SOME ARTISTS FIND peace and power in the ephemeral state. Brian Keith Jackson, a writer who grew up in Louisiana and now, at 53, defines himself as a “wanderer,” was living in New York City when, following the financial collapse of 2008, he felt the energy of the city change. He had published three works of fiction, including a vibrant 2002 moral and masquerade novel, “The Queen of Harlem,” but, he says, “I didn’t feel well.” He left for Beijing, where he had visited once before, in 2007, when he and artist Mickalene Thomas went to visit Jackson’s friend, painter and traveling companion Kehinde Wiley. Jackson remained in China for five years, then moved to Tunisia, and over the years frequently visited Dakar, Senegal, drawn to the water and to Wiley, who established an artists’ colony there, Black Rock. Senegal, in 2019. Jackson returned to Dakar in February 2020 for what he thought was another short visit, but ended up staying, during the Covid-19 lockdown, for over a year – not just in Dakar. , corn inside. When we spoke in May, he estimated that he had left his house 15 times. It was annoying not having a doctor or a hospital in the middle of a pandemic, yet stimulating being in a black country. “We all talk about ‘Oh representation matters’, like in the newsroom and on TV,” he says, “but it’s still tiny compared to being completely surrounded by people like you. . ” They’re not all good or bad, of course, but the experience of living among them is restorative: “I think people need this,” he says.
The need for a black community is no less pressing in predominantly white spaces. Gallagher notes that Rotterdam is unique among European cities, in that people of color live in the center. This is where “everyone wants to be,” she says, “like in New York”. (She has a second home in Brooklyn.) Ladd also began to feel comfortable in Paris when he discovered neighborhoods that looked like New York: he rented a recording studio in the suburb of Saint-Denis, which looks like “the Bronx or Brooklyn of Paris”, he says, because “you are surrounded by people of color”. It’s not that he feels politically safer in France. “We keep a carrying bag,” he said, in case the French nationalists gain power and his family has to leave. But he feels more secure physically. He was walking down his street one day shortly after moving when he realized, “There are no guns here – and 35 years of unconscious pressure has just come out of my body.
To some extent, the US passport provides African-American artists not only with mobility, but also protection against abuse suffered by people of color elsewhere in the world. In the 1950s, Baldwin felt his Americanity keenly 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. Despite all that changed in the decades that followed, Americans of all ethnicities are still often seen as agents of the empire, and their reputation for arrogance and chauvinism persists. Jackson tries not to reinforce this stereotype – “I always respect the fact that I am a visitor,” he says – while also being aware that this state of non-belonging is a two-way street for the black traveler. He writes in a 2010 essay that he left one store in Brazil for another in search of cooking ingredients and that he was arrested by police who assumed that the black men in the car (a group which included Wiley) were buying drugs. The cops, like many men in the favela in Rio de Janeiro, were armed. As Bland notes, prejudices of class, color, nationality, sexuality, and gender simply “shift” from place to place. She describes being stalked by neo-Nazis in Germany and being offered in Italy, while dining alone, by men who thought she was a prostitute. She has spent her life challenging these assumptions, even though she cannot escape them.
IT CAN BE difficult to situate oneself among these shifting affiliations and prejudices, but also to affix one’s identity to spaces which are themselves always on the move. Jackson describes the changes he is witnessing in Dakar – dust storms and coastal tides, as well as the rapid urban development underway even during a pandemic. The place where Bland and his children once played in SoHo has been turned into a dog park. In the midst of these changes, these artists turn to constants: Jackson’s methodical revision process, rewriting everything as he incorporates edits into his current novel; Ladd’s long-ago decision to put family over work. (“It’s totally confidential,” he tells me, “because I don’t want my family to develop some kind of neurosis… but it’s kind of my platinum record.”)