Understanding Blackness Abroad — How To Shift From Struggle to Joy
In the earliest years of my life, didn't know I was black; I just knew I was me. I didn't remember that until I started thinking about my journey here to Spain, how that confidence in knowing myself anchored me and allowed me to move out beyond what I knew. But also compelled me to find a place where I could be free enough to be me. The moment I found out I was “black”, like Eve, I suddenly saw my nakedness, my vulnerability and it was then I realized the place where I was from may not be the best place for me. I suddenly felt the burden of being someone else´s idea of me, an idea that had ramifications beyond my specific experience but was used to justify continued systemic violence and institutional oppression.
“I ran away from home. I ran away from St. Louis, and then I ran away from the United States of America, because of that terror of discrimination, that horrible beast which paralyzes one's very soul and body.
I wanted to get far away from those who believed in cruelty, so then I went to France, a land of true freedom, democracy, equality and fraternity.” — Josephine Baker
I do not mean to take away the romance of your yearning nor the beauty of your plan but as people of color, it is important to acknowledge all of the reasons we have left the states or are planning to leave.
“Precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscious, you must find yourself at war with your society.” — James Baldwin
Somewhere deep down is a yearning for a freedom not afforded to you back home. Luckily, there is an entire world for us to inhabit. To travel the world is to expand beyond the limitations and boundaries that have been set for you.
I've travelled to every part of Spain and many places around the world and I am always warmly greeted. The faces run through surprise, astonishment, relief and then a big smile and sometimes even a hug. Say what?!? Why do I seem so familiar to these strangers?
The outsized cultural contributions of Black Americans embodied in people like Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr, and Josephine Baker, as well as the music of jazz, blues, and hip hop carried the aspirations of a people hell bent on freedom and defiant in the face of injustice. It turns out this yearning for freedom is universal. The black struggle for justice has become a world story. Your freedom is that triumph, your presence and confidence the proof that we can and will overcome. All. Of. Us. And that we do it together; we do it by being courageous, open and curious.
Go on then, get on out there with your bad self, the world is, indeed, waiting to embrace you!
That said, once the leap has been taken, or seriously contemplated, fear sets in. That fear is shaped by an environment that is openly hostile to blackness. One needn't look far for the signs, from mass incarceration to state sanctioned murder, to rampant violence within our own communities. This is the result of living under a system, which is at best ignorant of, and at worst, an active participant in the destruction of black lives.
When we travel and/or move abroad we carry more than our luggage, we carry the family and friends we leave behind. And many of us are leaving behind loved ones living in vulnerable communities marred by the very racism, violence and police brutality we seek to escape.
But you do escape. And then one day, after all of your careful planning, you arrive to your destination.
Congratulations you made it! Now, you're thousands of miles away from family and friends and all that was familiar. Now what? How do you deal with the onslaught of emotions, the shock, guilt and fear? After some years of experience, I've found this advice to be helpful.
Take time to sit with your emotions
Processing your feelings is a necessary part of integrating any new experience.
How: Give yourself 10 min to sit by yourself, best to use a timer so you're not worried about the time.
Make sure you won't be disturbed, sit comfortably and follow your breath in and out. For some people it is helpful to have a point of focus like a candle, others are fine with closing their eyes. You will probably need to experiment to see which works best for you. The idea is not to stop any of your thoughts, let them come but then, and this is super important, let them go. If you can, imagine them like puffy white clouds moving quickly and silently in a beautiful blue sky.
The need to do this will be more frequent upon arrival but even as you get adjusted and more comfortable, it is a nice thing to come back to especially as events unfold with family, friends or you hear about the umpteenth police murder.
Write it down
It needn't be anything formal or fancy but taking time to write down what is bothering or frustrating you is the first step in being able to articulate it. This then allows you the freedom to address it or let it go.
Connect to others who have gone before you. Re-inventing the wheel is not necessary. There is a huge cannon of black travel literature, really way bigger than you think and it goes back for centuries. I've listed a few of my favorites are below:
Notes of A Native Son (Part 3), James Baldwin
I Wonder As I Wander, Langston Hughes
Any and everything by Zora Neale Hurston but especially her autobiography Dust Tracks on A Road and her biography Wrapped in Rainbows.
The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson
Show your love
Offer to share your stories, make your voice heard. People are often dying to know more about you, who you are and where you come from but are afraid to ask, lest they offend you.
Get playful in every sense of the word.
You get to invent yourself, be whatever, whoever you've always wanted to be, so go for it!
And please remember… Each one of us has an important part to play in creating this world, do not shy away from your brilliance. The world wants and needs you!