The mouth of the Volta River in Ghana seems to be swelling with the stories of my people. By day, the river, black and thick, runs south, dumping its fresh water into the Gulf of Guinea and eventually the Atlantic Ocean, where it churns in a powerful vortex. By night, I swear I see the river reverse itself, running inland, as if an invisible force were swallowing it whole. The pink water lilies, with plump green leaves that floated south that morning, appear to be moving backward. It is magical and mysterious. I’ve never witnessed a river reverse course.
The Case for Leaving America to Escape Racism
As a Black woman, I want freedom from oppression. So I’m finally plotting my exit.
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.’ ”
The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs says it does not keep track of the number of Americans who have moved out of the country. “U.S. citizens are not required to register their presence abroad, and we do not maintain comprehensive lists of U.S. citizens residing overseas,” a State Department spokesperson wrote to me. “Estimates of U.S. citizens in particular countries can vary and are constantly changing. We do not want to provide figures that cannot be considered authoritative.”
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.
In 2021, Tim Swain, a poet and educator who moved from Indiana to Ghana, told the YouTube channel Odana Network that the first time he visited Ghana in 2007, he was transformed “as a Black person.” Then in 2014, he went to join peaceful protests in Missouri after the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown. The attacks on protesters left him shaken. A few months later, he traveled to Ghana again. “It was like this juxtaposition of America where I am feeling like the bottom of the bottom, reminded every day that I’m a Black person that is a stain on the fabric of America,” Swain recounted. “I come to Ghana where I literally exist as a human being. I have no conscience about the color of my skin. … Every time I came to Ghana it became literally harder and harder to return to the U.S.” After about two years of planning, he and his wife moved to Ghana in 2019.
Rashad McCrorey, who owns a travel company that organizes tours to Africa, told BNC (“America’s Black News Channel”) that he was traveling in Ghana in 2020 when the pandemic hit the United States. He decided to stay. “It’s been an amazing experience,” he said. “In America, we deal a lot with racial oppression, [systemic] oppression, whether it’s red lining … the prison industrial complex. But what I appreciate most about being in Africa is that I just wake up every day and being a man.”
Winthrope Wellington, 38, who runs Throp, a YouTube channel that highlights economic business development in Jamaica, has interviewed African Americans who have recently moved to the island. Wellington — whose father is Jamaican — permanently moved from New York to Negril after college. Last year, Wellington interviewed Rahel Teklegiorgis, a guest at his family’s hotel who decided to move to Jamaica from Philadelphia during the pandemic. “As a single Black female … I felt welcomed. That’s the beauty of the culture here,” Teklegiorgis told Wellington. “Wherever I go, they’re like, ‘Empress!’ It’s just a beautiful thing to feel welcomed and valued and held up. … It’s like a breath of fresh air. … I would encourage folks to just try it. Take the first step.”
After he posted the interview, Wellington noticed a theme in the video’s comments. “I realized there was an underground movement of people asking, ‘How can I, as a Black American, move to a country where I don’t feel oppressed and automatically judged by my skin color?’ ” Wellington told me. He added that during Donald Trump’s presidency, “people were driven to my channel. People were looking for a way out.” He also noted another element that may be a key driver of the trend: In the age of remote work, people can choose to live abroad without quitting their jobs.
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.”
Mark and LaTasha now own the Real South Africa tourism company, which is based in Johannesburg and introduces visitors to life in the country. They have seen an increase in the number of people booking tours. For many, the trip is an experience that shifts their inner core. When their airplanes land, “everybody says they felt something,” Mark told me.
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. As a child, I climbed trees, wrote poetry, devoured books and dreamed of faraway places. I read National Geographic magazines in the basement of the little white house on Ash Street. I consumed the set of encyclopedias that my mother bought. I watched trains crossing town near the smokestacks. I wondered where they were going. I wanted to get on those trains and leave. Wanderlust — I would later understand the word. I carried with me the desire to get out even then.
I look back now and realize I was a child in the middle of a social revolution. I grew up in the Black Power movement, coming on the tail end of the civil rights movement. I wore bell bottoms, cut my hair into a short Afro and danced to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” I “cut the rug” on the gold shag carpet in our living room and sang James Brown’s “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
My parents never told me what America thought of me — or their own personal histories with race, racism and racists. It was a coping mechanism used by so many Black parents across America. Instead, they showed me I was loved. In our family’s black-and-white photos, my sisters and I are perfectly groomed — starched dresses, ribbons in our hair — and we are smiling. My mother constantly told me: “Nene, you are beautiful. You are smart. You can do anything. You can be anything you want to be.”
In first grade in 1971, I became part of a nationwide experiment of transporting Black children into White schools to fulfill the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education. I was one of thousands of Black students who would have to climb on yellow school buses in our Black neighborhoods in the early-morning hours and ride for as long as an hour, passing our own beloved neighborhood schools.
On the first day that I was to attend the school across town, my mother ironed my dress and pressed my hair and parted it down the middle. I remember wearing clipped bangs. But still I was not quite prepared for the encounter that day at Peterson Elementary in Kansas, a flat blond brick building on the White side of town.
I remember during snack time the teacher assigned a White girl to be the class monitor; she would check whether the students had indeed washed their hands in preparation for graham crackers and milk in tiny cartons. The girl circled the class. When she arrived at my desk, I proudly stretched out my clean hands. But the girl recoiled. “I can’t tell whether your hands are clean or dirty,” she spat. “They are all brown.” I remember thinking: “What the hell is wrong with you? Of course my hands are clean.” Even as a child, I would not internalize the oppressor’s opinion of me. Racism would always be their problem.
Despite the racism I faced, I excelled in the White schools. I was a track star, a volleyball player, a debate team member and my high school’s first Black head cheerleader. I had the biggest smile and could do a standing leap four feet off the ground, as if I knew I could fly. But I also suspected that my people’s stories and contributions were being left out of my lessons, textbooks and assignments. I remember asking my Advanced Placement history teacher, a White woman: “Where are the Black people in our textbooks?” She didn’t respond.
After winning an academic scholarship to a university, I stumbled into journalism during my sophomore year when a professor in an advertising-writing course saw my promise and directed me on the editorial track. During my subsequent decades as a journalist, my goal has been to humanize Black people, capturing their ordinary and extraordinary lives. As a reporter in D.C., I thought of myself as “a reporting anthropologist”: I sought to capture the dialogue, rhythm and cadence of what was then known as “Chocolate City.” The underlying questions driving my reporting were: Why did racism persist in a country that claimed it believed in equality and freedom? Why were Black people still suffering under economic, political and cultural oppression?
At The Washington Post, I covered protests across the country in the wake of police shootings and mass shootings of Black people. In 2015, I reported on the fatal shootings of nine Black people in Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Dylann Roof had been welcomed by church members for a prayer meeting on June 17, then spent more than an hour praying with them before he pulled out a pistol and opened fire. In the middle of the shooting, Tywanza Kibwe Diop Sanders, 26, asked Roof, “Why are you doing this?” according to the later testimony of his mother, Felicia Sanders. “And he told our son, ‘I have to do this because y’all raping our women and taking over the world,’ ” Felicia said. “And that’s when [the gunman] put five bullets in my son.”
I was assigned to attend seven of the nine funerals, including the funeral of the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, where President Barack Obama famously sang “Amazing Grace,” a cappella. I reported with a sense of urgency, trying to connect history to the tragedy in the church. I drove past the old Confederate plantations. I visited the Old Slave Mart Museum, which was the first port for thousands of Africans brought here at the height of the slave trade. During those days on the ground in Charleston, I interviewed relatives of the people shot in that church. I interviewed Black people. I interviewed White people. I interviewed people standing in line to attend the funeral of Rev. Pinckney. I interviewed people in the shade. I interviewed people who stood in the sun. I interviewed people inside the funeral. No one could answer the question of what drove this self-proclaimed racist to open fire on nine Black people praying in a church.
Then, later that year, I got an opportunity to interview Scott Shepherd, who was a former grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi and now called himself a “reformed racist.” There I was, sitting outside a Georgetown cafe, traffic whizzing by, as he told me about his past racism. “The plan for a race war is definitely still there,” Shepherd said. “They want to start another civil war. It’s people like Roof who’ve grown impatient waiting for the war. They break off and start shooting Black people.” He warned me then to tell my “Black friends” to prepare for the war. That we should stock up on food and ammunition. Better yet, he said, perhaps we should leave America.
“They don’t like you because they hate themselves,” Shepherd said of his former allies. What struck me about this interview was his searing honesty; no White person had ever directly explained the depths of racism to me. I kept the video on my phone so that I could remember this conversation.
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.
In 2016, I worked on a team of reporters who established a history section of The Post’s website called Retropolis. I focused my reporting on Black people in American history and wrote short narratives, hoping to expose readers to stories they were never taught. I wrote about topics from the brutality of enslavement, to Reconstruction, to the racist terror committed against Black Americans during the Jim Crow era, to the search for mass graves of Black people killed during the Tulsa Race Massacre. I was assigned to cover the unveiling of the lynching museum in Montgomery, Ala. As I reported, I began to understand the country’s history of racism at a deep level. I was not an academic, but on this beat, as a reporter and a generalist, I began to connect the dots of America’s ugly past. It became clear that this country had never fully embraced justice for formerly enslaved Americans and their descendants.
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.
“When I ﬁrst arrived in South Africa, that is when I realized I was living,” says LaTasha R. Blanton, who relocated from Virginia to South Africa in 2018.
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. After they married, Makeba’s performances were blacklisted in the United States. “My concerts were canceled left and right,” she said. “Speaking about South African apartheid was fine, but they were suddenly afraid I might speak about American apartheid, although I never did.” Nina Simone famously left America in the 1970s, living in places including Liberia, Switzerland, the Netherlands and France. Simone told the BBC in a 1999 interview that she left America after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “I was devastated. I wrote a song in his honor the next day called ‘The King of Love Is Dead.’ … I must have cried for two weeks. And it killed my inspiration for the civil rights movement … in the United States and I moved away.”
When I traveled to Ghana, I paid my respects to W.E.B. Du Bois, who had moved there in 1961 at the age of 93. Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP and an organizer of the first Pan-African Congress, is credited with inventing the field of modern sociology. In “The Souls of Black Folk,” he pondered the predicament of a Black American: “One feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” I carried the book with me from high school to college and into the newsroom, trying to decipher its meaning for me.
In Ghana, I visited his home and stood in the study in the bungalow where he furiously wrote during the last days of his life. In a poem called “Ghana Calls,” which he dedicated to President Kwame Nkrumah, who invited him to move to the country, he wrote: “Here at last, I looked back on my Dream; / I heard the Voice that loosed / The Long-looked dungeons of my soul / I sensed that Africa had come / Not up from Hell, but from the sum of Heaven’s glory.”
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.
When I traveled to Africa and a crowd in Ghana shouted, “Welcome home,” something inside me moved.
The more I watched, the more I reported, the more I researched history, the more intense my thoughts were about leaving. And yet, I also kept recalling an interview I conducted for my college newspaper when I covered the student protests against the apartheid regime in South Africa. I asked a graduate student from South Africa why he did not just move to another country — rather than try to fight the entrenched racist regime of the Europeans who had settled along the southern tip of Africa in the 17th century. “When a snake is in your house,” he told me, “you don’t leave the house. You kill the snake.” It was a perfect quote to explain the fight against apartheid.
I turned it over in the recesses of my mind for three decades. Finally, I decided the difference between the graduate student and me is that his people were indigenous to South Africa. It was the minority government that had come and claimed the land. In America, the fight was different. Black people were not indigenous to this land. They were kidnapped, trafficked and brought here in chains. I realized that I’d rather leave than try to “kill the snake.”
Black people have been trying to kill the snake of systemic racism and injustice in America for 400 years. Maybe, instead of a snake, the better metaphor is a wall: Fighting entrenched racism is like punching a brick wall with bare hands. In the end, the wall does not move an inch. It does not bend. It does not break. I am only human, and my knuckles bleed. Unless the majority of the population becomes true anti-racists — that is, unless they become actively involved in fighting against racism — little will change.
Some of my friends say they would never permanently move out of America. That we should embrace every constitutional right and all the great benefits of being an American because Black people built the wealth in this country. Alice Thomas, a professor at Howard University’s School of Law, argues that African Americans should stay and fight for justice here. “For me, there is a distinction between leaving to not return versus leaving to explore other places and then return home,” says Thomas. “I am one who has no desire to leave the country, but I have a great desire to travel the world. And I have traveled to African-centered destinations on the continent and to the Caribbean. And to anywhere Black people are in the world — to Amsterdam, Canada, Australia, Egypt, Uganda and several times to Kenya, to Egypt.”
Thomas says she is a “global African citizen” who has traveled throughout the world by choice. “The only choice I didn’t have was coming to America. I know my ancestral homeland is not here,” she says. “I believe I was one of the people put in the bottom of a ship and brought over here, where we were raped, pillaged and plundered. I am not an immigrant. I am a descendant of captives.” And that brutal history is precisely why Thomas, who as a professor teaches students how to use the legal system and the Constitution to fight for justice, says she will not move permanently out of the United States. “I am not giving up access to this place,” she told me. “We paid a heavy price for it. Scholars call it ‘blood sweat.’ ”
When her son wanted to leave America and give up his passport, she recalls telling him: “You will not give up the passport because it is the key to the candy shop” — meaning access to all the economic opportunities America provides. “It would be rewarding people who did what they did to my ancestors to give the key to the candy shop,” she told me. “I will stay here and throw the Constitution up in their face. I am going to be here. They would be so happy if we all got on a boat and left. And I do not want to make them happy.”
Thomas says she also won’t emigrate because too many people who can’t leave the country would still be here suffering. “I want to go as much as everybody else,” she told me, “but I have to stay. My work, not only is it not near the end, I’m needed more now than ever as a lawyer and legal scholar. The same reasons other people want to leave are the same reasons I have to say. If I leave, it would be worse for those left behind.”
I believe she and others are strong and heroic; I understand her argument, and I respect the decision. But personally, I want freedom and joy. For once in my life, I want to know what it feels like to not be judged as a Black person walking through predominantly White institutions, constantly feeling like I have to jump higher, run faster, be better.
I have always been adventurous, having traveled as a foreign correspondent to the sea ice of the Arctic, to Greenland where I drank million-year-old water from a melting glacier, to Haiti where I covered floods and regime change. I have traveled to many places in Europe: to Paris, Copenhagen, Prague and London. Each place, I have looked for Black people. But when I traveled to Africa and a crowd in Ghana shouted, “Welcome home,” something inside me moved. They say when you hear the truth, you know it. To me that was truth.
After my trip to Ghana, I decided to start preparing for a life outside this country with the aim of spending my retirement abroad. At this moment, I can’t just get up and move. But I’ve been getting things in order and saving my money. I watched YouTube videos on downsizing and financial planning. I took boxes and boxes of books and other items every weekend to Value Village. I gave away anything that would hold me down. I cut expenses where I could. I sold my house. I looked for new streams of income, as many YouTubers have advised, to sustain a digital nomad lifestyle outside the United States. I applied for a visa to Ghana. I applied for residency in other countries where I could. And when I feel solid, I will take the leap.
I know America is the land of opportunity. I respect it. I send it gratitude for my life, my education and my career. I will never give up my passport. The blue card allows me to travel the world. But I want something more.
With a new sense of liberation, I told many of my friends about my wish. I told my son. I told my sisters. I told my father. I told my mother. “What do I think about you moving out? I’m happy for you if that is what you want to do,” my mother told me. “If I had a choice to move, I would too. I’m tired of all this bulls—-. I’m tired of all this racism. And it’s getting worse.”
My son, an engineer in his 20s, is a young man of few words. Once, when he was a summer intern at an international engineering company in Washington state and meeting friends at an Italian restaurant, a White man chased him through the streets of a small town and shouted, “You do not belong here!” How could I leave him? After years of conversation, he finally told me this summer: He would move too. That was enough for me to smile and start packing.
Each day, it seems, comes another urgent reminder that I should go. It happened again this summer, around Juneteenth. I was standing in the middle of the Ellipse, about 1,300 feet south of the White House, interviewing a Black artist about a garden installation she had designed to demand reparations for enslaved Black people. Suddenly, a White man who seemed to come out of nowhere ran through the installation screaming, “I don’t care about your f—ing garden!”
Then he turned to us, the only two Black people standing in that area. He screamed: “You n—–s!” He stomped a few more feet and turned again, as though we had not heard him. Again he screamed, this time louder: “You n—–s!” Then he walked away.
For a minute, it felt like being underwater or being a character in a horror movie. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t. I wanted to hide, but where? I wanted to speak, but the words were stuck in my throat. I heard the words with clarity, but they were still confusing.
After what seemed like an eternity, I turned to the other Black woman. “Are you okay?” I asked. Yes, she replied, then asked me the same. “Yes,” I said. But I was shaken. Then the White people who were working the table slowly came over and started apologizing.
I always say racism is like being hit with an invisible two-by-four. You can’t see the board. But the impact is just the same. It hurts. That moment further cemented my plan: I would return to Africa, to the Black rivers calling my name.
DeNeen L. Brown, a Washington Post writer, is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Maryland.