By Curtis Price
July 14, 2020
John Bell, a son of the South, moved to those “Cities of despair/ Where black and white fight over the same grey jobs/ They both came north for” (I am probably mangling from memory the poem by Phillip Levine). I never knew much of John’s early life before he ended up in Baltimore except that he had done time in North Carolina and served in ‘Nam.
Baltimore – a cramped, monotonous city of no-trees, no-grass, brick row-houses stacked like coffins on end with white marble sarcophagi steps, each embalmed with thwarted life. Then and now, Baltimore can only tear down, it never builds up; it destroys, not nurtures. John either developed or brought north his heroin habit, I can’t say which.
“This is the dark time, my love/All round the land brown beetles crawl about./The shining sun is hidden in the sky/Red flowers bend their heads in awful sorrow” – Martin Carter, Guyanese poet
I met John in crisis in the late 80s while working as a street outreach worker/case manager for IVDUs with HIV. He had tested positive for HIV and like so many at the time, his life collapsed before his very eyes. This was pre-AZT, where the only drug available was “hope,” that pharmaceutical of doubtful efficacy.
It’s hard from the vantage point of today to remember the war-like intensity of that era. Gay men with AIDS volunteering at the agency where I worked would disappear and then you would hear in whispers that so-and-so had tied a plastic bag around his head and “called it a day.” The Larouchites held meetings calling for quarantine and claiming mosquitoes spread HIV: The only people who came to those meetings were poor black folk with HIV. The director of a Black Nationalist clinic in DC “discovered” a cure for AIDS from Kenya called Kemron which he claimed was being “suppressed” by the white supremacist medical establishment. Poor people from Baltimore dropped out of medical care and spent their last dime running to DC to get this “miracle” treatment which like most miracles cost dear and failed to deliver. The white doctors at Hopkins knew it was a fraud but were afraid of being labeled “racist” by speaking out. So the doctors stayed mum, demonstrating, then and now, how white guilt can harm black lives as much as white hatred.
In this maelstrom, John always kept cool. His burning intense eyes and an aura of calm radiated to those around him. But behind this surface, he was riven with conflict and uncertainty. He would repeatedly relapse, disappear into the streets and the shooting galleries, then go into rehab. “Rinse, lather, repeat”: building his life up and smashing it down. Fortunately, John had a good union job with the railroad with seemingly inexhaustible rehab benefits. (As an aside, knowing that John’s job was to inspect the track for damage in northern Maryland and knowing too that half the time, John would be nodded out in his Amtrak truck, I always held my breath catching the train until it passed into Pennsylvania. )
One day I heard that John had signed himself into a rehab program in Philadelphia, which also had a long-term half-way house. When he finished, he decided to stay in Philly, a move that probably saved his life by escaping from the stagnation and slow-motion death that is Baltimore.
He got involved in Philadelphia Act-Up, which alone among Act-Ups was dominated by straight black and Puerto Rican people in recovery. His quiet charisma came to the fore and he quickly became a leading member. He spearheaded a counseling program to inmates with HIV and traveled all over the state giving presentations. He was arrested many times for civil disobedience in Act-Up actions. When I’d visit him in Philly, he was always excited about some new project or workshop he was giving. He teased me and said all that “hippy, Commie, pinko” stuff I talked to him had finally sunk in.
How do people change and remake themselves, why do some remain prisoner of their environment and others challenge it, even when they are both subject to the same external conditions? It seems to me that this consciousness is truly an independent factor; a wildcard not determined by structure alone. Whatever the chain of causation, John Bell escaped his chains. He killed his past to become his future.
When John died, his partner Gloria asked me to speak at the memorial meeting because I was the one person who linked John’s past and present. The room was packed with people from Narcotics Anonymous, Nation of Islam, gay men, lesbians, and transgenders – and the former Commissioner of the Pennsylvania prison system: a true testimony to the impact John had on people.
When I got up to speak, I said there are two types of people, “circle-the-wagon” types and bridge types. The circle-the-wagon types associate and mingle only with people sharing their identity or views while bridge people cross boundaries and disregard socially imposed branding. Bridges, of course, can get stepped on but they always lead to somewhere else. John Bell was of this latter mettle. Today, the “circle the wagons” types can be seen most clearly in identity politics, the cramped, stifling dogma that reduces human complexity to a group label, something that John’s life in practice was admirably a direct refutation of. Today, a clinic serving newly-released inmates in Philadelphia, the John Bell Health Center, bears his name; a fitting tribute.