical story that finished in a finale of ideas such as: “The only way that I can begin to apprehend how any Black person is still alive in this country, much less living, is to suspect that perhaps the African sense of history involved the sense of the person as a vehicle of history.” And Baldwin thought the essential fuel of that vehicle was musical. He said, to much applause, “Europe proves, and America proves, that a history written down is nothing but a collection of lies.” And after a pause to allow the clapping to cease: “But when I am in trouble, I can sing the blues.” I listened—as if to music—and typed his words wishing everyone could hear them and feeling like this speech had been hidden from all of us.
As it happened, after the talk, in the Q&A session, which was also recorded, I found myself transcribing another mirrored reflection. Immediately, when I glimpsed it, this mirror explained the other two: my sister’s photo of the twenty-four-year-old, light-skinned dude in the suit; and the fourteen-year-old “fuck that white boy” in the bathroom “window.” Because of the warring—so-called racial—polarities of our culture, it’s rare that I catch a glimpse of a mirror that’s not either impossibly obscure or so radically—violently—anonymous that I attack it with shades just to see myself at all. When I do catch such an honest glimpse in a mirror, usually, directly or indirectly, it comes from Baldwin. And I know I’m not alone in this; it’s why so many of us listen to him, again and again, as closely as we do, which of course is what it was all about for him: that we see further into ourselves—and each other—through what he did than we could have otherwise.
In this Q&A, members from the audience wrote their questions on cards that were passed to Baldwin, who read them aloud and then answered as well as he could. That evening he read and answered eighteen wide-ranging questions. The first question, and Baldwin’s extemporized response, set up a surprising and sharply focused mirror for this listener listening along fifty years later. Baldwin read the question:
Mr. Baldwin, the feeling of ‘brotherhood of man’ can be harmful to the Black liberation movement if it instills in too many of us Blacks a sense of fellowship with whites. It will in a sense water down our struggle for unity and for making it on our own as a Black group. Do you believe this? And what are you doing to eliminate this ‘brotherhood of man’ trend?
Baldwin weaves his way around this question and its statement accommodating and quarreling with the terms.
“Well, it’s a very serious question,” he says, “and I’ll do my best to tell you what I think. I must tell you honestly, myself, that I’ve not noticed in my own experience that the feeling of ‘brotherhood of man’ has been of particular danger anywhere in the world. But I know what my questioner means.”
Baldwin goes round and round for a minute or two and returns to the question by “coming back to my godson again.” He says he understands that he could never leave his godson “in the hands of most white people,” which predicament I recognized immediately and intimately. Baldwin then presents precisely what lay before that five-year-old me in 1972. He doesn’t put it in terms of shades, since he hasn’t yet lifted that vocabulary (“his shades, comparatively, and his comparative sense for shades”) from Henry James—from the preface to his 1884 novel Lady Barbarina—to be placed between Arthur and Guy in Just Above My Head for me to discover in the fall of 1987.
Instead, he says: “We are all colors, all of us. And, in fact, the country has never been a white country; part of its problem is that it can never face this fact…. If a white person is able to liberate himself from being white, which is a state of mind, it has nothing to do with the color of his skin, it has to do with the way he thinks—what he thinks reality is and the way he thinks of himself. If he’s able to do that, he’s become a brother; if he’s not able to do that, he’ll probably be doomed.”
Baldwin was often accused of exaggerating or pontificating when he spoke this way. I wonder what we’d make of him standing there and saying it today. Counting from the age of five, it took twenty years for me to live my way into the exact conclusion (“become a brother” or “be doomed”) that Baldwin improvised his way toward in his response to that first question, in May 1972, speaking to the Committee of the Arts to Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners, in the days just before Davis was acquitted, wiped away her tears, and walked out of the courtroom and into the bright dangers in the San Jose sunshine. In the early ’70s, I knew very little about any of that, but I was already wearing the world’s colors and leaning into shades. Then, as now, and according to many rivers crossed, the stakes that Baldwin established in his response set up precisely the stakes as far as my experience testifies: “shades cannot be fixed; color is, eternally, at the mercy of the light.”