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Black Americans and Expats

Coalition4Justice's

Let's Talk January 2024

By Sanaa Scott- Wheeler


Hello Everyone! Welcome back to Let’s Talk. I was very excited to write this article as I think the topic is intriguing, as well as close to my heart. Since my final semester in college has just begun I have been thinking about relocating cities after I graduate. Travelling is important to my family. We all share the urge to have new experiences and exit our own bubbles of comfort. Multiple times this year I have scrolled on Facebook and discovered that one of my relatives is abroad. There is rarely a time when all of my immediate family are in the same state. I am happy to say that the 2023 Christmas holiday was the first in years where I was able to sit down to a meal with all my cousins, just like when I was young.

In America, many people take traveling for granted while others view it as a luxury. Previously it has seemed like traveling was only for the extremely wealthy, this perspective has changed in recent years. Many people have begun to travel and say that it has changed their perspective and worldview. I traveled to London, England with Arcadia University’s study abroad program in the Fall of 2021. I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to leave Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,  and realize how big the world really was. I fell in love with the unfamiliarity. I met so many people from different cultures, even if it was a quick conversation at the tube station or a bus. I felt like I had opened Pandora's box. However I had several identity crises during that semester.

                                                                                                                                                         


My lived Experience


One of my first assignments of the semester was to talk about where my family was from and the history of their immigration to the United States. When I received this assignment, as an African American I felt excluded, as a student I felt invisible. It seems that we as a people are always silenced in conversations like this. I thought about how almost all my classmates would share a story of how their great grandfather had come over from some beautiful country like Italy, Germany or France. All my relatives that I know of were from Philadelphia or South Carolina and the history of the ones before them had been erased. Many times when I went out to restaurants and bars and met Black British people they asked me questions like”what’s your Ethnic Background?” and I had to tell them that I didn’t know. Everyone I met that semester had a tie to their country of origin and it made me feel separated because of my unique heritage as an African American. Due to the transatlantic slave trade, African Americans were all uprooted from Africa and displaced into America, in the centuries following were not looked at as as an ethnic group but as an extension of America. Many people reap the benefits of Black culture but refuse to acknowledge it as a culture with its own history having a connotation besides slavery. Like several African Americans, I know of my roots in other countries due to an ancestry test I had purchased and taken a few ago. However that test does not give me the personal connections, traditions or stories with those ancestors that my classmates had had. I do not know about my ancestors who were not born in America so I personally have always felt wrong about claiming any African culture. This is not to say that I am ignoring my ancestry; I would love to meet those who were brought from Africa to America and hear their stories, to learn their customs/ dances and eat their food, but the reality is that I will probably never know about them. However I have had the honor of spending time with grandparents who faced adversity as African Americans; heard their stories, learned their recipes, danced with them at church picnics, and listened to them endearingly sing Stevie Wonder’s version of Happy Birthday loudly and off-key.

                                                                                                                                                         


The Paradigm shift


Several times when I was abroad I was referred to as an American and not an African American. In several ways it began to make me feel “less black” than those around me, like I had been Black incorrectly. This had probably been one of the most shattering realizations. I would only be African American inside of America and outside I would be branded as an American. WEB Dubois was an African American scholar and Philosopher who coined the term "Double Consciousness". Double Consciousness or "the veil" is the dual identity of an African American; being an American and being Black in a White American society. He realized that Black Americans lived life trying to appeal to the society around them. We are not able to achieve equality or even security in who we are because we are constantly comparing ourselves to our white counterparts.  Bell hooks also referenced this idea in her book Talking Back. “ Assimilation is a strategy that has provided social legitimation for the shift in allegiance. It is a strategy deeply rooted in the ideology of white supremacy and its advocates urge black people to negate blackness, to imitate racist white people so as to better absorb their values” (Hooks 113). Black Americans view the United States as something they have to assimilate to, not something that they can naturally live in.


WEB Dubois said that there are two notable points in every black person's life; the first point is when they realize that they are Black and the second when they realize being Black is wrong. He talks about African Americans being separate from White America but when they embrace their differences they are wrong or stand out.  I think the experience of being an African American has altered my brain in a way where I am hyper vigilant to the world around me. I am skeptical of everything.


During my time in London, I would try to call out racist behavior but people around me such as those who were born and raised there and the white Americans I had traveled with would try to reassure me that they did not operate like we did in America, it was a nationality difference not a racial one. I was never fully able to believe them. Even though I felt stripped of my identity as an African American, I was able to look at America from an outside perspective with others, I had somehow escaped the Matrix. Dubois had also studied for a period of time overseas, he had gone to Berlin, Germany. In his book “The Souls of Black Folk” Dubois talks about this experience of being detached from America, once leaving the country, he felt equal to the people around him. In light of these parallel experiences between Dubois and myself, I wonder if leaving America for an extended time is a solution to the problems that African Americans face in America.

                                                                                                                                                         


An alternate reality


There has been a growing number of African American expatriates in recent years. An Expatriate or “Expat” is an individual who leaves their native country to reside in a new one for an indefinite period of time. Several people have become Expats to the point where there are pockets of African Americans in various destinations. As of 2023 the most popular locations for Black Expats are ; 1. Lisbon, Portugal, 2. Limon, Costa Rica 3. Dakar, Senegal 4. Accra, Ghana 5. Panama city, Panama 6. Bangkok, Thailand 7. Barcelona, Spain 8. Montreal, Canada 9. Tulum, Mexico 10. Medellin, Colombia. When reading narratives of those who have decided to stay abroad, many people report feeling safer in these countries; they don’t feel the need to look over their shoulder to protect themselves from threats. In addition to feeling safer, many people have found success as entrepreneurs. It is common for expats to become business owners. An article from “Travel Noire” titled “Black Expat-Owned Businesses Around the World” spotlights different restaurants owned by expats. Several businesses consist of bringing aspects of Black culture that did not have a large presence in that location, one example is a restaurant called the “Soul Food House” located in Japan.


I believe by not traveling we as African Americans will feel forced to assimilate to White America and accept the treatment that we receive in this country because we don’t know any other way. I fully support every expat who has left for their own mental health, and/or sense of well-being. When I travel I often feel empowered and enlightened, and according to many expats they were able to genuinely feel human. There is something bittersweet about leaving a country that my people spent centuries building, shaping and influencing. It almost feels like a relinquishment of power, like running away. Should African Americans stay in America and keep making the strides we are making no matter the pace, or should we seek to find peace of mind in new places?  

 

Hope you’ll join me next time.

                                                                                                                                                          


Sanaa Scott-Wheeler is a senior, majoring in Sociology at Arcadia University in Glenside, PA. She has a special interest in traveling the world, expanding her knowledge of different cultures, theater and film, and she is studying acting at Playhouse West Philadelphia. Sanaa is an intern at Coalition for Racial Equity and Social Justice (www.coalition.justice.com).

 

 

 

 

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