The Black Artists Leaving America

The Black Artists Leaving America

SOME ARTISTS FIND peace and power in the state of transience. Brian Keith Jackson, a writer who grew up in Louisiana and now, at age 53, identifies as a “vagabond,” was living in New York when, in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, he felt the city’s energy change. He had published three works of fiction, including a vibrant 2002 novel of manners and masquerade, “The Queen of Harlem,” but, he says, “I didn’t feel good.” He left for Beijing, where he had visited once before, in 2007, when he and the artist Mickalene Thomas had gone to visit Jackson’s friend the painter and fellow wanderer Kehinde Wiley. Jackson stayed in China for five years, then moved on to Tunisia and, over the years, frequently visited Dakar, Senegal, drawn by the water and by Wiley, who established an artist’s colony, Black Rock Senegal, there in 2019. Jackson returned to Dakar in February of 2020 for what he thought would be another short visit, but ended up staying, through the Covid-19 lockdown, for over a year — not only in Dakar, but inside. When we spoke in May, he estimated he had left his house 15 times. It was unnerving not to have a doctor or a hospital in the midst of a pandemic, yet empowering to be in a Black country. “We all talk about, ‘Oh, representation matters,’ like in the newsroom and on television,” he says, “but it’s still minuscule compared to being completely surrounded by people who look like you.” They aren’t all good or bad, of course, but the experience of living among them is restorative: “I think people need that,” he says.

The need for Black community is no less pressing in majority-white spaces. Gallagher notes that Rotterdam is unique among European cities, in that people of color live in the center. That’s where “everybody wants to be,” she says, “like in New York.” (She keeps a second home in Brooklyn.) Ladd likewise began to feel at ease in Paris when he found areas that resembled New York: He rented a recording studio in the banlieue of St. Denis, which is like “the Bronx or Brooklyn of Paris,” he says, because “you’re surrounded by people of color.” It’s not that he feels politically safer in France. “We keep a jump bag,” he says, in case French nationalists gain more power and his family needs to leave. But he does feel more physically secure. He was walking down his street one day shortly after his move when it dawned on him: “There are no guns here — and 35 years of subconscious pressure just shot right out of my body.”

To some extent, the U.S. passport gives African American artists not only mobility but also protection from the abuses sustained by people of color elsewhere in the world. In the 1950s, Baldwin felt his Americanness acutely when he saw how brutally Algerians were treated in France; their struggle for independence from French colonial rule was not his war, and his nationality partially exempted him from its consequences. For all that has changed in the decades since, Americans of all ethnicities are still often seen as the agents of empire, and their reputation for arrogance and jingoism persists. Jackson tries not to reinforce that stereotype — “I’m always respectful that I am a visitor,” he says — while being aware that this state of not belonging cuts both ways for the Black traveler. He writes in a 2010 essay of leaving one store in Brazil for another in search of cooking ingredients and being stopped by police who assumed the Black men in the car (a group that included Wiley) were buying drugs. The cops, like many men in the Rio de Janeiro favela, were armed. As Bland notes, biases of class, color, nationality, sexuality and gender “just shift around” from place to place. She describes being hounded by neo-Nazis in Germany and being propositioned in Italy, while dining alone, by men who assumed she was a prostitute. She has spent her life defying these assumptions, even if she can’t escape them.

Credit…Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, gift of the Baldwin Family

IT CAN BE hard to locate oneself among such shifting affiliations and prejudices, but also to affix one’s identity to spaces that are themselves always in flux. Jackson describes the changes he witnesses in Dakar — the dust storms and coastal tides, as well as the rapid urban development underway even during a pandemic. The spot where Bland, and then her children, once played in SoHo was converted into a dog park. Amid these changes, these artists turn to constants: Jackson’s methodical revision process, rewriting everything as he incorporates edits to his novel in progress; the decision Ladd made, long ago, to privilege family over work. (“This is totally off the record,” he tells me, “because I don’t want my family to develop some kind of neurosis … but they’re kind of my platinum record.”)

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