/Im leaving and Im just not coming back: Fed up with racism, Black Americans head overseas

Im leaving and Im just not coming back: Fed up with racism, Black Americans head overseas

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 Ọbádélé 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 also 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 felt 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. 

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

All three are part of a small cultural cohort: Black emigres who, feeling cornered and powerless in the face of persistent racism, police brutality and economic struggles in the USA, have chosen 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 says 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 now works in her home office with 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 likely more. 

About 120,000 Americans live in Germany, which is home to an estimated 1 million people of African descent. But because for historical reasons Germany’s census does not use race as a category 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. Years later, Baggette 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.  

‘I don’t have to think of myself as a Black woman’

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 has provided fresh evidence that living outside the USA can be an exercise in self-preservation.

A 2019 study by the National Academy of Sciences found Black men were around 2.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by police. A 2020 analysis 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 narrows 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 non-partisan “fact tank.”

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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 have chosen what amounts to a form of foreign exile, Floyd’s death and the ensuing social justice protests that erupted in its wake, have confirmed prior realizations: leaving may not mean a life completely 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 has 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 full-time 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 now runs her own communications firm in Accra, Ghana’s capital. “Here I am just a woman.”

She said that while racism in the USA contributed to her moving to Ghana, it was not a direct reaction to it. 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 still 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 been receiving 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 this month marking Floyd’s death. 

‘In Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being’

To be sure, 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. 

Earlier this year Essence, a Black fashion, entertainment and lifestyle magazine, published a list of Black travel influencers who “trek to far away and sexy places” from “the pyramids of Giza” to “the souks of Dubai” while “we sit at our desks watching.”

But Kimberly Springer, a New York-based writer and researcher who spent almost decade in the United Kingdom, where she taught American studies at King’s College London, said that while “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 lived in the U.K.,” said Springer, 50, noting that while racial inequalities in the U.K., like in the U.S., 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, despite being a Black American foreigner, Springer said she felt she was afforded a certain amount of insulation from British racism, even though studies show the British justice system also disproportionately penalizes Black people. 

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“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, previously 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.

In response to a question about whether Black people should feel a duty to get involved in confronting 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,” he said. “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 the specter of heinous organized violence, such as lynchings, for generations. 

Of the ones we know about – there will be many we don’t – there are examples among America’s elite Black intellectuals, artists and prominent civil rights activists. 

The writers James Baldwin and Richard Wright, and the entertainer Josephine Baker, relocated to Paris. Wright and Baker even died in France’s capital. The poet Langston Hughes was part of an expatriate community in London. The jazz and blues singer Nina Simone also decided to see out her days in France and after she stopped performing 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 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 a 1968 appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show.”

A decade prior, the 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.”

More recently, 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 later 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,” a fictitious travel document that 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, who noticed the trend. 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,” said Springer, referring to the words that have become 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.” 

‘It’s like having a few more stepping stones to achieve that’

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

He is in the process of renouncing his American citizenship.

After the police in Chicago falsely accused him of concealing a loaded gun in his car there were a series of court hearings. The charges were eventually thrown out by a judge after it became clear there was no probable cause for his arrest in the first place and the evidence – obtained illegally – would be not be admissible to the 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, in Trinidad and Tobago, said she is telling her friends to leave if they can. Many desperately want to, 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, who was born in Ecuador. She lives in Orlando, Florida. “But it’s difficult as a young divorced mother of a child with special needs to just get up and leave,” she said. 

Brown, in Spain, 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 sixteen-year-old sister back in the USA and she said that accumulating “generational wealth” is something that has proved elusive for Black Americans, unlike for many whites. 

Her experience so far 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 daycare.

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

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

In a recent opinion piece for Al Jazeera, a Dohar, Qatar-based news network, Amali Tower, executive director of Climate Refugees, a migration advocacy organization, wrote that if Black Americans were to seek asylum abroad they would probably qualify. 

“The social and political unrest that has rocked the country just these past few weeks alone would add to a trove of evidence to support any claims of ‘well-founded fear’ for this person’s safety and wellbeing at home,” Tower argued in the piece. 

Still, a Washington Post-Ipsos poll of Black Americans conducted in mid-June found that while 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’s mixed feelings about his adopted homeland are something he has learned to live with. He values the free education and healthcare 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. 

At the same time, Baggette feels a little cut off from the American social justice movement that has sprung up in the aftermath of so many Black American deaths at the hands of police: Floyd, Garner. But also: Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Terence Crutcher, Freddie Gray, Rayshard Brooks and many more.

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Most weeks, Baggette sends out lengthy emails to parents, players and coaches pointing out racist language used by referees. He is heavily involved in various initiatives that raise awareness of racism and xenophobia. He acts as a mentor for disadvantaged kids. He also avoids certain working class areas of Berlin where there is strong support for right-wing, anti-immigration political policies.   

“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.”