Posted on September 30, 2022

The Case for Leaving America to Escape Racism

DeNeen L. Brown, Washington Post, September 25, 2022

The mouth of the Volta River in Ghana seems to be swelling with the stories of my people. {snip}

I believe this river carries the stories of my enslaved African ancestors who may have been transported down its waterway hundreds of years ago into waiting boats anchored out at sea before making the transatlantic voyage as “human cargo,” heading from this Gold Coast for South America, the Caribbean islands and other parts of North America. As many as 15 million Africans were packed in the belly of slave ships, often without proper ventilation or sufficient food. It is estimated that up to 2 million died in the Middle Passage, lost in deep-water graves.

My ancestors, though I do not know them, must have survived that gruesome voyage, only to have to endure the barbarity of enslavement in the Americas. As with many people in the African diaspora — scattered by the evil of the slave trade, disconnected from our language, song, culture and people — I am not exactly sure where my ancestors are from. Still, I know that my distant ancestors are from this continent. As Peter Tosh sang, “Don’t care where you come from / As long as you’re a Black man, you’re an African / No mind your nationality / You have got the identity of an African.”

In December 2021, I jumped on an airplane to reconnect with the continent — and to explore Ghana as a potential place to live and plant new roots. It was a time when America seemed to be splintering, with state laws banning the teaching of critical race theory — effectively, barring the teaching of historical truths — and constant warnings about real dangers to democracy and the possibility of a new civil war. Eleven months earlier, I had watched as insurrectionists attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, scaling walls, beating police officers with American flags, breaking historic glass windows, bursting doors and trampling through a building built by enslaved Black people. Someone erected a gallows and noose outside. One man carried a Confederate flag, a symbol of entrenched racism, through the halls of Congress. The fight for racial justice seemed to be failing. The moral floor had cracked.

Democracy appeared to be imploding, and the country seemed to be increasingly dangerous for Black people — although racist terror was embedded in the fabric of American history and is not a new phenomenon. In 1999, Amadou Diallo, a student, was shot 19 times by four New York police officers who were then acquitted of all charges in his killing. In 2006, police shot Sean Bell the morning of his wedding. In 2009, transit police fatally shot Oscar Grant III in Oakland, Calif. In 2014, Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer. Walter Scott was killed in 2015, Philando Castile in 2016. In 2018, Stephon Clark was fatally shot in his grandmother’s backyard. In 2020, George Floyd was murdered, and Breonna Taylor was fatally shot while she slept in her bed. In Kentucky, Charleston and Buffalo, self-proclaimed white supremacists attacked Black people in churches and grocery stores.

As a reporter for more than 35 years, I watched, researched and wrote with a sense of journalistic distance while consuming the emotions of every tragedy. Each video was so terribly sad. The 2019 police killing of Elijah McClain in Colorado ripped at my core. I replayed the videos of McClain, 23, a peace-loving vegetarian who played his violin to shelter cats, pleading for police to stop hurting him and to just let him walk home in peace. We couldn’t walk the streets, drive, study, go to the grocery store or sleep without fear of getting killed.

One night while on my trip to Ghana, my driver made a U-turn in traffic and was stopped by a police officer. My stomach dropped. It was the middle of the night and I was terrified. I watched as the driver got out of the car and walked toward the officer standing on the side of the road. The driver motioned to the officer, talking with his hands, explaining he was lost and apologizing for making the U-turn. The officer listened. After a pause, the officer said, “I forgive you. Go about your way.”

I want this kind of freedom: to live in a country where traffic stops end peacefully. I want the ability to move among people who look like me. I want to engage in intellectual debates without having to explain the history of this country’s racism. I know no place is perfect. But I want to live in a country where racism is not a constant threat. Which is why I have decided to eventually leave America. When or where I will go I can’t say for sure — but I am finally ready.

I am not alone in my plot to leave the country where I was born in an attempt to flee entrenched oppression. There is no official tally of African Americans who have recently chosen to leave, but anecdotally there has been a surge of interest in the topic.

Looking ahead to the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved African people on the shores of what is now Virginia, Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, issued a call to people in the African diaspora to “return home” by visiting and moving to Ghana. “In the Year of the Return, we open our arms even wider to welcome home our brothers and sisters,” Akufo-Addo said in 2018 at the National Press Club in Washington, “in what will become a birthright journey home for the global African family.”

For many, the death of Floyd in 2020 may have been a turning point. “In the last two years, there has been a groundswell of Black people in America who want to go to Africa,” says Greg Carr, a professor of Africana studies and former chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University. “I haven’t made the jump yet, but I’ve been thinking about it all the time. … I would prefer to experience the full range of human experiences on the continent, rather than put up with the default position in the United States, where we are ‘othered’ and excluded from the definition of humanity. It is a perpetual field of violence.”

Celebrities have been part of this trend. In 2020, the singer and actor Ludacris announced on Instagram that he had become a citizen of Gabon, a country in central Africa. Actor Samuel L. Jackson also became a citizen of Gabon after he took a DNA test that showed he was connected to the country’s Benga tribe. “It was spiritually uplifting to connect with the tribe and to look down and see my relatives and … to be welcomed by some people that looked at me … like, ‘Come home,’ ” Jackson told “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah. In 2021, singer Stevie Wonder announced he was moving to Ghana. During an interview with Oprah Winfrey, he explained that his decision was prompted by the recent political climate in America: “I don’t want to see my children’s children’s children have to say, ‘Oh, please like me. Please respect me. Please know that I am important. Please value me.’ ”


But online, one can find growing communities that are sharing stories of what they sometimes call the Blaxit, i.e., Black Exit. The YouTube channel GoBlack2Africa has posted dozens of videos interviewing African Americans who’ve moved to Africa. A video from the African Web YouTube channel titled “Why Are So Many African Americans Moving to Ghana” has been viewed over 217,000 times.


And yet, people have also been making this choice since before the pandemic and George Floyd and the upheavals of the Trump era. Mark E. Blanton, 53, a former U.S. Secret Service agent, and his wife, LaTasha R. Blanton, 44, a doctor of physical therapy, decided to move from their home in Virginia to South Africa after visiting in 2011. “We saw beautiful homes, luxury homes,” LaTasha told me of her first visit to South Africa. “We saw Black people holding positions.” It made her think of all the work she had put into her career in the United States without ever really feeling as though she had quite arrived. In America, she recalls, “I checked all the boxes they asked me to check: Go to school, get a degree and at the end you would have a life where you don’t have to worry as much. But it was never that.”

In 2018, they moved, resolving that “we should live out the rest of our days around people who think like us, look like us and feel the same way we feel about our accomplishments,” says LaTasha. “When I first arrived in South Africa, that is when I realized I was living.”


Whenever Mark has to travel to the States, he sobs on his return flight to South Africa. “It’s the feeling of freedom,” he explains. “I don’t want to let it go, even for a moment. I love my freedom. I truly do. You must understand the experience on this side as an African American. … A lot of African Americans are figuring this thing out. That is the biggest draw. They are getting their freedom.”

I never really felt at home in America, though I was born here and grew up in Kansas and Oklahoma, in the midst of wheat fields. {snip}


I discovered that President Abraham Lincoln, known as the Great Emancipator, was also known as the “Great Colonizer” because of his efforts to relocate Black people out of America. In 1854, during a speech in Illinois, Lincoln said, “I should not know what to do as to the existing institution” of enslavement. “My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia, to their own native land.” In 1861, Lincoln came up with a plan to send Black people to Panama, but abolitionists fought him.

On April 16, 1862, Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act. The law abolished slavery in the District and called for the payment of reparations to White enslavers loyal to the Union, as much as $300 for each enslaved Black person freed, according to the National Archives. But a little-known clause in the act did something noteworthy: It apportioned $100,000 to pay up to $100 to each enslaved person who voluntarily chose to emigrate out of the country.

Months after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln’s administration contracted with two White men in New York to send more than 450 recently emancipated Black people to Île-à-Vache, Haiti, where they would settle a colony, according to manuscripts at the Library of Congress. On April 14, 1863, a ship named the Ocean Ranger left Fortress Monroe, Va., with 453 recently freed Black people. But the plan soon turned into a catastrophe. Dozens of the passengers died of malnutrition and disease. Less than year later, in March 1864, the United States sent a ship to rescue them, returning the emigres to the United States.

Still, Lincoln did not give up on plans to send Black people away. “By 1863,” according to the National Archives, “realizing Liberia, Haiti, and the Chiriquí lands were not reasonable for resettlement (Liberia was considered too great a distance to relocate a large number of freed slaves), Lincoln mentioned moving the ‘whole colored race of the slave states into Texas.’ Four days before his death, speaking to Gen. Benjamin Butler, Lincoln still pressed on with deportation as the only peaceable solution to America’s race problem: ‘I can hardly believe that the South and North can live in peace, unless we can get rid of the negroes … I believe that it would be better to export them all to some fertile country.’ ”

Reading these documents, I understood what my history teachers had not told me: that Lincoln believed this country would never truly accept us.


But it was not merely White politicians discussing this topic. Black intellectuals, philosophers and leaders have long debated whether African Americans should be seeking to integrate or to separate. In short: Should we go, or should we stay?

Marcus Mosiah Garvey, a national hero in Jamaica, was one of the greatest proponents of Black people leaving America. In 1914, he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which advocated for racial uplift, Black pride, economic empowerment and Black nationalism. Garvey championed the Back to Africa movement, advocating for Black people scattered throughout the world in the African diaspora to return to the continent and form an independent Black nation.

Malcolm X believed the only true solution for Black people was separatism. “Not only does America have a very serious problem, but our people have a very serious problem. America’s problem is us,” he said in 1963. “We’re her problem. The only reason she has a problem is she doesn’t want us here. And every time you look at yourself, be you Black, Brown, red or yellow — a so-called Negro — you represent a person who poses such a serious problem for America because you’re not wanted.”

There is a long history of African Americans leaving America — voluntarily. Black writers, artists, scholars and revolutionaries sought refuge in other places that would allow them to explore who they were and what their identities were beyond the color line drawn by America. Writer James Baldwin, who departed in 1948, lived in Turkey and in France. “I left America because I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the color problem,” Baldwin wrote in a 1959 essay, “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American.” He explored the feeling of life as an emigre in a 1961 essay, “The New Lost Generation”: “I think my exile saved my life, for it inexorably confirmed something which Americans appear to have great difficulty accepting. Which is, simply, this: a man is not a man until he is able and willing to accept his own vision of the world, no matter how radically this vision departs from that of others. … No artist can survive without this acceptance.”

Though she later returned to the United States, Maya Angelou spent years in Egypt and Ghana, beginning in 1961. “If the heart of Africa remained elusive, my search for it had brought me closer to understanding myself and other human beings,” Angelou wrote in her book “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes,” which covers the years she lived in Ghana. “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

In 1969, Black Power advocate Kwame Ture, formerly known as Stokely Carmichael, moved to Guinea with his new wife, Miriam Makeba, the South African-born singer who would become known as Mama Africa. {snip}


To those who are unfamiliar with the history of racist terror in this country, I know that the argument for departure made by Black intellectuals may sound the same as the insults long hurled by white supremacists, telling Black people to “go back to where they came from.” But the root of those instructions are disparate, incongruent. The white supremacists’ demand that we leave is rooted in hate and racism. The Black intellectual’s case to leave is rooted in the need to protect our existence, to find peace and true freedom, to preserve ourselves, our sanity and our lives.