Beholding My Country at a Distance


I moved away from America while on the eve of completing my first book. It was a coincidence, but I couldn’t help but fantasize how that small detail connected me with my heroes. I was a black man reflecting on a black boyhood in America from an ocean away. How could I not consider the most gorgeous of those goliaths who did the same — James Baldwin. He left Harlem for Paris when he was my age, 24. In an interview late in life, he clarified, “It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France — it was a matter of getting out of America.” Baldwin felt certain that America would destroy him were he to stick around long enough. His flight was an act of self-preservation. Of survival.

Mine, blessedly, was one of exploration. Always prophetic, Baldwin understood. In a 1977 interview, he said, “A lot of young American’s white or black, rich or poor, have wanted to get away, as a means of getting closer to themselves.” Indeed, I searched for myself and thought I might find me in an unlikely place. I hoped distance would lend me some truths about my home country and its sins. I chose Australia.

I spent February in Melbourne, which is, by any measure, a global metropolis. Like New York, it has its own skyscrapers, and falafel joints, and railcars, and bodegas. Like New York, its energy keeps people quick-footed and concise. How nice it was to discover a familiar thing in a place so far from all I knew. And yet, something left me unsettled.

I strolled about Melbourne for four full days before seeing another black man.

I grew up in Philly, a place where urban life is synonymous with black people, my people. An eerie feeling comes with finding all the markers of our existence, only to discover we’ve been cleanly subtracted.

Our absence put me on edge. I grew hypersensitive to each side-eye and rude remark. I awaited the racist confrontation that would certainly soon arrive.

But one never did.

I encountered only goodwill. Every cab stopped. Every walker continued walking on my side of the street. Every shopkeeper in every fancy shop inquired how I could be helped. Even while vigilant, I spotted none of those indications of my inferiority that are, in America, mundane. Whatever hatred Australia may have of me, it could not be accused of constructing its entire society upon it the way my country has. This place is too preoccupied with its own sins to waste any hate on ours. From another hemisphere, so much of America’s prejudice that I’d known seemed to be a faraway, forgettable thing for me.

But that was early February. Before Ahmaud. Before Breonna. Before George. Before distressed thousands reclaimed those streets I once knew. Before, to borrow the phrase, America’s chickens came home to roost.

Recent events have delivered a seemingly opposite realization: My nation’s hatred is boundless. A passport cannot grant me escape from it. It poisons from within.

I may have been one of but a handful of people in Australia, to feel those most intimate aspects of despair brought about by the destruction of George Floyd — but I did feel them. I wept in a way that I hadn’t since the destruction of Michael Brown, which is to say that I made it nearly six years of adult life without faltering under the weight of dead, unarmed, black Americans. A new record.

I have followed the protests born of these crimes. Forced to look on from a distance, I feel I am witnessing the fall of Rome. It leaves me conflicted in a way I haven’t been before. I love my people, and I weep when we fall. But while in a foreign place, I realize that I love my country as well, in no small part because it was built on my people. And despite its wickedness, I cannot bring myself to dance upon its rubble as I thought I someday might.

Always prophetic, Baldwin understood: “It is a spiritual disaster to pretend that one (SET ITAL)doesn’t(END ITAL) love one’s country. You may disapprove of it, you may be forced to leave it, you may live your whole life as a battle, yet I don’t think you can escape it.”

Thus, I am pained twice: once for the destruction of a place I love, and again for the innocents it has destroyed.

And perhaps also, there is a third pain: understanding that the demise of Ahmaud, and Breonna, and George means that that country was never mine at all. It is the pain of being reminded once more that my love is an unrequited one.

With each passing day, my heartache gives way to fear. I fear for the beautiful black souls who I love and left in that place I thought I knew. I fear also for myself, knowing I will return to a nation that, for even the slightest cause, or no cause at all, would have me dead.

I remember what kept my idol away from home:“I had to leave; I needed to be in a place where I could breathe and not feel someone’s hand on my throat.”

Always prophetic, Baldwin understood.

Cole Brown is author of “Greyboy: Finding Blackness In A White World.” Follow him on social media @Cole.brown.

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