Josephine Baker, Black Expatriate

The Trauma of Black Life

In the earliest years of my life, I 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 myself. 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, …..”

— Josephine Baker

In 1917 a then 11-year-old Josephine watched the Black neighborhood of East St. Louis go up in flames, as White mobs set on it in a murderous rage. She witnessed Black people fleeing for their lives, later heard stories of brutal deaths such as a pregnant woman whose belly was cut open. By the end of the rampage, thirty-nine Black people were killed and the neighborhood burnt to the ground. She watched as thousands of homeless and traumatized Black people tried to rebuild their broken lives. That riot, one of the deadliest in US history, was just part of a wave of white riots that culminated in the Red Summer of 1919. During the Red Summer white riots and racial disturbances spread like wildfire across the US igniting dozens of cities from Chicago to Washington, DC. In the majority of those riots, white people aside from causing widespread property damage brutally murdered hundreds of Black people.

Like Baker, I have always been explicit about why I left my country. To live in a Black body is to be born into a violent and oppressive, hierarchical society. The explicit racial oppression is justified by cultural mythology that tells you at every turn you are not enough, your body’s a fearful ugly defect. US society defines who you are and insists you believe it. You spend your life navigating that oppression carried out by white citizens who are empowered by the system to question, harass, and bully you. There is not one minute of your life that you are free of this tension and the accompanying outbursts of aggression and violence. Before you were born your mother experienced it, and you with her in the womb. And all of your loved ones, too. Your grandparents and their parents all the way back to enslavement experienced it.

I am the product of the fervent belief that a better life is possible. I have been shaped by the silence of the unspeakable. Through dreams, my ancestors communicate their hopes, pass on their courage and love. We are a people of dreams. A dream of escape from the nightmare we were born into. A dream of freedom once safety had been secured. Finally a dream of the home we never stopped yearning for.

Fight or Flight

Not one to accept anything at face value, I sought to understand why my country was so willfully ignorant of its violent oppression. Through lots of reading and research, I began to understand how enslavement and genocide continued to impact US society and that political activism as a way to change it. Enraged I dove deep into activism.

I grew up with the anti-apartheid struggle which like the Civil Rights movement decades earlier brought anti-Black racism to the fore. In high school, I started working with the solidarity group CISPES, Communities in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. At university, I was heavily involved in organizing students and youth in the DC area against the first Persian Gulf War. From there I worked as a lobbyist for USSA, United States Students Association, and NARAL, National Abortion Rights Action League. Post university I trained as a community organizer in Oakland with the Center for Third World Organizing and went on to work on anti-lead, police harassment, and voting campaigns in Denver and Portland. In Seattle, I went on to work with LELO, a multiracial/generational community-based labor group, helped form a youth of color lead organizing collective as well as organized student and youth for the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting in Seattle in 1999.

It was only in hindsight that I understood that the ferocity with which I threw myself into the work was connected to a desperate need to make my home liveable not just for me but for other even more vulnerable people.

After many years of on the ground activism, I took a break. Exhausted I began to cultivate peace within myself to help create peaceful spaces for other people of color. I studied yoga and meditation. I decided to shift focus and devote myself to fostering relationships across movements and generations. I worked with YES! Magazine organizing multigenerational conferences of activists from various political movements. In this position, I met some of the most influential activists from the environmental and US civil rights movements such as Vandana Shiva, Joanna Macy, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, and Vincent Harding.

One Last Try

And then the 2004 election happened. The runup to the election was a very exciting time filled with hope. Spurred by the frustration of the second Gulf War, I, like millions of other Americans, threw my heart and soul into the election process. I spent a year registering voters, participating in my local caucus, and on election day escorting voters to the polls. Then I watched the election be decided by the Supreme Court. I was stunned, devastated that the hard work of millions was still not enough to get our voices heard. Feeling overwhelmed, I knew it was time to go. I chose my life and happiness over fighting a system that did not want to be changed.

In choosing my happiness I was under no illusion that I would escape racism. But I was crystal clear that US racism built on the enslavement of African people and the genocide of indigenous communities practiced a particularly aggressive and violent form of racism I could no longer live in.

A Dream Fulfilled

Being empowered means taking action, exercising the full range of options available to you. Baring that creating your own options. For Black people, the dream of escape is the yearning for freedom not afforded to you at home. That freedom being the space where you can explore the full range of your humanity to become who or whatever you want to be. I am part of a long tradition of Black expatriates — musicians, writers, the enslaved, activists, visual artists, every kind of Black person you can imagine who left their home in pursuit of that freedom.

Interested in learning more about Black migrants, expatriates, and travelers? Check out my Instagram, https://www.instagram.com/mstravelandtaste/.