During the night of the 2008 presidential election, I was standing in front of the News & Observer newsroom watching the state-by-state voting results on a trio of television screens tuned to CNN, MSNBC, and a local news outlet.

As Barack Obama came closer to his historic victory, I grew nervous and decided to take a walk. I ended up at the apartment of my fellow journalist and close friend James Powell, who was watching the voting returns on CNN.

It was a giddy time. A Black man stood one hell of a chance of becoming the president.

Powell unscrewed the cap off of the box of Franzia crisp white wine he always had on hand and poured me a glass before settling down on the couch next to me.

We howled when the CNN newscast featured election night parties in unlikely places like Harlem and Kenya. Then, Wolf Blitzer announced that “Barack Obama, 47 years old, will become the president of the United States.”

Powell and I leaped off of that tan couch and jumped up and down with glee. We were euphoric, standing on his front porch, screaming.

Kind of hard to believe that was 14 years ago.

This year, on August 1, Powell died.

He was 47.

I couldn’t let the year pass without writing about Powell, a great friend and coworker who became my neighbor after my marriage ended.

Powell—I never called him James, sometimes he went by “Jaymes”—was a first-rate character in a newsroom filled with characters. He was a helluva writer, a contrarian by definition who loved wine, a blunt of good marijuana, women by the bushel, and song, preferably New Edition. He must have weighed 150 pounds soaking wet but fancied himself a swashbuckling wide receiver who, with a few breaks, could have ended up in the NFL.

Aaron Pankey, a Washington, DC, pastor and Howard University alum delivered the eulogy at Powell’s memorial service. The eulogy was not without laughter. Pankey said Powell contacted him two years ago and announced that he had been invited to try out for a semi-pro football league.

“I asked him, ‘Jay, is it sponsored by the AARP?’” Pankey said.

The day after Powell died, another former N&O journalist, the film critic Craig D. Lindsey, posted a short tribute on social media. Lindsey’s first sentence summed up the sentiments of a great many folks who knew Powell.

“At one point in my life,” Lindsey wrote, “Jaymes Powell was the craziest sumabitch I ever knew.”

“Oh, the stories I could tell about this first-rate bullshit artist. He often wore Mardi Gras beads. He used to bust my balls, questioning my Blackness because I hadn’t seen THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR at the time,” Lindsey wrote.

Lindsey had been one of Powell’s deskmates on the second floor of the old sprawling N&O building on McDowell Street in downtown Raleigh, where the features, sports, and arts writers and editors worked.

“He once tried to sue the paper we both worked for because he allegedly heard one of the editors call him an old-school racial slur,” Lindsey wrote. “(The twist: The editor was Black.) He used to heat up cooking oil with a bunch of seasoning in his kitchen, so the apartment wouldn’t smell like weed and his upstairs neighbor, apparently a member of the clergy, wouldn’t complain. He once told me, when he was a kid, he left a bag of porn DVDs on his bed. When he came back, his mother cleaned up his room and wrote ‘Jaymes’s Porn’ on the bag.”

“And these are the stories I can tell you,” Lindsey wrote.

During his memorial service on September 23, Powell’s friends and family described an indefatigable talker and selfless friend, who could be mischievous as a child but also spent a goodly part of his childhood visiting homeless shelters with his mother and sister to distribute tissues, lotion, and encouragement to the residents. A people person and “completely unscripted” was how a Howard University classmate described him. Another classmate remembered how he had tried to build a fireplace in his dorm room, “for the ladies.” Yet another classmate said Powell would merrily dump trash in front of their dorm room door.

Pankey, during his eulogy, recalled Powell visiting his church for the first time in 2002 with his girlfriend. The college couple, both wearing Howard University journalism sweatshirts, sat in the front row where they laughed, talked, and elbowed one another during the entire service. Afterward, the pastor looked forward to meeting the couple.

“What’s up, my Negro?” Powell said to the pastor. “You preached the entire sermon using improper English!”

“Jay was a shooting star,” one of his cousins said at his service. “You couldn’t hold a shooting star.”

During the period when my marriage was going bad but had not yet crashed on the rocks, I would stop by Powell’s crib after work for a glass of wine and a puff of weed. Talking a mile a minute in a voice brimming over with endless enthusiasm and laughter, Powell was a different type of Mr. Excitement, and a balm for my wounded heart.

Before he married in 2013, Powell had at least four or five girlfriends who were always coming and going.

My cousin Barry Saunders, who also worked for the N&O, used to joke that Powell’s blues song would be a lament about having too many pretty women, and we wondered: What in the world did all of those highly attractive women see in Powell? He certainly wasn’t anyone’s idea of a bronze Adonis.

Saunders surmised that women wanted to take care of him, reform his errant ways, and maybe feed him a good meal.

One year the National Association of Black Journalists held its annual convention in Las Vegas, and the big story in the newsroom after the convention was that Big Fluff—another newsroom character—had scored a lap dance. That created quite a buzz; meanwhile, Powell spent most of his time at the convention hiding from two women he was dating at the time.

The skinny guy with the big ears was big-time smart, too, and socially conscious, with a nose for solid sports journalism. One of his more memorable stories while writing for the N&O was a piece that chronicled the absence of Black athletes in Major League Baseball, a half century after Jackie Robinson crossed the color line.

James Leonard Powell Jr. was born September 23, 1974, in Fairfax, Virginia, and grew up in Newport News, Virginia, and Upper Marlboro, Maryland. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in journalism from his beloved Howard University in 1999.

By the time Powell arrived at the N&O, he was already a classic ink-stained wretch and a welcome addition to a lively metro newsroom that, at the time, was ranked among the top 25 newspapers in the country.

Prior to covering the sports beat for the N&O, he worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where he wrote about the Minnesota Vikings. He also served as a sports editor with The Source Sports magazine and was eventually named the publication’s executive sports editor.

While at The Source Sports, his obituary noted, he covered every major sport, including the NFL, NBA, MLB, and professional boxing with feature stories about Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather.

When Powell left the N&O, he founded the short-lived online news site The Journalism Element. He also traded in his reporter’s notebooks to work as a communications director with the North Carolina Democratic Party.

Powell was committed to fighting for underserved populations, voter rights, racial injustice, and unhoused citizens. He wanted “to help level the playing field for Black children through access to high-speed Internet” and “[rebuild]the roads and sidewalks in Black communities,” which he described as “bridges to food, work, and progress,” his family stated in his obituary.

Powell’s sister, Natasha Powell, an emergency room physician living in Washington, DC, told me her brother died of gastrointestinal bleeding.

I’m no one’s doctor, but I think my good friend died of a broken heart.

One of the happiest times of Powell’s life was his wedding day on November 16, 2013. I still have the wedding invitation. Powell, the ultimate wild hair, the embodiment of id, had settled down and married a woman he deeply loved. He was 39. I can still remember Powell and his radiant bride dancing together during the reception held at the Raleigh Convention Center following their marital ceremony at Jones Chapel. The lovestruck couple moved into a three-story town house in North Raleigh. They were married for about seven years, when Powell’s wife moved out.

Powell called me, shrieking, screaming. It took me a few minutes to understand what he was saying: his wife had left him.

I called her, and she shared with me an element of Powell’s life that I was not aware of: he struggled with mental illness.

Powell had never shared his medical condition with me. Of course he wouldn’t. Mental illness is stigmatized, and those with the condition are often marginalized. Never mind that mental illness should be viewed as a chronic health problem not unlike diabetes or high blood pressure. Mental illness is a reality in America. According to Mental Health America, in 2020, nearly 21 percent of adults in this country were experiencing mental illness.

I used to think that every Black person in this country should be in therapy, myself included. Now, after the agonies of a pandemic and a political crisis that metastasized with the election of a man no more fit to be president than the assistant produce manager at the local Food Lion, I think that everyone in the United States could benefit from some form of post-traumatic therapy.

A tragic component of mental illness can be that some people who suffer from the condition don’t think anything is wrong with them. Sometimes, even if family members convince a mentally ill loved one to seek help, the treatment centers turn them away. Way too often, a mentally ill person finally gets the attention that’s needed after a disaster takes place.

“[Powell] never acknowledged his mental illness,” his sister told the INDY this week. “He would say he had anxieties or was depressed.”

Powell’s former wife told me that she was aware of his mental health struggles before they married and supported him. But over the course of their union he stopped taking his medication and self-medicated instead with alcohol and marijuana. So she moved out.

Powell loved children.

“He loved my kids more than anything in the world,” one of his childhood friends said at the memorial service.

Sometimes I still laugh out loud thinking about how he would delight in ribbing my then elementary-school-age daughter Imani. Powell loved to roast people, but he also loved jokes at his own expense.

One morning, we stopped by to see Powell before he had brushed his teeth, and later I told her our friend’s breath smelled dastardly. Imani thought that was the funniest thing. For Imani, Powell’s dastardly breath ranked right up there with a woman on the Maury show telling the father of her child she needed him about as much as a duck needs rubber boots.

“But a duck doesn’t need rubber boots,” the man said.

“Exactly!” the woman replied.

After the breakup of his marriage, Powell moved out of the townhome he shared with his wife and into a nondescript apartment with bad lighting near Saint Augustine’s University. The place smelled like mothballs. One spring afternoon, while Imani—now a teenager—was at track practice at Raleigh’s Millbrook High School, I paid him a visit.

Powell didn’t look well, man. He still had a box of Franzia crisp white wine on hand and a bag of marijuana. But the signature joy and effervescence that were so much of a part of his being were gone, or at best forced.

I promised to stop by again, but that was the last time I saw him alive.

I later learned that over the ensuing months his health deteriorated. Worse, he refused to seek medical treatment and rejected appeals from his physician sister and mother, who formerly worked as the dean of nursing at Howard University and as associate dean of nursing at Duke University.

Depressed, with his body failing him, I think my beautiful friend gave up.

Powell’s memorial service was on September 23, the same day John Coltrane was born. They both left us way too soon. Trane was only 40 when he died.

Powell’s family held his memorial service at Ben’s Chili Bowl. The iconic, Black-owned restaurant on U Street in Washington, DC, is about a two-minute drive from Howard University.

Pankey, the eulogizing pastor, said Powell “epitomized Howard University’s values of excellence, leadership, and service.”

Lindsey said he had received an email indicating Powell died in his sleep.

A shooting star.

I hope he woke up in Heaven, man.


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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com. Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com