Above: Devon Kitzo-Creed stands in front of a shipping container in the parking lot of her apartment complex in Wilmington, Delaware, on Oct. 9, 2020. Credit: Meredith Edlow for HuffPost
Devon Kitzo-Creed, a 28-year-old African American woman, always planned on leaving the United States to live abroad. Definitely before she had children, but probably not until she was in her 30s.
2020 pushed up her timeline.
Now she and her husband, who live in Wilmington, Delaware, are planning on relocating to Ecuador right after the election. She’ll continue her work as a doula and childbirth educator. He can work remotely as a video editor and animator.
Why the rush? “The way things have gone this year, the political climate of our country, and just the way that I do not feel valued at all in this country,” Kitzo-Creed explained.
The day before Kitzo-Creed spoke to HuffPost, a Kentucky grand jury declined to indict police officers for murder after they shot and killed Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, inside her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment.
That no one would face justice for the death of an innocent woman sent a familiar message to Kitzo-Creed: This country doesn’t care about Black people.
“It’s like the Black woman really is the most disrespected, disregarded person in America,” she said, echoing a Malcolm X quote made even more famous by Beyoncé. “So, I’m leaving.”
Kitzo-Creed is part of a group of African American professionals looking to leave, or who have already left, the United States. HuffPost spoke to several who said they were fed up with the daily drumbeat of racism, discrimination at work, the hostility of police officers, the fear of doing even the most mundane tasks.
Kitzo-Creed recalled how just this summer, she was getting followed around the grocery store. Another man recounted how a police car followed him at night just recently, sending his heart racing. A woman recalled asking a repairman at her home to put on a mask because of the pandemic. He told her, “We won’t need to do this after Trump wins the election.”
Almost every Black professional HuffPost spoke with had a story about a tense encounter with the police. Several said that the killings of Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery (shot while jogging), and George Floyd (killed by a police officer who kept a knee on his neck for eight minutes) were crystallizing moments.
While there is no hard data on the number of African Americans who live abroad or intend to move, anecdotally, discussions about whether to stick around in the U.S. are increasing — particularly among college-educated, relatively well-off Black Americans. USA Today and Condé Nast Traveler noted the trend in August. And after the presidential debate last month, Google saw an increase in searches for how to move to Canada.
It isn’t just politics and police violence, though. Everyone talked about the pandemic. “The shift really came this year with the pandemic,” said Sienna Brown, a 28-year-old African American woman who moved to Spain six years ago and now runs an online community for women who are interested in moving abroad. She said that initially, she mostly heard from women looking to travel internationally. Now it’s women who want to leave.
“This year was the final turning point for me. There’s something about this country that feels like a weight on me.”
Life in the U.S. has always been far more deadly for Black people, who have a lower life expectancy and higher mortality rate. And COVID-19 brought that long-term trend into full relief. Death rates for Black people from the virus are disproportionately high.
But death rates for African Americans were already higher going into the pandemic. Incredibly, even if no one in the Black community had died from the coronavirus, their mortality rate would still be higher than for white Americans in the middle of the pandemic, demographer Elizabeth Wrigley-Field recently explained in Slate. “Racism gave Black people pandemic-level mortality long before COVID,” she writes.
Economically, it’s well-known that African Americans start out way behind white Americans. The pandemic amplified the issue. Right now, the Black unemployment rate is about twice that of white workers — a ratio that has held since the U.S. first started measuring the data.
A few people mentioned that life abroad would be less expensive, enabling them to retire earlier or afford the kind of housing and lifestyle that is out of reach in the United States. And the need to quarantine has led to increased feelings of isolation and a lack of community.
But the desire to leave the U.S. is not simply about economic opportunity or even mortality rates; it is about a search for self. African Americans spoke of having to leave the U.S. to truly find themselves, free from the weight and stress of living with racism.
“For me, as a Black man, and I tell this to everybody I speak to, I feel more safe in other countries. Every other country I’ve been to, more than my own,” said Terry Williams, a 32-year-old teacher who’s lived abroad, traveling through 26 countries, since 2016. He’s able to teach classes online. “Being abroad is the first time I have felt some kind of privilege, if that makes sense. I’m not looked at as a Black person.”
“Just between the racism and everything that happened as a result of the pandemic, I really don’t want to be here anymore,” a 45-year-old Black professional who lives in Washington, D.C. told HuffPost. She declined to be identified because her employer doesn’t know yet.
“This year was the final turning point for me,” she said. “There’s something about this country that feels like a weight on me.”
She plans on moving to Cape Verde, an island nation off the west coast of Africa, where she’s looking to build a home and live in semi-retirement. She has a friend already set up there.
Her feelings of unease in the U.S. started in 2008 with the election of the nation’s first Black president. It was a moment to celebrate for the African American community, but it also unleashed virulent racism.
The neo-Nazi website Stormfront saw traffic increase six times its previous rates after Barack Obama’s election, as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in The Atlantic. Coates draws a line from the racist backlash directly to Donald Trump. Famously, the racist lie of birtherism helped launch Trump’s political career. His time in office has been spent unraveling Obama’s policies, even when that’s at cross-purposes with the success of his administration.
After Obama’s victory, this Washington, D.C., woman noticed white acquaintances of hers, people she’d gone to high school with in Michigan, being openly racist on Facebook. They shared memes about the First Family that were offensive: pictures of monkeys and other abhorrent slurs she thought were a relic of the past. “It’s unsettling when you realize people have these beliefs,” she said.
Of course, she was conscious of racism before that. She was her high school’s valedictorian but had been told by a white guidance counselor that her test scores wouldn’t be good enough for her to get into a top school — “like Michelle Obama,” she recalled. (A guidance counselor also told the future U.S. first lady that she wasn’t “Ivy League material.” She applied and was admitted to Princeton anyway.)
This was different. “It’s like people had just hidden their true feelings for a long time, so there were reasons for them to let them loose,” she said. “It was very scary.”
In 2016, after spending a year traveling to Brazil, India and South Africa, a light bulb went on. “I didn’t miss the U.S.,” she said. “I’ve seen there are better ways to live in other places.” She acknowledged that there’s racism in these places, too, but nothing as bad as in the United States.
“Being abroad is the first time I have felt some kind of privilege, if that makes sense. I’m not looked at as a Black person.”
This woman and several others mentioned to HuffPost that when they’re traveling abroad, they’re viewed as Americans in a way that doesn’t happen at home. They feel a sense of privilege denied to them at home because of their skin color.
“I felt seen as a person for the first time,” Chrishan Wright, a 46-year Black woman from New Jersey, said of a solo trip she took to New Zealand three years ago. She recounted how she was speeding while driving in the country and got pulled over. “They were so gracious.”
During the pandemic, Wright was laid off from a well-paying marketing job in the pharmaceutical industry. She talked about her time working in the corporate world and feeling like a “unicorn,” as one of the few Black women in whatever company she was working in.
“In the corporate world, it can be very isolating; you are not seeing faces that reflect yours,” she said. “If you do something minor, it becomes major. Whereas your [white] counterpart does the same things and it’s not even spoken of. You see the double standard.”
In June, Wright started a Facebook page called Blaxit Global devoted to African Americans who are considering leaving the country. She’d like to be gone in about three years, when her daughter finishes high school.
Blaxit is a term that some are using now to talk about leaving the U.S. It’s also the name of a podcast Wright started up in which she interviews folks who have left or are leaving the country. (It should not be confused with “Blexit,” a term used by conservative commentator Candace Owens to try and get African Americans to leave the Democratic Party.)
“Blaxit doesn’t necessarily mean that you are expected to leave the U.S. and go to the continent of Africa,” said Wright. “It’s to show that members of the African diaspora, our spores, are sprinkled all over this world and we have the opportunity to create an existence that’s unapologetic and unbothered.”
There’s really nothing new about African Americans seeking to leave the United States to escape the confines of racism and live more freely. A long list of brilliant African American artists and writers have gone abroad to freely pursue their work: Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Nina Simone, Paul Robeson.
“I left this country for one reason only. One reason. I didn’t care where I went. I might’ve gone to Hong Kong, I might’ve gone to Timbuktu, I ended up in Paris, on the streets of Paris, with $40 in my pocket on the theory that nothing worse could happen to me there than had already happened to me here,” Baldwin said on “The Dick Cavett Show” in 1969. (Watch the clip below at around 10:15)
More than 200 years ago, Haiti, the first free Black republic in the world, opened its doors to enslaved Africans in the United States. President Abraham Lincoln supported efforts toward creating new “colonies” for formerly enslaved people.
But even then, those efforts were met with resistance. Prominent African Americans like Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass believed that the United States was their country, too, as Georges E. Fouron, a professor of Education and Social Sciences at State University of New York at Stony Brook, recounts in a recent piece published by the Migration Policy Institute.
“The United States was their country, they said, and they had no intention of leaving it,” Fouron writes. “Instead, they demanded the immediate abolition of slavery and full and equal rights for all in the United States.”
The fight for equal rights and the realization of true freedom continues.
“Black people, African Americans, are always going to be searching for another kind of freedom. A bigger kind of freedom,” said Morgan Jerkins, a senior editor at Zora, a Medium publication for women of color, and the author of “Wandering in Strange Lands: a daughter of the great migration reclaims her roots.”
African Americans are communal. Jerkins points to Black churches, “packed in regular times.” She notes the block parties in her neighborhood in Harlem.
The pandemic has destabilized all of that. “When you don’t have that community, that does something to you.”
“I am proud to be an African American, and I fight for other African Americans. They are the reason I stay.”
Jerkins said she understood the impetus to leave but is among the countless African Americans who aren’t going anywhere. “I stay for so many reasons. So much of my work is based in African American culture,” she said. While you can do that work anywhere, it wouldn’t have the same urgency.
Plus, Jerkins points out that not all African Americans can just leave. That it’s a privilege only some can assert.
“I am proud to be an African American, and I fight for other African Americans,” she said. “They are the reason I stay.”
Kitzo-Creed, from Delaware, said she respects that some will stay and fight, but adds there is also strength in leaving and taking care of yourself.
“My grandparents were civil rights activists; just because they fought for my freedom doesn’t mean I have to stay here,” she said, adding she is grateful that because of their activism, she has that choice.
Kitzo-Creed said that her grandfather, a Baptist minister, actually preached with Martin Luther King Jr. when the icon came out to Los Angeles. And her grandparents together moved from Cleveland to the Watts neighborhood of LA, where they were during the civil unrest in that neighborhood in 1965. “I remember my stories of my grandmother driving past buildings on fire. They lived through all of that.”
She said her grandparents, who died five days apart three years ago, always knew she wanted to travel. “I think they would tell me to do it,” she said.
Devon Kitzo-Creed’s husband, Aaron, 29, told HuffPost he’s fully onboard to leave.
“I want my family, my wife, to be happy and successful and free to pursue education and wealth and opportunities for any children we may have,” he said. “I want the American dream and I have to leave to get it.”
He added that before he met his wife, he was absolutely aware of racism and knew Black people faced microaggressions. But he didn’t really understand its daily psychological impact. “It wasn’t real,” he said.
The first time the lightbulb went on, he said, was in his hometown in Maine one summer three years ago. He was excited to take Kitzo-Creed, then his girlfriend, to a local ice cream stand. He used to go there as a kid and even briefly worked there. “It was a childhood paradise,” he said.
He knew the woman behind the counter the day they walked up, and he was disgusted by the way she treated his now-wife when she went to pay for their ice-cream cones — vanilla soft-serve with rainbow sprinkles. Kitzo-Creed pulled out her debit card, which wasn’t signed. This is not uncommon. (Right now, in this white reporter’s wallet, there are two well-used, unsigned debit and credit cards.)
The woman behind the counter insisted Kitzo-Creed show an ID. Her partner fought her, pointing out that the woman wasn’t checking anyone else’s identification to buy ice cream. Kitzo-Creed said that without him there, she probably would’ve left empty-handed since she hadn’t brought her identification that day.
When she finally got her cone, there was a hole in the bottom. The woman fought her again when she spoke up.
Aaron Kitzo-Creed was floored. He remembered customer service being absolutely a priority at this place. It was just so clear that something else was happening.
“I don’t think I could survive the bullshit that Black Americans walk through daily and succeed,” he says now, looking back.
In a survey of 1,500 professionals by the women’s advocacy group Catalyst, more than 58% of women and men of color reported being often or always on guard against racism. This emotional tax wears away at human beings and leads many professionals to leave the workplace, so it’s not surprising some would take the more extreme leap.
“This experience of having to constantly prepare yourself for the potential of dealing with discrimination, bias, unfair treatment from the moment you leave the house until you come home,” is how Catalyst researcher Dnika Travis explained the phenomenon to HuffPost in an interview this summer.
She’s worked on these types of studies since 2016, and over the next few years. “At the time we thought there was safety within the home, but with Breonna Taylor...” she drifted off.
Many Black women were heartened this week to see Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) take on Vice President Mike Pence in the vice presidential debate.
“It was a historic moment,” writes HuffPost’s Erin Evans. “To see a woman of color speaking truth to power at another pivotal moment in our nation’s history.”
But the prospect of seeing Harris elected the country’s first Black and Asian American vice president wasn’t enough to persuade Kitzo-Creed to stick around.
“I think it would be amazing. Definitely a huge milestone,” she said. Still, she thinks the sight of a Black woman in such a position of power would set off racists again. “It’s adding fuel to the fire.”