The Tricky Allure of Becoming a Black American Expatriate

For generations, African Americans have left the U.S. in search of freedom from racism and oppression. But what do they actually find when they settle overseas?

Pavel L Photo and Video / Shutterstock

In his 1960 short story “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon,” which was first published in The Atlantic, James Baldwin describes the pervasive feeling that informed his expatriatism: the bitter push of American racism versus the sweet pull of life elsewhere. When the story’s main character—a black American expat who lives in France with his Swedish wife and their French-born son—wonders whether his kid would want to “see the country in which his father and his father’s fathers were born,” he concludes, “Why should he want to cross all that water just to be called a nigger? America never gave him anything.”

For generations, black Americans have been leaving the U.S. and seeking freedom—from segregated performance spaces, from the specter of lynching, from being disrespected in their hometowns despite serving honorably in the armed forces abroad. Luminaries, intellectuals, and artists like Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Josephine Baker (Paris), Paul Robeson (London, Moscow), Julian Mayfield (Accra, Ghana and Georgetown, Guyana), Claudia Jones (London), and Yasiin Bey, a.k.a. Mos Def (Cape Town) either emigrated by choice or were forcibly expelled—but their myriad reasons for leaving often included politics. They’d all agitated for black equality in different ways, and became expats after experiencing the inescapability of American racism. Robeson, who fervently protested American racism as a violation of American ideals, was pushed out of the country for his speech. Of the world abroad, he said, “In Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being. No color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice like in Washington. It was the first time I felt like a human being.”

Today, fantasies of leaving the U.S. range from the facetious (“5 Places Black People Can Move to When They’ve Had Enough of America”) to the practical: advice from black Americans already living abroad that offers reality checks on the costs, documentation, and sacrifices required to skip the country. Notably, June 2016’s Brexit, in which 52 percent of Britons voted for Britain to leave the European Union, inspired a certain kind of optimism about black expatriatism. If the U.K. could leave the European Union, surely it was black folks’ turn to negotiate a mass exodus to anywhere but here. People searching the term “Blaxit” spiked in the days after the 2016 election and again in the days before Trump’s inauguration. Many African Americans hoped that they, too, could one day see America as Baldwin did: “better from a distance ... from another place, from another country.”

When I emigrated from Portland, Oregon, to London in 2003, it started as an act of political resignation. George W. Bush was only in the first quarter of what would be two presidential terms, but I was already wary of his politics. He’d started the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq, which would have the U.S. embroiled in costly militarization for decades (about $5.6 trillion to date). The Patriot Act, signed into law in 2001, began to chip away at Americans’ civil liberties by expanding the government’s ability to track internet users online through monitoring email and telecommunications. And in the early aughts, just as women’s-rights activists expanded their demands beyond “abortion for all” to encompass an intersectional reproductive-rights framework, legislators introduced and passed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. The ban, which prohibits intact dilation and extraction abortions in the second trimester of a woman’s pregnancy, was arguably religious conservatives’ entry point for curbing access to reproductive care.

After 15 years of teaching university students about civil rights and feminist and LGBTQ social movements, I wouldn’t have shocked anyone by responding to the Bush era by saying, “That’s it. I’ve had enough. I’m moving abroad.” But that wasn’t my entire motivation. I leapt at an offer to teach in the American-studies department at King’s College London because I wanted to experience being just black—not a black American—abroad.

My first reckoning with nationhood came as an undergraduate studying abroad at the University of the West Indies in 1991. Our professor there warned us students that Jamaicans would see us as American first, black second. Similar to today’s black-pride surge in popular culture, the cultural landscape in the U.S. in the early 1990s included the black feminism of Queen Latifah and the militancy and bravado of Public Enemy. Wearing African prints and generalizing about solidarity with “all African nations” in classrooms, some black Americans were in denial about the political realities of our home country’s aggressive imperialism. Our Jamaican hosts were warm and welcoming, but they also made us grapple with hard truths about atrocities committed by our home country, such as the economic crippling of Jamaica by the American-led IMF, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank.

By the time the Bush-era political cataclysms crushed my naive idealism, I thought that even if I would always be American by birth, perhaps leaving the U.S. would be a respite from, if not a complete abandonment of, America’s regressive politics. Choosing to see, and be, something new in another country felt like one of the last choices I’d be able to freely make in an increasingly limited political landscape for progressives.

But distance isn’t always the salve that provides refuge from institutionalized terror against black people. The communist and labor activist Claudia Jones was a political prisoner in the U.S. in the late ’40s and early ’50s who was later deported during the McCarthyite purges. It was her persistent vision of democracy that resulted in her exile to England, which in turn yielded an organic, critical reflection of self and country. Jones asked of her political counterparts in America who lamented her deportation, “What is an ocean between us? We know how to build bridges.” She persisted in her political critique and activism not out of resentment, but because her deportation experience and exile made the contradictions within American idealism even more vivid from afar. “The fine talk about the free flow and exchange of ideas internationally and about freedom of speech in the U.S. rings false when placed against this desperate attempt to deport me because of my political views,” Jones said in a 1955 Daily Worker article. “I am proud of my political views because I learned them in American schools … Why are they so frightened about the political view of one Negro woman?” In its exercise of political power against her, the fault lines of American democracy, particularly under McCarthyism, rang false.

And so it was the same for me. While I was able to temporarily escape from Americanness, I couldn’t turn off my political conscience. In London, I saw the horizon on which anti-blackness thrived. It was impossible to ignore Britain’s racism and how it rendered black people invisible in history, culture, and politics. The Windrush generation—immigrants from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Tobago, and other island nations who were recruited by the English government to help rebuild the country’s infrastructure after World War II—faces a different, but no less odious, racism than black Americans. Today, those same black Britons and their descendants are facing institutional backlash in the form of “hostile environment” immigration policy. Their parents answered the government’s call for workers and, generations later, their children are being deported as adults.

I listened to other black expats speak about British racism in terms that were all too familiar from the American context. The Chicago-born playwright and chancellor of Kingston University London, Bonnie Greer, who has lived in the U.K. since 1986, is astounded by the Windrush scandal. Whereas some white pundits have identified the British government’s ill treatment of black Britons as merely incompetence, Greer maintains, “We have in this country—the last 10, 15 years weaponized immigration … and you can see the change in the country … at a level I’ve never seen before, and I’ve been here half my life!”

There’s no doubt a productive gap between living in a culture but not being of that culture. But living, working, and raising a family in a country other than the one considered home engenders a perpetual state of comparison and, perhaps, nostalgia for the time before. Lurking somewhere in the back of one’s mind is always the possibility of going home, even though mobility, especially abroad, is powerful and can offer black expats a refreshing sense of agency. Feeling free from the metaphorical shackles of American racism has lasting value. Yet, being a black expat, one who’s attuned to American racial suffering, can merely heighten one’s awareness of other colonialist histories around the world and the racial disparities that persist because of them—a far cry from actually escaping racism. Living abroad can mean becoming one’s full self and being more deeply engaged with black struggle throughout the diaspora. But after staying in London for seven years, with my black American political consciousness and a newfound empathy for black Brits, I arrived at the sobering conclusion that it’s better the devil you know. And with that, I came home.