Why We Left
“A powerful way to sidestep America’s reluctance to become post-racial would be for more Black Americans to become post national.” — Thomas Chatterton Williams
As 2015 already seems exhausting with regards to the frequency of police brutality, I’ve been having parallel conversations with a number of friends, mostly Black, about their holiday travels. Non-ironically, almost all of them went abroad. Between the friend who spent three weeks in Trinidad and Jamaica, the friend who went to Ghana for almost a month, and my own holiday in France, it was clear without having to be stated: the fatigue of American life has sent a number of my friends, particularly my Black friends, abroad.
Going out of the country is hardly newsworthy. Facebook is full of travelers, mostly childless Millennials flexing their international check-in muscles at hole-in-the-wall bistros across Europe and half-ruined Buddhist temples. A few friends are feeling thirsty and bohemian, trapezing across Southeast Asia; another friend is hiking across East Africa; a poet friend is planning her tour across South Africa. But the reasons my friends are travelling doesn’t quite split down a racial line — rather, race and class illuminate the fractured spaces. Ostensibly, my friends, irrespective of race, are travelling to get away from the ties that make life respectable but taxing. Everyone said, “I need a break,” but the subtext from my Black friends was screaming, “I needed to get out of the United States because I can not breathe.”
And then there are those who can neither breathe nor leave. The activists across the country who organize, who fight, who sacrifice, who make decisions like choosing between bus fare to protests and eating dinner — they can’t leave. Most Black Americans, when shit starts hitting the fan, the walls, etc. — they can’t leave. It’s not that they don’t want to. They too dream of lying on beaches of white sand and warm waters with their families. They too want to travel the world. They want to know what it’s like to mention places like the Louvre and the Tate with a casual boredom that happens when money, opportunity, and freedom have bred familiar contempt. Eric Garner was selling cigarette loosies (but not that day) because of a judicial and economic system that denied him more formal alternatives; the probability that he or Mike Brown or Kimani Gray could “just get away” is laughably and insultingly, low.
The end of 2014 was a traumatic period for lived Blackness; the miscarriages of justice for Clinton Allen, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner left me completely drained. Being Black at the end of 2014 left me with an overwhelming mix of anger and despair that can only be described as fighting with an opponent whose arms are so long it feels like air boxing. For many, “Black Lives Matter” reminded them how much their lives actually don’t. The paradoxes of Blackness in late 2014 were reconciling the love of a country that your Blackness has built, but that hates you. We left because of fatigue, because the arc is long and we are still so very young to be this exhausted. Anywhere but here was appealing. “Why are we even staying in a country that hates us?” someone asked me on Twitter. I couldn’t really answer that. I was conflicted. As much as I needed to go, I didn’t want to. I stalled looking for an Airbnb. I waited until the absolute last minute to renew my passport. I was late when contacting friends in Paris. I briefly wondered if I’d regret not booking a one-way ticket. I wasn’t even completely sure what I’d be writing about in Paris. I just knew that I wouldn’t be in the States. But I felt forced out.
I chose Paris because I like problems and paradoxes. I went knowing that Paris was not free; Paris has not been free since the Romans colonized and humiliated the Gauls, who never forgot it and in turn, colonized and brutalized Algeria, Morocco, Vietnam, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, and more. I knew better than most that racism in Paris can be acute, if not for African-Americans, most surely for the North Africans, whom I have been mistaken for on occasion. Paris has always loved African-Americans, even if French history itself has despised and exploited Blackness. As such, while New York was filled with protests through the holidays, I floated through Paris for nearly two weeks mostly unbothered, the assumption being until I opened my mouth that I was from Martinique or Guadalupe. The Martiniquaises and Guadeloupéens more or less, are people from island colonies in which their very racially mixed population are widely cited testaments to the alleged French commitment to racial mixing and thus, racial harmony. Even when my Americaness was revealed, it was not a problem for two reasons: one, I was African-American (the only Americans the French respect) and two, I would be leaving soon — but while I was there I was spending money, not like those other Black immigrants sponging off the French economy. Perhaps this is what White privilege feels like, I remember thinking. You can convince yourself that none of this is really about you. Should you even think that hard about it to begin with.
I failed this practice test of White privilege miserably and immediately. The protests that I left behind in the States had ignited passions in Paris; weeks before I arrived, activists took to the streets to protest the human zoo exhibit. Gross old Frenchmen suggestively raised their eyebrows and when they could, whispered loud enough, “café au lait.” I interviewed people of color in Paris about their experiences, which ranged from wanting to open a Black Panther Party chapter at the Sorbonne to forced indifference. The correct answer, had I passed this test, would have been to assign it all to Frenchness, to the lasciviousness of French men, to the complex colorblindness of French society that I, as a race-obsessed American, would never understand. But it seemed like a trick answer given how deeply French functions as a proxy for “White.”
I thought of another dear friend, who now lives in London with no immediate plans to return to the States. His words before he left always ring clear: “There’s no law that say that you have to make your home in the country you were born in. In fact, America was built on a whole mass of people that did exactly the opposite of that.” But I didn’t want to be French, or British, or even African for that matter. How could I be? I am so thoroughly American. And part of what makes me so deeply American is my Blackness. Blackness, as a concept of not Whiteness and a justification for exploitation, was put on the books in the Americas first, most notably in 1639 and 1705, though the slave trade had begun and been perfected by the Europeans.
If culture has always been America’s most valuable export, the fruits of Black labor are still its biggest and most lucrative. And since Blackness and subsequent racial constructs were first created, used, and exported to the rest of the Americas, Europe, and even Africa in order to justify the economic system of slavery, how, in my Blackness, could I be anything but American?
African-Americans, as it pertains to descendants of American slaves, have every logical reason to permanently leave the United States of America. African-Americans have also ingeniously employed every seemingly illogical reason to stay. Incredibly, many of them are returning to the lands of plantations, sharecropping, and lynching that just a generation or two ago sent their grandparents fleeing north as political refugees. If we were to look at this objectively, it is clear that African-Americans should consider their investment in America as sunk costs. The cultural capital of Black America would presumably travel wherever they go. Try elsewhere. Start over. But yet, African-Americans do not. Why they do not leave, collectively, I can’t answer. But I know why I cannot permanently leave. I have lived elsewhere, but it is here, to me, that the breadth of Black sorrow has become the most radiant form of life affirming brilliance — and it is addictive. Living while Black in America requires an intellectual and mental athleticism and finesse that has few peers. It is the startup of all startups. It is the ultimate marathon. Blackness demands from its cognizant participant a rigor and focus that can only produce majesty and mania. It is both heaven and hell. It is mercilessly reviled and hopelessly imitated. It is in short, a spiritual experience.
The reasons why we left are explicit and endless. The reasons why we returned are more complex, more paradoxical. Black America has consistently provided the moral compass and blueprint for a country in which its White faction has consistently, more or less, asked us to leave. And perhaps we would have left, if we knew that America — one of the brilliant masterpieces that Blackness has created, the thing which our soul, over centuries, has been given to and pillaged for — would be all right without us. Would you abandon your masterpiece? For a people denied property, rights, the opportunity to possess much less bequeath, America is what we own. It is our life’s work, our investment, our birthright, our trust fund. We are past the point of sunk costs, or even investments; it is a matter of ownership, stewardship. Our deeds and receipts are written in blood that still flows out of brutality and exploitation. And while America as a proxy for Whiteness has never thought to wonder this, many of us are more terrified of what America would become without us. Or perhaps it has. And it could be that the inability for Blackness to breathe is what America would feel too, if we left.
Chaédria LaBouvier is a MFA candidate at UCLA’s School of Film, Theatre and Television, a content creator and human. She tweets at @chaedria.