Kyla Johnson wrote “Post-National Shifts in Black America: Where Do We Go from Here?” as part of the 2016 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship.
Throughout history, people all over the world have migrated in search of better possibilities. Many of those people arrived in the United States of America (US), escaping social and political strife in their own countries with hopes of beginning lives free from persecution in “the Land of the Free.” These promises of freedom and equality have attracted people from all corners of the earth who arrive in search of the “American Dream”, a narrative of an ideal nation where anyone—regardless of race, color, creed, ethnicity, or origin—has the ability to make a life for him or herself. However, the US is continuously wrought with controversy and conflict. For certain citizens, the self-evident truth that all men are created equal seems more like a fallacy. 150 years after the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in the US, racially charged incidents continue to plague the nation. The murders of black citizens at the hands of police have been repeatedly played on news outlets and streamed on social media, searing the final moments of the lives of of Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, or Sandra Bland—to name a few—in the minds of the American people. These events have gained worldwide attention, shedding light on burgeoning tensions between marginalized communities and those charged with the task of protecting them.
The US is continuously wrought with controversy and conflict.
The Black Lives Matter movement is a response to systematic and intentional racism against black Americans that continues to exist in the US. At the heart of the movement are black American millennials.
According to psychologists, many black Americans experience “race-based trauma,” a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that stems from being the target of racism, as well as from repeated exposure, even vicariously, to racially charged events (1). According to the American Psychological Association, “more than three in four black adults report experiencing day-to-day discrimination and nearly two in five black men say that police have unfairly stopped, searched, questioned, physically threatened or abused them.” (2) Chants of “Black Lives Matter” have become ubiquitous – a rallying cry from a group of citizens who feel their voices have been unheard, their needs dismissed, and their lives undervalued. The Black Lives Matter movement is a response to systematic and intentional racism against black Americans that continues to exist in the US. At the heart of the movement are black American millennials, born between the years 1981 and 2000 (3). This group has become increasingly dissatisfied with the social, racial, and political conditions in the US. Will this group continue to stay and fight to achieve the equality and recognition they desire, or will they be drawn to seek out new experiences elsewhere?
As history has proven, people that experience strife often leave stressful or harmful conditions in search of reprieve. This begs the question: could we be on the verge of a trend of black millennials moving abroad to escape the stress of life in the US? While much attention is given to the subject of immigration to the US, not much is given to emigration from the US. The country does not collect data on the number of people who emigrate or who live abroad as expatriates (4). Even less attention has been given to the emigration and expatriation patterns of black Americans, a group whose history has been especially “characterized by migration, mobility, and travel.” (5) In the introduction of the anthology, A Stranger in the Village: Two Centuries of African-American Travel Writing, editors Farah Griffin and Cheryl Fish write,
“African American mobility is often connected to the impulse for increased opportunities and the desire to find a home or homeland as well as for the purpose of pilgrimage, exile and pleasure; thus it is both unique, and typical of the urge that many people have had throughout history in the quest for improvement and the claim for new dwelling places.” (6)
“Well, because it can change your life. I think that each of us have many capacities that we may not even connect with, and traveling gets you outside of your box and gets you considering sort of new options and new ways to interact with the world.” (13)
According to recent Gallup polls, the black American population is increasingly pessimistic about equality in the US. 49% of black Americans believe that black Americans and white Americans have the same chance to get a good education (7). Only 32% of black Americans say that they and white Americans have equal job opportunities (8). When it comes to black millennials, one third said they “never trust their local police department, and only 46% trust it some of the time.” (9) Racism remains a concern for many black Americans, who wonder if conditions could ever change given the divisive political rhetoric of the 2016 presidential campaign, the spate of police shootings of unarmed back Americans, and the rise of white supremacist movements that have been renamed as the ‘alt-right’. In his New York Times op-ed “The Next Great Migration,” Thomas Chatterton Williams declares, “A powerful way to sidestep America’s reluctance to become post-racial would be for more black Americans to become post national.” (10) He calls for more black Americans to expatriate in order to explore the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness in places other than their home country, even if only temporarily. In the documentary film Seeking Asylum, Darnell Walker, a 33 year-old black man from Virginia travels to Europe to explore the idea of leaving the US due to fear and perceived racism that exists at home. Miles Marshall Lewis, the Arts & Culture Editor of Ebony.com, describes the seven years he spent in France during his 30s as a “personal reprieve.” (11) Black Americans leaving the US in search of relief from social and political strife is nothing new. Celebrities such as James Baldwin, Nina Simone, rapper Mos Def, Josephine Baker and others have left the US “to avoid the harsh reality of being black in America,” as one article described (12). Activists such as Marcus Garvey have led historic movements to encourage black expatriation. When asked why black Americans should live somewhere other than the US, American writer Kiini Ibura Salaam said: “Well, because it can change your life. I think that each of us have many capacities that we may not even connect with, and traveling gets you outside of your box and gets you considering sort of new options and new ways to interact with the world.” (13) Calls for black Americans to look outside of the US for satisfaction continue to grow as dissatisfaction with the current social, racial, and political climate in the US continues to increase.
Black millennials are now “changing the face of travel.”
Additionally, as black Americans become more educated and have increasing levels of disposable income, priorities and leisure activities are changing. Fueled by globalization, technology, and access, trends are showing that black American millennials are more interested in travel abroad than ever before. Historically associated with higher rates of unemployment and poverty than millennials of other ethnic groups, black millennials are now “changing the face of travel,” as one Time Magazine article put it (14). Stephen Cohen, Vice President of insights at MMGY Global, a firm that collects data to find trends and behavioral patterns of American travellers, tells Time Magazine, “Over the last three years, the increase in [intent to travel] among African Americans has been pretty significant, going from an increase of about 3 [percentage] points, to 6 points, to 19 points this year. This trend is suggesting that we’re going to see more African-Americans travelling internationally.” (15) According to a study conducted by Mandala Research, about 1 in 5 black travellers take at least one international trip each year (16).
About 1 in 5 black travellers take at least one international trip each year (16)
Ashley is a member of the Nomad-ness Travel Tribe, one of the many online communities of black millennial travelers and expats. She has seen the group grow from a small group of about 500 mostly black Americans living outside of the US to around 15,000 millennials of color who live in and travel to all corners of the globe. She believes the increase in travel among black millennials is directly tied to socio-economic factors. “When people have more disposable income, they move from buying things to buying experiences. With that, people will travel more, and some of those people will decide to make a lifestyle change.” By simply searching on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, it is apparent that her conclusions are true. Social media is filled with young black travellers sharing photographic evidence of their adventures around the world. Searches for hashtags such as “#blacktravel” and “#travellingwhileblack” return thousands of results of smiling, black American millennials in exotic destinations around the world.
Ashley is one of a multitude of millennials who have found comfort in living abroad. Originally from California, she has lived in six countries on four continents, but has settled in Paris. She says recent events have not encouraged her to return to the US, and although she acknowledges the challenges that exist in Paris, she feels much more of a sense of belonging living abroad than in the US.
“I’m living in a country now that is also experiencing a crisis of identity. People say they want to leave [the US], but other countries have their issues. I encounter challenges everywhere. There’s no ‘running away.’ It’s just where you want to live and where you feel comfortable. France is not necessarily great, but I feel comfortable and safe. It’s good for where I am right now.” (17)
With an increasingly mobile, educated, and affluent population than ever before, pursuing the deeply ingrained American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness somewhere other than the US is not an entirely irrational notion (18). Many black American millennials are even rediscovering a new form of black liberation through travel and leading lives abroad. The idea of becoming “post-national” is becoming a welcomed reality for many black American millennials, who are becoming further disconnected from their places of origin.
“I might as well stay where I am stable, instead of returning to instability.”
Ashton has lived in Japan for the past seven years as an English teacher. He describes his experience in Japan as generally positive. He has cultivated meaningful, positive relationships with both Japanese citizens as well as other expatriates and feels completely integrated into the culture. “I’ve never had a bad experience,” he says (19). He feels at home in Japan, and after seven years, feels like a foreigner when he visits the state of Michigan, where he grew up. When asked if he ever plans to return to the US to live, he says he has no desire to return. “It’s interesting how the States has changed since I left. It’s kind of a part of the reason why I’m staying [in Japan]. You expect your home country to be one way, but it seems unstable. I might as well stay where I am stable, instead of returning to instability.” (20)
Jean, a native of New York City, spent eight months travelling to thirteen countries across the continent of Africa. He was inspired by his time spent visiting friends in Tanzania and the disenchantment he felt from the negative comments he saw online about traveling in Africa. “I saw the narrative of Africa being poor and dangerous. I wanted to change the narrative. I wanted to show people the real cultures and people that are there.” (21) Jean shared pictures and stories from his journey through social media outlets, and his story was highlighted in several African media outlets. Since returning, Jean is committed to sharing his experiences with more Americans to encourage them to travel to Africa. His ultimate goal, though, is to move permanently to Tanzania.
“I’m not happy with the [US] system, especially where it involves [the treatment of] black people. I’m not comfortable [in the US] because of that. We haven’t made progress, it seems. I’m not saying I’m tired of fighting, but what am I fighting for? [The US] to accept me? I fell in love with Africa. It was real. I feel removed from here because of politics and society. My body is here, but my spirit and mind are in Tanzania.”
Lisa also feels a sense of freedom and liberation stemming from her decision to live outside of the US. “When I first was planning to go abroad, I saw it as a temporary situation…but I got comfortable.” (22) She arrived in Mozambique as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2012 and has lived there ever since, now working as an independent consultant in the international development sector. She finds life easier living in Mozambique as compared to the racially and politically charged situation in the US. “I don’t live in fear here. Not the same kind of fear that some of the people I know are experiencing,” she says (23).
“Staying away doesn’t allow me to have the conversations that need to be had to improve the conditions of black people in the US.”
“Africa is easier for me. I’m young, and I am a woman, so there are challenges, but they are different. So it’s like, either I live in a place where everyday I am reminded that I am black, or I live in a place where everyday I am reminded that I am a young woman. The weight of my blackness has been lifted here. I don’t have to feel the same sense of injustice. I feel injustices everyday, but if I had to weigh them on a scale, it’s easier for me to stay here and keep the scale lighter.”
Lisa admits that the longer she stays abroad it becomes more difficult for her to get excited about returning. However, she does plan to return to the US within the next five years. Referring to the current social, racial, and political climate in the US, she says, “One of the major reasons I’ll come back is what’s happening in [the US] today and feeling like I want to be a part of that in a useful way. Staying here is almost like avoiding my blackness. Staying away doesn’t allow me to have the conversations that need to be had to improve the conditions of black people in the US.”
Lisa brings up a crucial point – is it the responsibility of these privileged individuals to return to the US and face the social, political, and racial climate they had previously escaped? Through the privileges of education, employment, and access to technology, more and more black millennials have been able to travel, work, and live abroad. This offers many black millennials the liberation, stability, and sense of belonging that they lack in the US. However, a majority of black Americans still do not have the means to leave the place they call home, even if they have the desire to do so. What are the implications for the black community in the US when those without the ability to leave are left behind? When black millennials find transformative experiences abroad, are they charged with the responsibility of bringing those experiences back home, or do they remain abroad, serving as examples of success, and inspiring the rest to follow in their footsteps while they enjoy their reprieve? More and more black American millennials will find themselves grappling with this choice as they become increasingly mobile, educated, wealthy, and dissatisfied with conditions in the US.
• • •
The author and editor thank Fabrice Guerrier for his dedicated efforts in reviewing earlier versions of this article.
- Cheryl Corley, “Coping While Black: A Season Of Traumatic News Takes A Psychological Toll”, National Public Radio, July 2, 2015, accessed December 29, 2016, http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/07/02/419462959/coping-while-black-a-season-of-traumatic-news-takes-a-psychological-toll
- American Psychological Association, “Discrimination Linked to Increased Stress, Poorer Health, American Psychological Association Survey Finds”, American Psychological Association, March 10, 2016, accessed December 29, 2016, http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2016/03/impact-of-discrimination.aspx
- Richard Fry, “Millennials Overtake Baby Boomers at America’s Largest Generation”, Pew Research Center, April 25, 2016, accessed September 17, 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/04/25/millennials-overtake-baby-boomers/
- Jason P. Schachter, “Estimation of emigration from the United States using international data sources” (paper presented at United Nations Group Meeting on Measuring international migration: Concepts and Methods, United Nations New York, December 4-7, 2006
- Farah J. Griffin and Cheryl J. Fish, introduction to Stranger in the Village: Two Centuries of African-American Travel Writing, ed. Farah J. Griffin and Cheryl J. Fish, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998), xiii
- Jeffrey M. Jones, “Americans’ Optimism About Blacks’ Opportunities Wanes,” Gallup, (2016), Accessed August 1, 2016
- Caleb Diehl, “Harvard Poll finds Millennials Have Little Faith In Government, Media”, USA Today, April 29, 2015, accessed October 28, 2016, http://college.usatoday.com/2015/04/29/harvard-poll-finds-millennials-have-little-faith-in-government-media/
- Thomas Chatterton Williams, “The Next Great Migration,” New York Times, (2015), Accessed August 1, 2016
- Miles Marshall Lewis, “No Country for Black Men”, Ebony, December 4, 2014, accessed October 28, 2016, http://www.ebony.com/news-views/no-country-for-black-men-999#axzz3r0jkaP1d
- Farai Chideya, “Tips for African-Americans Living Abroad”, National Public Radio, October 17, 2005, accessed December 29, 2016, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4961466
- Salima Koroma, “How Black Millennials are Changing the Face of Travel”, Time Magazine, October 29, 2015, accessed October 17, 2016, http://time.com/4071798/black-millennials-travel-industry/
- Ashley Southall, “Black Travel Groups Find Kindred Spirits on Social Networks,” New York Times, July 23, 2013, accessed September 17, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/26/travel/black-travel-noire-nomadness.html
- Ashley Lewis in discussion with author, Skype, November 2016
- “African-Americans are Increasingly Affluent, Educated and Diverse,” Nielsen, September 17, 2015, accessed September 17, 2016, http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2015/african-americans-are-increasingly-affluent-educated-and-diverse.html
- Ashton Dixon in discussion with the author, Skype, November 2016
- Jean Olivier in discussion with author, Skype, November 2016
- Lisa Chatman in discussion with author, Skype, November 2016