Moving to a new country can stimulate personal development and emotional growth — especially for artists looking for creative inspiration. For Black Americans, however, this move can present a special set of challenges that stem from a long history of institutionalized racism, discrimination and oppression. We know, however, from the stories of our ancestors, that it can be worth it.
If living abroad is something you’re considering as a Black creative, it’s worth examining why some of our revered creatives up and left — and what it did for their spirits and their craft.
During the pandemic, the term “Blaxit” began to infiltrate our feeds and group texts — it’s a term that describes the sometimes-revolutionary act of Black Americans leaving their home countries to live, work, or study abroad. Blaxit is often seen as a response to the systemic racism, discrimination and lack of opportunities faced by Black people in their home countries. By leaving, many of us hope to find better economic and social conditions and escape the constant threat of racial violence.
The concept isn’t new, of course. Black people have been leaving their home countries for centuries in search of a better life. During the 20th century, the Great Migration saw millions of Black people leave the rural South of the United States for cities in the North and West in search of better economic opportunities. And more recently, Black people from around the world have been moving to various places abroad, either to escape discrimination and racism in the U.S. or to take advantage of economic opportunities and simply a more fruitful quality of life.
As a Black American woman who has lived in Mexico, as well as countries in Asia, Europe and Africa, I have found that I share a great deal with many of my foremothers and forefathers who conceptualized and crafted some of their greatest works abroad. In 2015, when I moved to Egypt at the age of 28, I was amazed to find out that Dr. Maya Angelou had not only lived in Cairo many moons prior to my arrival but was an editor at a newspaper there. During my time there, I often sought to retrace steps she took both literally and in her writing career.
Similar to Angelou, many Black creatives found themselves creating and thriving abroad. To name a few: James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, Audre Lorde and Paul Robeson. I find that, similar to the experiences of my creative ancestors, living abroad allowed me to expand how I saw the world and related to other humans.
I got my news directly from the sources. I learned languages. I sat and ate (a sacred act for so many cultures) with communities very different from mine. And as a result, I began writing about my journey as a way to resist the myth that Black excellence can only be measured by financial wealth or which fancy job you have. We’re allowed to find joy in wandering by ourselves, collecting experiences and finding new parts of ourselves far away from home.
James Baldwin, for example, left the United States for France in 1948, as he describes it, to escape racial discrimination and gain a new perspective on the world. While there, he wrote several groundbreaking novels, essays and plays, including “Notes of a Native Son” and “The Fire Next Time,” both of which bravely explored race, sexuality and identity in America. His work challenged and inspired generations of writers and activists.
To be fair, Baldwin did find that France had its own form of racism — it’s clear that anti-Blackness lives in every corner of the world. He wrote an essay in 1949 called “Equal in Paris” where he talks about being arrested for allegedly stealing a bedsheet and forced to sign Parisian documents of guilt without an attorney or contact with the U.S. Embassy. Still, it appears that escaping our specific brand of racism served many Black artists in certain ways.
Some Black artists have left powerful footprints abroad as well. Audre Lorde, a poet and essayist, left the United States for Berlin in 1984, where she continued to write and speak out against oppression and discrimination. Her body of work challenged societal norms and celebrated the experiences of marginalized communities, including Black women, queer women and immigrants. Lorde’s writings still resonate in Germany and Mexico, where she cultivated movements that have transcended both Afro-Mexican and Afro-German communities of women.
Josephine Baker, a dancer and singer, left the United States for France in the 1920s, where she became a beloved performer and activist. She used her platform to challenge racial stereotypes and to fight for civil rights in both America and Europe. Although extraordinarily talented and beautiful, Baker didn’t rest on those adjectives to blend in or vainly stand out, but to create a groundswell of support for movements that advocated for her people, at home and abroad.
Today’s Blaxit echoes the past but incorporates new desires as well. Nicole Brewer, an Oman-based Black American, built a teaching, writing and globe-trotting community in the footsteps of the skilled storytellers of the past. Originally from Detroit, Brewer left the United States during the 2008 recession. She figured, as a Black woman, she’d have more opportunities not only for work but also to grow into who she hopes to become — strong, fulfilled and culturally open-minded.
“I’ve been inspired by James Baldwin as a writer and expat,” she said. “He spoke so much truth to power. His quote, ‘The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose,’ spoke volumes [to me,] a person who had nothing to lose by moving abroad and starting over after being laid off from my job in Chicago.” Brewer has lived in Germany, South Korea, South Africa and Oman so far.
It’s a tale as old as time: Black Americans exploring new possibilities because they feel depleted and exploited in the U.S., stuck emotionally or simply creatively. And just like Lorde did, we also tend to leave an enormous influence in other countries, sparking much-needed conversations about racism, sexism, misogyny and the miles-long list of oppressive systems that exist worldwide.
My own footprint abroad started when I began teaching 11th-grade English Literature in Cairo. I taught my students about Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou as well as the Haitian Revolution and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. My goal was to have them better understand me — and the world around them – through the experiences of Blackness in the West. Sharing my stories and experiences (as Baker, Baldwin and all my other ancestral expats did), is a giant step toward dismantling mindsets.
Our Blaxit pioneers’ work, their joy, and their fight for racial and social justice paved the way for our freedom to explore. In my seven years abroad, I found that life makes room for whatever your journey to the best version of you looks like.