Black peo­ple move be­yond USA

Trans­plants say they’re bet­ter off in other coun­tries

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Kim Hjelm­gaard

An­thony Baggette knew the pre­cise mo­ment he had to get out: He was driv­ing by a con­ve­nience store in Cincin­nati when a police of­fi­cer pulled him over. There had been a rob­bery. He fit the de­scrip­tion given by the store’s clerk: a Black man.

Okunini Obad́ élé Kam­bon knew: He was ar­rested in Chicago and ac­cused by police of con­ceal­ing a loaded gun un­der a seat in his car. He did have a gun, but it was not loaded. He used it in his role teach­ing at an out­door skills camp for in­ner-city kids. Kam­bon had a li­cense. The gun was kept safely in the car’s trunk.

Tif­fanie Dray­ton knew: Her fam­ily kept get­ting priced out of gen­tri­fy­ing neigh­bor­hoods in New Jersey. She said they were des­tined to be for­ever dis­placed in the USA. Then Trayvon Martin was shot and killed af­ter buy­ing a bag of Skit­tles and a can of iced tea.

Baggette lives in Ger­many, Dray­ton in Trinidad and Tobago, Kam­bon in Ghana.

All three are part of a small cul­tural co­hort: Black emi­gres who said they felt cor­nered and pow­er­less in the face of per­sis­tent racism, police bru­tal­ity and eco­nomic strug­gles in the

USA and chose to set­tle and pur­sue their Amer­i­can-born dreams abroad.

No of­fi­cial statis­tics cover these in­ter­na­tional trans­plants.

In Ghana, where Kam­bon is in­volved in a pro­gram that en­cour­ages de­scen­dants of the African di­as­pora to re­turn to a na­tion where cen­turies ear­lier their an­ces­tors were forced onto slave ships, he said he is one of “sev­eral thousand.” Kam­bon re­jects de­scrip­tors such as “Black Amer­i­can” or “African Amer­i­can” that iden­tify him with the USA.

In Trinidad and Tobago, where Dray­ton works in her home office, which has a view of the ocean and hum­ming­birds frol­ick­ing above the pool, there are at least four: Dray­ton, her mother, sis­ter and her sis­ter’s boyfriend. There are prob­a­bly more.

About 120,000 Amer­i­cans live in Ger­many, home to about 1 mil­lion peo­ple of African de­scent. For his­tor­i­cal rea­sons, Ger­many’s cen­sus does not use race as a cat­e­gory, so it is not pos­si­ble to cal­cu­late how many hail from the USA.

“There’s a lot of in­sti­tu­tional racism in Ger­many,” said Baggette, 68, who has lived in Ber­lin for more than 30 years and said he still feels con­flicted about his move.

He de­scribed the fall of the Ber­lin Wall, in 1989, as a time when neo-Nazis and skin­heads would “throw Black peo­ple off of the S-Bahn,” the city’s sub­way sys­tem. “But I still felt, and feel, bet­ter off here – safer,” he said.

In in­ter­views with more than a dozen ex­pa­tri­ate Black Amer­i­cans spread out across the globe from the Caribbean to West Africa, it be­came clear that for some, the death of Ge­orge Floyd in Min­neapo­lis pro­vided fresh ev­i­dence that liv­ing out­side the USA can be an ex­er­cise in self-preser­va­tion.

A study in 2019 by the Na­tional Academy of Sciences found Black men were about 2.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by police. An anal­y­sis this year by Na­ture Hu­man Be­hav­ior of 100 mil­lion traffic stops con­ducted across the coun­try deter­mined that Black peo­ple were far more likely to be pulled over by police than whites, but that dif­fer­ence nar­rowed sig­nif­i­cantly at night, when it is harder to see dark skin. Black Amer­i­cans face a far higher risk of be­ing ar­rested for petty crimes. They ac­count for a third of the prison pop­u­la­tion but just 13% of the over­all pop­u­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to Pew Re­search, a non­par­ti­san “fact tank.”

Dray­ton, 28, is writ­ing a book about flee­ing from racism in Amer­ica. She said one of the stark­est il­lus­tra­tions of how her life has changed since mov­ing to Trinidad and Tobago in 2013 is how she feels com­fort­able driv­ing her kids around the block to get them to sleep each night with­out be­ing wor­ried about what hap­pens if she is pulled over by police.

“In Amer­ica, your hands are shak­ing. You’re wor­ried about what to say. You’re wor­ried about whether you have the right ID. You’re just so wor­ried all the time,” she said of the in­ter­ac­tions her friends ex­pe­ri­ence reg­u­larly with Amer­i­can police of­fi­cers.

For other Black Amer­i­cans who chose what amounts to for­eign ex­ile, Floyd’s death and the en­su­ing protests con­firmed that leav­ing may not mean a life free from racism and police bru­tal­ity, but it at least feels some­what more within reach.

“It wasn’t un­til I had left the USA to ex­pe­ri­ence Spain that I re­ally got a sense of what free­dom looks like. I was able to be 100% my­self with­out hav­ing to worry about safety and with­out need­ing to have too much of a com­plex iden­tity,” said Brook­lyn, New York, na­tive Si­enna Brown, 28, who lives near Va­len­cia on the Mediter­ranean Sea. Brown founded a com­pany that helps Black Amer­i­can women em­i­grate to Spain.

She said Spain isn’t racism-free and isn’t that di­verse, but she has ex­pe­ri­enced it as a wel­com­ing place where peo­ple are will­ing to be ed­u­cated about their prej­u­dices.

Lakeshia Ford moved to Ghana full­time af­ter vis­it­ing in 2008 as part of a study-abroad year in col­lege.

“Here I don’t have to think of my­self as a Black woman and ev­ery­thing that comes with that,” said Ford, 32, who grew up in New Jersey and runs her own com­mu­ni­ca­tions firm in Ac­cra, Ghana’s cap­i­tal. “Here I am just a woman.”

She said that al­though racism in the USA con­trib­uted to the de­ci­sion, her move to Ghana was not a di­rect re­ac­tion to prej­u­dice. She was equally in­trigued by Ghana­ian cul­ture and what she saw as a grow­ing eco­nomic suc­cess story rarely por­trayed in the West, where Africa

for many is syn­ony­mous with disease, poverty and con­flict.

“When I got here, I re­mem­ber think­ing: There’s wealthy Black peo­ple here. No one tells you that. I was re­ally pissed off about it. I was also re­ally in­trigued,” she said.

Ford said that since Floyd’s death in May, she has re­ceived sev­eral emails a day from Black Amer­i­cans ask­ing how they, too, can make a new life out­side the USA.

“Come home, build a life in Ghana. You do not have to stay where you are not wanted for­ever. You have a choice, and Africa is wait­ing for you,” Bar­bara Oteng Gyasi, Ghana’s tourism min­is­ter, said dur­ing a cer­e­mony last month mark­ing Floyd’s death.

Black Amer­i­cans, like ex­pa­tri­ates of all races and eth­nic­i­ties, leave the USA tem­po­rar­ily or per­ma­nently for dif­fer­ent rea­sons: in search of a bet­ter qual­ity of life, for work op­por­tu­ni­ties, to marry or re­tire abroad, for tax rea­sons, for ad­ven­ture.

Kim­berly Springer, a New York-based writer and re­searcher who spent al­most a decade in the United King­dom, where she taught Amer­i­can stud­ies at King’s Col­lege Lon­don, said that al­though “Black peo­ple have al­ways trav­eled,” and “we’ve gone places will­ingly or un­will­ingly,” often this travel is con­nected in some way to a search for an ex­pe­ri­ence that is not tainted by the myr­iad ways Black Amer­i­cans en­counter dis­crim­i­na­tion in the USA.

“In Amer­ica, I feel hy­per-vis­i­ble in ways I didn’t when I lived in the U.K.,” said Springer, 50, not­ing that al­though racial in­equal­i­ties in the U.K., like in the USA, are deep and per­va­sive, they are con­nected to a his­tory and tra­di­tion – in the U.K.’s case, its for­mer em­pire – that she doesn’t share. As a for­eigner, Springer said, she was af­forded a cer­tain amount of in­su­la­tion from Bri­tish racism.

“Our racism isn’t as lethal as yours,” said Gary Younge, a pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at Manch­ester Univer­sity in Eng­land. Younge, 51, who is Black, spent more than a decade as The Guardian news­pa­per’s U.S. correspond­ent.

“In Bri­tain, I don’t gen­er­ally walk around think­ing I might get killed, whereas in Amer­ica, in some places, that’s not al­ways the case,” he said.

Younge at­trib­uted this dis­par­ity to the avail­abil­ity in the USA of guns.

Asked whether Black peo­ple should con­front racism at home, rather than leave, he said, “Why shouldn’t they just live? If a white per­son leaves Amer­ica and goes some­where for work or bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties, no one would say to them they need to stay and fight for racial equal­ity. Black peo­ple have a dou­ble bur­den of be­ing dis­crim­i­nated against and hav­ing to stick around.”

Black Amer­i­cans have been try­ing to es­cape Amer­i­can racism – from seg­re­ga­tion to heinous or­ga­nized vi­o­lence, such as lynch­ings – for gen­er­a­tions.

There are ex­am­ples among Amer­ica’s Black in­tel­lec­tu­als, artists and prom­i­nent civil rights ac­tivists.

Writ­ers James Bald­win and Richard Wright and en­ter­tainer Josephine Baker re­lo­cated to Paris. Wright and Baker died in France’s cap­i­tal. Poet Langston Hughes was part of an ex­pa­tri­ate com­mu­nity in Lon­don. Jazz and blues singer Nina Si­mone de­cided to see out her days in France, and af­ter she stopped per­form­ing, she never re­turned to what she called the “United Snakes of Amer­ica.” Si­mone also lived in Liberia, Bar­ba­dos, Bel­gium, the U.K., the Nether­lands and Switzer­land. When she died in 2003, her ashes, at her re­quest, were scat­tered across sev­eral African coun­tries.

“I left this coun­try for one rea­son only. One rea­son. I didn’t care where I’d go. I might’ve gone to Hong Kong, I

“Here I don’t have to think of my­self as a Black woman and ev­ery­thing that comes with that. Here I am just a woman.” Lakeshia Ford, 32, who grew up in New Jersey and runs her own com­mu­ni­ca­tions firm in Ac­cra, Ghana’s cap­i­tal

might’ve gone to Tim­buktu, I ended up in Paris with $40 in my pocket with the the­ory that noth­ing worse would hap­pen to me there than had al­ready hap­pened to me here,” Bald­win said in 1968 on “The Dick Cavett Show.”

A decade prior, ac­tor and singer Paul Robe­son, famed for his deep bari­tone voice, said be­fore the House Com­mit­tee on Un-Amer­i­can Ac­tiv­i­ties, “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.”

Yasiin Bey, an Amer­i­can rap­per-ac­tor bet­ter known by his stage name Mos Def, moved to South Africa be­cause he was fed up with in­equal­ity and racism.

“For a guy like me, with five or six gen­er­a­tions from the same town in Amer­ica, to leave Amer­ica, things gotta be not so good with Amer­ica,” Bey said in 2013 as he pre­pared to leave the USA for Cape Town. He was thrown out of South Africa in 2016 for vi­o­lat­ing its im­mi­gra­tion laws. He was de­tained af­ter try­ing to leave the coun­try on a “World Pass­port,” which has no le­gal sta­tus. Ac­cord­ing to his lawyer, Bey did not want to use his Amer­i­can pass­port for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons.

That same year, as the U.K. voted to leave the Euro­pean Union and Pres­i­dent Donald Trump was elected, there was an uptick in peo­ple search­ing the in­ter­net for the term “Blaxit,” ac­cord­ing to Springer. If the U.K. could with­draw from the EU – “Brexit” – could Black peo­ple, dis­heart­ened by racial vi­o­lence, leave the USA?

“I try not to use the phrase ‘I can’t breathe’ too lightly,” Springer said, re­fer­ring to the words that be­came a ral­ly­ing cry for police bru­tal­ity protesters and were the last words of Floyd and Eric Garner, a Black man killed in police cus­tody in 2014.

“But I think there is a way in which this coun­try is, in its his­tory and its fail­ure to rec­og­nize it and reckon with it hon­estly, is suf­fo­cat­ing,” she said. “I re­ally don’t blame any­one thinks I can’t take this coun­try any­more, I’m leav­ing, and I’m just not com­ing back.”

Kam­bon, 41, an aca­demic in Ghana, said he is never go­ing back to the USA.

He is in the process of re­nounc­ing his Amer­i­can cit­i­zen­ship.

He said that af­ter the police in Chicago falsely ac­cused him of con­ceal­ing a loaded gun in his car, the charges were thrown out by a judge be­cause there was no prob­a­ble cause for his ar­rest, and the ev­i­dence – ob­tained il­le­gally – would be not be ad­mis­si­ble in court.

“I told my­self on the wit­ness stand: I will never al­low my­self to again be in the ju­ris­dic­tion of these white peo­ple who, on a whim, can de­cide you’re not go­ing to see your fam­ily for the next 10 years, who can de­cide to throw a felony charge on you on a whim,” he said.

Dray­ton said she tells her friends to leave if they can. Many want to, she said, but ei­ther don’t have the fi­nan­cial means or face other ob­sta­cles.

“I’ve been want­ing to leave for a long time,” said Dray­ton’s friend Karla Gar­cia, 29, in Or­lando, Florida. “But it’s dif­fi­cult as a young di­vorced mother of a child with spe­cial needs to just get up and leave.”

Brown said she is deter­mined to make a life in south­ern Europe, not least be­cause she wants to own a house and build and pass on wealth. She has a 16year-old sis­ter in the USA, and she said ac­cu­mu­lat­ing “gen­er­a­tional wealth” is some­thing that has proved elu­sive for Black Amer­i­cans, un­like for many whites.

Her ex­pe­ri­ence is that it will be eas­ier to do this in Spain than in New York, where there are more bar­ri­ers to fi­nan­cial suc­cess, from dis­crim­i­na­tion in mort­gage lend­ing – “red lin­ing” – to ac­cess to so­cial wel­fare services, such as af­ford­able day care.

“It’s like hav­ing a few more step­ping stones to achieve that,” she said.

Pew Re­search es­ti­mated that the over­all av­er­age wealth of white Amer­i­can fam­i­lies is at least 10 times larger than that of Black Amer­i­can fam­i­lies.

A Wash­ing­ton Post-Ip­sos poll of Black Amer­i­cans con­ducted in midJune found that al­though they are out­raged and frus­trated by Floyd’s death, they are op­ti­mistic about ris­ing con­cern from whites and the prospect of im­proved police treatment.

In Ber­lin, Baggette has learned to live with his mixed feel­ings about his adopted home­land. He val­ues the free ed­u­ca­tion and health care his kids re­ceive in Ger­many. He does not rou­tinely fear for their lives.

Baggette is re­tired but coaches youth bas­ket­ball. When a team from Chicago’s South Side vis­ited a few years ago as part of an ex­change pro­gram, he was shocked to hear from some of the young­sters that one of the things that most im­pressed them about Ger­many’s cap­i­tal was the easy ac­cess to fresh fruit, es­pe­cially straw­ber­ries. It was avail­able on most streets in small kiosks. These kids weren’t used to that on the South Side, he thought.

“Be­ing Black in Ber­lin is a chal­lenge,” he said. “One thing I can say is that when those young kids from Chicago vis­ited us here, well, they felt a cer­tain amount of free­dom that I can tell you they don’t feel over there.”


Tif­fanie Dray­ton says she felt dis­placed in New Jersey, so she came to Trinidad and Tobago.




Yasiin Bey, for­merly known as Mos Def, right, moved to South Africa to es­cape racism, though he was thrown out in 2016.


Lakeshia Ford

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