Last week, after watching another black man die at the hands of the New York City police, I can’t help but wonder whether there will ever be true equality for African Americans. The number of African Americans that have been victimized, murdered, terrorized, shot, and left for dead seems not just to be a legacy of some bloodstained Jim Crow past, but a part of a present moment that seems just as bleak. While there has been some progress, the narrative of the black experience in America feels remarkably static, as if it’s just shaken up, flipped, and twisted for a new generation.
It’s making me question whether America is truly the best place for African Americans.
I recently watched a film from the 1970s called Space is the Place. It’s about an African American leader who wants blacks to leave an oppressive America for a new land in outer space where blacks will have more agency and equal opportunities to thrive. On the surface, the movie is every form of ridiculousness you can imagine, with a slick-talking pimp, outrageous wardrobes, and a spaceship that looks like a pair of binoculars. But the heart of the film, the idea of mobility and liberation through migration is intriguing—and one that has been missing for nearly a century from our current dialogue about upward mobility and the state of black America.
Is it time to revisit?
I don’t have to repeat all of the ways in which black lives are challenged in America. You’ve heard all the statistics. Read about Trayvon, Jordan, and Emmett. Watched as the nation grieves for missing white girls, while the stories of 64,000 black and brown girls remain unheard. Look at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece on reparations or glance at some of the most recent reports about black life and you’ll find higher rates of unemployment, a larger wealth gap, more foreclosed homes and lower education rates. Last year the Washington Post found that “the economic disparities separating blacks and whites remain as wide as they were when marchers assembled on the Mall in 1963.”
But none of this is a surprise. Nowadays it seems as if the stagnant state of the black community has been normalized, accepted as part of a reality instead of a crisis that needs to be attacked as ferociously as one would a plague.
Perhaps, as the crazy film poses, leaving America is a legitimate path to mobility for black Americans. So why not attempt a new movement, right now, today, that expands our notion of mobility beyond the borders of America, that calls for at least some blacks to leave America in order to have a more just, and satisfying life? Just to even see if it’s possible?
The idea of migration is not new in the black community; we’ve understood the connection between movement and upward mobility for centuries, whether it was escaping up North to freedom, to Liberia in the 1920s, during the Great Migration when six million blacks moved to the North in search of better opportunity, or back down South and into the suburbs after the turn of the 21st century. Yet advocating a better life beyond the borders of the United States still seem absurd to many blacks and whites alike rather than a realistic solution to the many ills of the black community.
In 2008, Pat Buchanan said that America has been “the best country on earth for black folks,” but I find it hard to believe that blacks living in some parts of Africa, the Caribbean, Europe or other parts of the world aren’t as content and fulfilled as my friends in New York or Washington that are struggling to make ends meet. (Trinidad and Tobago, for example, recently just reported its lowest unemployment rate ever recorded: 3.7%.)
There will never be a perfect place for blacks to live. There’s racism and strife virtually everywhere, but amid rising inequality, a diminishing political voice for the poor, increasing student debt, and stifled economic opportunities for minorities, can blacks ever truly “win” in America? I’m encouraged by some of the political organizing and movement building that is occurring today, such as strikes among low-wage workers. But I still wonder if blacks need to take things further in order to progress.
Let me be clear. I love America. I always have. I eat apple pie, revel in freedom of the press, and believe in the “American Dream,” probably way more than I should. I watched the recent the World Cup and was legitimately heartbroken when America lost to Belgium. I feel a connection to America, more than any other place in the world, and while half of my family migrated here from the Caribbean, I totally feel Chris Rock, who says, “If you’re black, you got to look at America a little bit different. You’ve got to look at America like the uncle that paid for you to go to college… but molested you.”
Part of me feels like a wuss for saying this. The abolitionist Frederick Douglas was staunchly opposed to the idea of blacks leaving America. He believed that blacks should stay and fight for equality. I can understand why. America is our home and we have just as much a stake in it as any other group.
But while there has been individual achievement, as a community African Americans have never exactly thrived. I think it’s part of the reason why blacks have continued to flirt with the idea of expatriation over the years. There was Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement, a plethora of black artists that departed for Paris in the 1940s, and scholars like W.E.B. Dubois who took up residence in Ghana in the 60s. These movements, some of them with separatist roots, never really caught on with the larger black community.
As a whole, black Americans, despite centuries of frustration and despair, have been and continue to be so tied to the idea of America that it seems sacrilegious to even talk about expatriation. I think that’s a mistake. How long must blacks wait for the promise of America to be fulfilled? When do we say enough is enough? When do we reach our breaking point? Is it in another 50 years? 100? Ever? Never?
I’m not saying all black people should move back to Africa or some specific “Garden of Eden.” I’m not saying they should separate from whites and other Americans either. One solution for all of the “black” community isn’t even possible anymore as our needs and wants are so disparate (Blacks from other places like the West Indies and Africa seem far more open to this idea of expatriation,). But having a movement that pushes blacks to look at various paths to upward mobility, and exposes them to places that have a high quality of life and thriving middle class, like Canada, Switzerland, South Africa or Germany could be an important key to black American “freedom” in this “what’s next” moment.
It is happening
It’s hard to tell how many African Americans are living abroad, because the government does not keep official statistics. The BBC has reported that the number of overall Americans living abroad to be about six million. The number of blacks within that group most likely would be significantly smaller. Anecdotally, though, it seems more blacks are exploring life abroad, including some prominent ones: rapper Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def ) lives in South Africa now, poet Saul Williams moved to France, singer Tina Turner just traded in her US passport for a Swiss one, and there’s a thriving black expat blogosphere.
Michelle Commander, an English professor at the University of Tennessee, studies black expatriation to Ghana and Brazil. She said expatriation is growing, particularly with younger blacks. However she noted that while racial equity may be part of this narrative of expatriation, a lot of movement is simply driven by the idea of better opportunity overall:
It seems people are looking for good, stable jobs which makes sense. People are also drawn to things like health care and other social availability. It’s not about wanting a handout, it’s just thinking, ‘there are things that I want, I’m paying for this tax system, perhaps there is a better social structure that speaks more to the things that I want in the future.’
Still Commander said it would be hard to imagine blacks leaving the United States en masse.
I don’t know if there will be a huge movement and that has to do with people kind of being very comfortable in their communities, not having the sort of exposure to foreign countries before hand. For a lot of people the idea of even traveling as a tourist to another country, seems so far outside of the realm of possibility that they don’t even get to that point of ‘I want to move away.’
Sabrina Pendergrass, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, said historically blacks move where they have the most social connections and those social connections tend to be in the United States. “It’s about kind of the network and institutions that people are tapped into. If you look in the past with some of the African American expatriates who went to Europe or even Ghana or places like that, there were still those institutional mechanisms that helped. They had tours that they did in Europe prior to going over there.” She said being able to imagine yourself living somewhere else is key; so until blacks’ networks expand, they will mainly continue to re-migrate down South. According to research by Brookings demographer William Frey, in 2010, 57% of blacks lived in the South—the highest percentage since 1960.
Both professors, however, caution that the idea of even moving itself is a very elite notion. They suspect that most of the black expatriation today is driven by the middle class since they are the ones with the exposure, networks, and resources to move away from home.
I agree, and believe that with just the right tools, and a shift in narrative, a new movement could at least begin to emerge and empower African Americans, of all classes to dream differently about their future opportunities.
But as with any big idea, there are many complications to what life looks like outside of America.
Terra Robinson moved to London from Atlanta when she realized the cost of a graduate degree would be cheaper abroad than at home. She intended to return to America, but a string of job opportunities presented themselves and she stayed abroad. Five years later, now in Copenhagen, Robinson doesn’t see any reason to move back. She has a permanent job, a good work-life balance (something she said is missing in the US, despite our noble work ethic), and six weeks of vacation a year:
For educated African Americans, exploring opportunities abroad, just in terms of being able to expand their skillset, expand their experience as well, and sometimes in terms of making more money, its not a bad idea to look abroad. If you’re coming here with a high school education it’s going to be hard to get a job that pays well. On the flip side, in Denmark they do a lot around making sure no ones poor. Income gaps exist but not like in the States.
But she cautions against any utopian fantasies of life abroad.
I don’t feel particularly burdened by my race in America, and I don’t feel particularly burdened by my race in any of the European countries that I’ve been in either. It’s not to say that I don’t realize racism exists, it totally exists, it exists everywhere. It’s not always this malicious intent; it’s a difference between prejudice based on ignorance, and prejudice based on hatred. I haven’t come across too much prejudice based on hatred.
Philip Henderson, a black ex-pat in Germany, said of Berlin in a piece for Konch Magazine, that he has…
… heard “nigger” used more frequently on these streets than in Richmond, Virginia. I have had confrontations with Nazi scum, as well as Turks, Arabs or Africans who despise black Americans. One doesn’t come to Berlin to escape the overwhelming racial tension that exists in, say, New York, the way that black expats came to Paris to escape the overwhelming tension of pre-Civil Rights America; one comes because one imagines it’s better to simmer in the German pot than to roast in the American fire.
Regina Walton, a California native lived in South Korea for nine years. She went purely to experience life abroad and had a positive experience, except when it came to romantic interactions. After so many years away she said it was simply time to come “home.”
She said she didn’t meet any other blacks abroad that planned on leaving the United States indefinitely. “If you’re black American and your family hails from slaves, you really just don’t know, we really don’t have a homeland. I’ve done the genetic testing. It’s been pinned down to a general area [in Africa], but still it’s not like I hail from a country that I know of, that I can then get on a plane and go back to. Maybe the closest thing we have to a home-love it or hate it-is the USA.”
Walton may be right but I don’t think the idea of building new roots somewhere else should be left out of the conversation when we talk about upward mobility in the black community. I don’t want to give up on the idea of America, this land that we built and toiled. It’s more that I want to see more black folk fighting for change, joining the low wage workers and protesting voter ID laws. But I also want to see a future for black America, a future that is thriving. I want to see a future where all black families have options, have mobility, and opportunity.
I don’t want to wait another 100 years.
I’m sure some of us ready to escape the “roast” of the “American fire.” We’ve hit our breaking point and it’s time to start a movement that looks forward and beyond our borders.
Really, I’m not sure what I’ll do. I’m going to keep working to fight for change in America, but thoughts of a new movement, a new way of thinking of black progress will be a constant presence in my mind. Perhaps a new movement that thinks about change and mobility outside of the United States could be the key to true equality and freedom for African Americans. It’s time to at least raise the question. We owe ourselves that much.
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