The Case for Black Expatriation

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Snoop Dogg and Pharrell filming their video “Beautiful” on Lapa steps in Santa Teresa in Rio de Janeiro, 2002.

First things first, we should begin by clarifying what this is not. It’s not an invocation to travel. I’m not going to invoke Paul Bowles’ portrait of the traveler with no sense of one home over another. It’s not my elitist conditionality of what makes a whole person. It’s not a condemnation. It’s not a criticism of anybody who doesn’t have a passport and has no plans to get one. It’s none of that. It’s a suggestion. An idea, if you will. It’s me throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks. Maybe it’ll resonate. Maybe it won’t and that’s okay, too.

So, let’s get in to what this actually is.

The idea for this essay came in the midst of a particularly compelling news cycle: a heroic immigrant from Mali saved a child dangling from a balcony, there were thrice-daily matches for the 2018 World Cup, Trevor Noah was live beefing with the French ambassador who claimed that him praising the team’s African-ness somehow minimized its French-ness. This international relations/social media fiasco happened on the heels of different domestic relations/social media fiasco incited by the U.S. president waging a war of words against a non-distinct NFL player, referring to him at a press conference as a “son of a bitch” for exercising the right to silently protest by kneeling during the National Anthem.

In that short period of time, if unintentional, more than one elected representative had relayed the messaging that, in some cases, respect for the humanity of black citizens was contingent on their ability to provide some extraordinary functional value — like performing superhuman strength for millions on Sunday night or leading the national team to a winning a World Cup title or even saving a child from falling from a four-story balcony. Void of that value, they would be voided of the respect afforded by citizenry. Case in point, the Brazil Football Federation (CBF) had to issue a public statement condemning the death threats and racist remarks received by midfielder Fernandinho after the team’s exit from the Cup in part due to the own-goal he scored in the first half of the match.

Despite the temporary global détente ushered in by the World Cup, tensions were domestically and internationally running high, and seeing the African diaspora represented on so many of the national teams (France, Belgium, Brazil, Colombia, Germany to name a few….) that watching the matches I found it hard to imagine that I was the only one wondering what community could be found outside of my homeland….

And I was right! On Facebook, I came across a meme that masterfully consolidated the two main reservations for black people and expatriation/long-term travel:

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While amusing, the meme was steeped in the reality of the two main deterrents to travel for African-Americans and the two main barriers to globally unified movements for equality. I thought about how valuable all the time I’ve spent abroad has been and though I’ve absorbed my fair share of anti-blackness as racism, as fascination, as fetishization (but that’s an essay for another day), I can’t emphasize enough how each was (and inshallah, will continue to be) a net positive experience.

With that, here are my 5 points on the case for Black Expatriation:

1/ A globalized perspective changes (and often, improves) methods for tackling issues locally.

As I continue down the cloudy and circuitous path to answering the existential question “What do I want to do with my life?”, I seem to be afforded clarity the same way a leak might fill a bucket: slowly, drip by drip, and then suddenly, (I’m hoping) clarity comes all at once.

Not too long ago, I realized that whatever I did — business, art, law — it made no functional sense to limit the scope of it (whatever it is, the suggestion box is still open, y’all) to strictly America, because with certainty, we know the beneficiaries of any given breakthrough are not restricted by borders, natural or imaginary. The most effective ways to manage trade, create art, reimagine law are developed within brilliant minds defined as much by their intelligence as by their immunity to hopelessness, tribalism and blind patriotism.

Black people, specifically those who produce work advocating for human rights with the goal of improving the human experience, if at all possible, should try to spend periods of significant time outside their home country. The effect, particularly in the case of diasporic communities, is renewed emphasis on the the prioritization of the collective interests globally (land, education, fair wages, etc.) and the interdependence of individual struggles for liberation.

While often not quoted in its entirety, the famed quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that says “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…” concludes with

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

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Maya Angelou and Malcom X in Ghana, 1964.

2/ The Decentering Effect of language learning

The benefits of learning another language/being multi-lingual are well-documented: it has positive effects on the brain, makes one more competitive in the job market, can be highly beneficial when traveling, may provide health benefits, and so on. One oft-repeated benefit of learning a language is that it makes you more “open-minded”. Stumbling through a simple introduction gives even the most impatient a hint of sympathy for those who speak in less than perfect English, when it is their second or third language.

This became starkly apparent to me when I was part of a team where English was the second, third, (fourth!!) language of many of my team members. In certain instances, I would be the only non-German speaker and wondered if it would be more effective to let them converse in German and get a recap later, considering that their speaking in English would be exclusively for my benefit. As I struggled to self-teach myself Spanish grammar and vocab at home, in the office, I marveled at their seamless transitions between fluencies. When we happened to chat about what we did last weekend or what they hoped to do this coming weekend, I was constantly thinking, Would I ever be able to so fluidly use the future subjunctive???

Another way to describe the “open mind” effect of learning another language is to describe it as decentering.

It wasn’t until I began trying to learn Portuguese that I noticed how thoroughly I viewed English as central and default and all other languages as deviants from it. In hindsight, this probably was a significant impediment when learning languages in primary school.

As I was trying to learn Spanish in high school, for example, I held on to English grammatical convention of speech, i.e. when describing something with an adjective, the noun comes after. In English we say, “red car”, in Spanish, “carro rojo”, so when making such translations, I would think to myself “Okay, so noun- adjective ordering convention is in the reverse.” As I began learning Portuguese, the noun-adjective relationship followed the same ordering convention as Spanish. I thought then, if there were two (and probably more) languages that followed this rule wouldn’t that mean, by numbers alone, that English did the “reverse”?

As simple as it sounds, that made me realize that rather than reversed or inverted…languages are simply different, and as such, can’t and shouldn’t be compared to one another on any objective basis. This was liberating in my own personal language studies because it allowed me to let go of the English grammar rules I held on to, and feel free enough to approach dual language learning without preconceived notions of what “should” and “shouldn’t” be but how it is.

In the same way, this changed my perspective when reading about law, religion, government, etc. because I could approach learning about things that were different without mentally positioning them as deviant.

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Some gals and I at Iguazu Falls in Argentina, 2018. Each of us had a different first language.

3/ It’s been done before

There’s a long tradition of black visionaries who have decided to pack up and leave the stresses of the States behind. Beginning with the Civil Rights Era, black artists were subject to the same intense scrutiny and surveillance as were political organizers and activists. The paranoid leaders of a world order that depended on the subjugation of blacks globally intended to suppress revolutionary outputs in all their varying forms. Writer James Baldwin asserted that he was snubbed of a National Book Award for the critically-acclaimed Go Tell It On the Mountain because he and Ralph Ellison(Invisible Man) could not be consecutive winners of the award. After producing “Mississippi Goddam”, singer Nina Simone stated that the music industry attempted to punish her by boycotting her records. Poet Langston Hughes, accused of being a communist, had a file opened on him by the FBI under the Hoover administration. These were among the names of a few who ultimately (and temporarily) left.

Baldwin was twenty-four in 1948, when he bought a one-way ticket to Paris with no intention of coming back. He ended up settling in Saint-Paul de Vence, a small medieval town in the French Riviera that has now transformed his home into a historical site and artist’s residence. The doors of this villa home were always open to a host of his contemporaries including fellow expats Simone, performer Josephine Baker, actors Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, musicians Ray Charles and Miles Davis, and so on. Baldwin’s move to France marked a period of personal growth, exploration of his artistic style and sexuality (in part disclosed in that wild Quincy Jones interview), so it’s safe to say that Paris was crucial to Baldwin’s coming of age.

It could be my own bias as expatriation was the choice creative impetus for a host of my artist/activist faves (Baldwin, Simone, Baker, Fanon, Angelou, X, Fitzgerald, to name a few) but I do believe the hyper-awareness and sensory overload that being in a new country necessitates is an acute exercise in observation, especially for young writers or young anythings requiring critical thinking.

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Me, Emma (an artist) and Camille (a public servant) around our second week in Cape Town, 2016, at a “party” a neighbor threw after a matriarch in the family had a dream about the ancestors. I found this photo in my Dad’s WhatApp photos, a nice surprise since the phone I took this on got stolen.

4/ You’ll appreciate home when you return

I can’t promise this, but in my experience, I am never so fond of my home after having left it for months at a time. Though I can be frustrated, embarrassed, exhausted, disappointed, exasperated with my homeland, my roots run so deep and so wide through it, and its roots in me, that I am incapable of hating it, incapable of not holding an irrevocable love for it.

When Baldwin is asked about his choice to leave America in the Paris Review, he expresses a similar sentiment:

“I think that it is a spiritual disaster to pretend that one doesn’t love one’s country. You may disapprove of it, you may be forced to leave it, you may live your whole life as a battle, yet I don’t think you can escape it. There isn’t any other place to go — you don’t pull up your roots and put them down someplace else.”

Over time, my relationship with it has boiled down to the simple truth: America can be your home — but it doesn’t have to be your center.

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5/ We kinda deserve to

This last one might be a hard pill to swallow for some, but there is an argument to be made that black people of the diaspora, at the very least, deserve access to travel and at minimum, travel to their colonial “Mother Land”s. We should be beneficiaries of an inheritance our ancestors paid into with their bodies and blood.

No one has ever questioned the luxuration of Europeans in the beauty of pillaged lands (see: West/East Indies, “French Polynesia”, Mozambique, Angola, Botswana, South Africa…..) so how much more should those lands’ inhabitants and their descendants get to enjoy the colonial spoils of infrastructure, healthcare, education, athletic opportunity…afforded to others by their compulsory sacrifice?

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French national team celebrating World Cup victory, 2018. Christian Hartmann @ Reuters.

Final Thoughts

As a person who has had the privilege to travel to a few far places, there is little nobility in leveraging dollars and euros fortified by centuries of slavery, colonialism and exploitation in those very countries. The strength of the dollar and now, the euro, was buttressed by the institution of slavery and by extension, maintained through the suppression of its descendants. Ironically, its fortification over time through exploitation of wage labour, beginning with slaves evolving to migrant workers and incarcerated persons, were made possible by unrestricted movement of people.

Bearing that in mind, there is much to be gained by sharing experiences, meals, homelands with one another, black or otherwise.

So if you have the will, the ability, the chance — travel abroad. I can’t promise anything…but it’ll be worth it :).

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Wheel of an ATV in Namibia, 2016.

Written by

NY-born, LA-based writer. Allegedly writing an essay collection called Black Cowgirl. Allegedly. Twitter:@jazzyhuncho.

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