How James Baldwin Saved Me

Midnight on Christmas morning 1979 in Phoenix, Arizona was not like the ones before, when it was just me and mama. I didn’t dream of the presents I’d open later in the day. I wasn’t thinking of toys like The Six Million Dollar Man or Pulsar action figures that Santa brought me when I was seven and eight. No, I was scared, staring up at the ceiling as my stepfather screamed terrible words at mama in their small bedroom. Mama wasn’t the crying type before she married him a few months before in June. My heart thumped hard against my chest as I lay in my bed. With my stepfather yelling at mama, I was afraid to fall asleep.

One month and three days before my tenth birthday and I was miserable. When mama married my stepfather, a construction worker from a middle-class black family in south Phoenix, I think she assumed our lives would be better. Maybe that’s why she quit her job at the Revlon manufacturing plant, where she’d been for nine years.

My stepfather drank a lot. And he yelled at mama too much. I’d even seen him slap her a few times. I couldn’t see how we had it better with him.

I didn’t feel the pain from my head hitting the towel bar until I saw mama standing behind him…

I did want a dad like the rest of the kids at school. But I wanted my dad, the one that at seven I found out mama never told about me. Was it because she didn’t want to share me with him? I definitely knew I didn’t want the man in the room with her.

Around 1:00 a.m. I slid out of bed and walked by their bedroom to the bathroom. Seconds after closing the door, it flew open. My stepfather’s large body stood over me. “What’s fuckin’ wrong with you, boy? You slammed the door!” I glared up at him. “What are you talking about?” I was terrified, but I was tired too. I was tired of hearing how he talked to mama.

He yelled back, “What did you say?” And before I could answer back, the knuckles from his dark brown fist smashed against my cheek. Falling back against the towel rack, I didn’t feel how badly it hurt until I saw dots of my blood soak into the faded beige towels. I didn’t feel the pain from my head hitting the towel bar until I saw mama standing behind him, her dark brown shoulder-length straightened hair a mess around her face. As she pushed around him, I saw that her beige slip was tight across her belly. That’s right, I remembered. She’s going to have a baby.

Over the next few years, in Phoenix and for a few years in Fresno, California, scenes like the one above played out in our household. Thankfully, I’d eventually meet someone whose story helped me survive the violence that swirled around me. His name was John Grimes, a teen in the semi-autobiographical 1953 novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain, by American author James Baldwin. I first read the book when I was fourteen. An avid reader since I was five, I discovered Mr. Baldwin’s first published work one spring afternoon, while combing through the fiction section at the Fresno County Public Library. Pulling the book off the shelf, I walked to a secluded corner near a floor-to-ceiling window and flipped to the first chapter.

…James Baldwin reinforced my awareness that I didn’t have to limit myself to the expectations of those around me.

This is when I found out that my story of verbal and physical abuse by my stepfather, and emotional neglect from my mother, was not just my story. Someone lived it before me. For the first time in my young life, I didn’t feel alone. Devouring page after page of John Grimes’ experiences, it shocked me to see my thoughts on paper, written by someone else years before I was born. Although John existed within a 1930s Harlem, New York family, I still saw pieces of myself in James Baldwin’s words.

After reading Go Tell It On The Mountain, I returned to the library in search of anything with James Baldwin’s name on it. Over time, I’d discover that Mr. Baldwin lived most of his adult life outside of the United States, mainly in France. This led me on the path of finding out that black people didn’t exist solely within the confines of America. I learned that Mr. Baldwin was an expatriate, “someone who does not live in their own country (Cambridge Dictionary).” At the time I was surviving in Fresno, a desert town in the center of California. So the word sounded lush, daring, and exciting. Learning about James Baldwin reinforced my awareness that I didn’t have to limit myself to the expectations of those around me. Not just in my home, but in the world surrounding me.

James Baldwin’s life as a writer and as a world traveler for a time became my blueprint for what it could mean to be an artist. I didn’t admit it to anyone, but my dream after college was to become an urbane expatriate writer living abroad. What I didn’t know then, was that I’d first need to wade through the forest of my traumas, fears, and insecurities. Most of my twenties revolved around suppressing these truths. But with the help of close friends and therapy, I eventually walked through my childhood memories, sloughing off the shame surrounding them.

In August 2015, at the suggestion of a Swedish friend living in Los Angeles, I visited Stockholm, Sweden for the first time. Despite knowing next to nothing about the country, upon arrival I felt an instant connection to it. And spent the next few years visiting, slowly building up a community of friends. Discovering Sweden coincided with my return to school to earn a degree in graphic design. Something I’d been doing for several years. Both events reignited my aspirations of becoming a writer and living abroad. Thus, after twenty-seven years of living in Los Angeles, and over twenty years employed with the same company, I decided to give it a go.

I’ve been living in Europe since October 2019, mainly in Sweden. With being here, I feel that I’ve returned to the heart of my 14-year-old self, the one saved by James Baldwin and his stories of honesty and acceptance as a black gay American. Embracing the gift of writing, I see too that my creativity must come from a place of knowledge and experience if it is to feel authentic.

In my youth, a belief that I needed to reinvent myself fueled my dreams. Which included distancing myself from my family of origin. Today I know this isn’t healthy living. Who I am today accepts where I come from. Which helps me to feel better about myself. I don’t believe I’m too old to pursue my aspirations. And I’m no longer divorced from my past. I don’t live in it, but I do own it. I hope this means I’m accepting who I am. And allowing myself to become who I’ve always been.

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Erick Taylor Woodby

Erick Taylor Woodby

Writer and host of “Our Black Gay Diaspora Podcast,” for black LGBTQ+ citizens to inspire and educate on who they are in their countries and professions.