What the Black Exodus Says About Us

 

 

It takes a while to settle into a new culture and feel part of a new country.

But four hundred years?

Many of the Blacks in the United States have ancestors who were brought here that long ago. Yet after four centuries of backbreaking labor, struggle, and proving, they are not yet welcome. Not even in a nation that likes to think of itself as the place everybody else in the world would love to live.

Last year, Stevie Wonder (whose music has certainly been welcome) announced that he was moving to Ghana. “I don’t want to see my children’s children’s children have to say, ‘Oh, please like me. Please respect me. Please know that I am important,” he explained.

Dave Chapelle (whose jokes have often been welcome) said he was inspired to follow; maybe he would open a comedy club in Ghana.

W.E.B. Du Bois (whose writing we treasure) moved to Ghana at ninety-three, unable to stand another year in the United States.

YouTube is full of videos of Black Americans explaining why they emigrated and what their lives are like now. Black tourists poured into Ghana in 2019, the Year of Return. Thrilled by the $3.3 billion in tourism dollars spent by 1.1 million visitors, Ghana announced another program the following year: Beyond the Return. Now, so many of those tourists have chosen to stay in Ghana that some worry they are upsetting the economic balance with an influx of American money.

Ghana’s officials are not worried. “You do not have to stay where you are not wanted forever,” said Barbara Oteng Gyasi, minister of tourism, after George Floyd’s murder. “You have a choice, and Africa is waiting for you.”

For Josephine Baker and James Baldwin, France was waiting. Nina Simone went to Barbados, Katherine Dunham to Haiti. Now The Guardian reports that American Blacks who feel unsafe in their own country are moving to Costa Rica. In a Colorlines article on Black expats, one went to Rwanda and one to Belize; the third lives in Ghana but leads tours through five African countries.

It is the expats’ reasons, not their destinations, that are similar.

“The attacks against us are endless,” educator and screenwriter Tiara Phalon tells Colorlines, “and I’m raising three Black children. They are not a casualty I can afford.”

M’kali-Hashiki, an erotic wellness coach, shares the weariness. “The U.S. hates Black people, and I don’t see that changing in my lifetime,” she says. “I didn’t realize just how bowed under the weight I was until I’d been in Belize a couple months and started feeling like it was the first time I was able to stand upright and take a full breath.”

In Africa, says Rashad McCrorey, “I’m a man, I’m not just a Black man.” He talks about being more relaxed, less hypervigilant just driving down a street.

So many people have talked about the danger of walking or driving while Black that the import rarely registers anymore. Amali Tower, executive director of Climate Refugees, has done protection and resettlement interviews for the U.S. government and the United Nations Refugee Agency. She writes that the oppression Black people in the U.S. face is so severe that if they were to seek asylum in another country, they would qualify as refugees.

Nobody in the U.S. government is even counting the Black people who are emigrating, let alone seeing them as refugees. That would make us look like the countries we prefer to deride. Yet the Facebook group called Blaxit Tribe: Black Americans Who Want to Exit the U.S. and Move Abroad has more than 23,000 members. Nomadness Travel Tribe has more than 25,000 members who would rather roam the world than plump down in the U.S. Travel Noire describes its members not as Americans but as millennials of the African Diaspora, and its website regularly offers lists of the best places for Black Americans to live abroad. As a marketing strategist now living in Lisbon told Condé Nast Traveler, “You cannot heal in the place [that] caused you trauma.”

This May, a White kid went 200 miles to Buffalo to kill as many Black people as he could. He was fired up by the Great Replacement Theory, terrified of anyone who might usurp White power. After the massacre, Washington Post columnist Karen Attiah skewered (with painful accuracy) White liberals for their own “dangerously naïve replacement theories.” One being the comforting notion that as the nation becomes less White, it will be less racist; another being the blind trust that young people will automatically grow up less racist than their parents. I am guilty of both assumptions, not to mention my hope that more interracial blending will blur the categories of race altogether. Only now am I realizing that, as Attiah writes, “This liberal complacency puts us all at risk.”

My Irish great-grandmother came here penniless just 160 years ago to work as a maid in a big house. Though she married a saloonkeeper, she taught her children all the fine manners she learned from her employer, and they held their heads high. They might be Irish, but they were pale-skinned, even the freckles a light beige, and so they could insist on a welcome that eventually materialized. It took a few decades, not four centuries. What bigotry did touch the Irish was mild enough to cause no guilt, and that left nothing for people to twist into deeper hatred as an elaborate rationale of the past. There was no reason for the bullies to continue insisting on superiority once they assimilated.

Darken their skin, and their lives (and mine) would have turned out quite differently.

My husband and I sometimes talk about emigrating, too, but it is not because we feel personally unwelcome in our own country. I cannot begin to imagine how soul-crushing that would be. Nor can I imagine living here knowing I would never be fully welcome, fully protected by the law and the police, fully accepted as an American. Instead, I would have to live afraid. Any day, a White supremacist might walk into my church or grocery store with an AR-15. A traffic stop might turn deadly. A doctor or hospital might ignore my pain or misdiagnose my illness.

I understand this exodus, but I hate what it says about this country. This is not new; the first exodus, to Liberia, took place before the Civil War. But that was two hundred years ago, before the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments. Before Brown v. Board of Education. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Why did none of that make enough difference?

There has also been an internal migration, with Blacks leaving coastal and northern cities and moving to the South. Another blow to liberal assumptions. There is strength in numbers, those who move point out. The northern cities that seemed like havens to their grandparents turned out to be closed and insular.

At least those who move south are staying, I think. But the article ends with D’Ivoire Johnson, who lives in Dallas, noting that even when the numbers grow, any sense of real “progress is illusive… I still get anxiety attacks when my son walks out the door to walk our dog. So really, I’m not fine, because I’m not safe. If January 6 didn’t tell you nothing, it told you, you were not safe. Because the most unstable element, the most uninformed and misinformed—and they don’t know the difference between the two—are armed and dangerous.”

What she tells her sons is that the promised land might still be out there—but not in America. “Go find your place in the world.”

 

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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