Soldiers deployed in combat zones for long periods of time are routinely given what military folks call R and R. Rest and relaxation are quintessential to maintaining a healthy, war-ready mind, body and spirit. It is generally recognized and accepted that soldiers involved in the stressful, highly intense environment that is war, need a break, a cessation of fighting the fight, a moment of reprieve.
For the millions of humans of dark hue, residing in the United States of America, life can be like one long continuous war. Existence becomes one long battle being waged on your blackness. As someone who has escaped this battle, I would describe it as an abusive relationship with a larger, more powerful entity, which happens to hate you, sees you as a problem, doubts your intelligence, gaslights you and insists on being a malignant narcissist. Once looked at along these lines, the healthy-minded, self-loving ones will realize that they need a break. As a people, we need space.
So, after telling America that I was leaving her, I stepped into the unknown, which is daunting. But trust me, the only thing really unknown is yourself. That first step is the hardest but the most rewarding; every step after brings you into a deeper relationship with how the world works and one’s very own self.
Balance and Comparison
The U.S. has a tense, high-strung energy to it, as if the air itself is permeated by a humid dose of violence and anger, spread over a layer of existential crisis. Americans carry the weight of the world on their shoulders since success, happiness and joy are believed to be individually created. People’s sense of self-worth is essentially their net-worth. Thus, pride, self-esteem and any air of accomplishment are derived from one’s professional life. Americans aren’t really taught to balance work and life. My expatriate life surprised me in the sense that I was suddenly a person outside of my job. I found myself in bars and gatherings talking to Russians, South Africans, French, Brits and Brazilians who weren’t opening conversations with, “So, what do you do?” Suddenly, I wasn’t my job, wasn’t my job title and I wasn’t given measured respect in accordance with other’s calculations of my salary. Overtime, my job became what I worked to provide me with money to live and I wasn’t living to work.
Travel also teaches you that what is true on one side of the world is not necessarily true on the other. ‘Truths’ that were hammered into our head in school as inarguable facts, are revealed by travel to be simply culturally relative. Travel teaches you that cultural truths are often relative to that geographic location or are universally held to be beneficial. Dating, eating habits, hygiene and etiquette are all put under the microscope.
Any time you get to experience two of something, it gives you the ability to weigh the pros and cons of each. Having stepped out, turned around and looked back, one sees that so much of what one has learned must be unlearned. After a few years in China, I was forced to accept that, while China is often associated as creators of propaganda, American propaganda is just as pervasive. Examining the lies of the Chinese Communist Party just simply made me better at realizing that my government lies too. All men are created equal, the land of the free, are both examples of the rhetorical ethic, things that are to be stated but not actually put into application.
Racialization and Racism in the US
America ‘racializes’ you. For any African-American reading this, I have one challenge for you. For the next couple of days, pay attention to your conversations and count how many times you mention the words ‘black’ and ‘people’ together. Notice how much you talk about race; notice how you walk in a room and count the number of blacks in a room or how when hearing of a person doing something wrong, you immediately ask whether they are black or white. America positions us where the color of our skin becomes paramount. From the moment we cross the threshold of a door, our skin color marks and stamps us as inferior and non-standard. Also, I have witnessed, personally, where white America projects onto us all of the negative things they don’t wish to confront in themselves.
I suppose that’s the purpose of projection, it’s just easier to eliminate undesirable things when they are in ‘the other’. Blacks in America are told that they are violent, unintelligent and lazy. These, of course, are human behaviors, and those who accuse us of these things often are really talking to themselves. Who imported millions of others to work for them for free? Who took war, rape and ethnic genocide to every corner of the globe and validated it using the teachings of a dying god? Who was so unintelligent that they created a whole pseudo-science and then used it to make generalizations about the entire human race without ever leaving Europe? Being constantly embattled with this racial anxiety and existential angst can give one a lot of stress. Having to walk around with this in mind, and then add it to the mental machinations required to navigate ‘spaces’ conditions the mind to factor race into every aspect of one’s existence. Unfortunately, this can result in calculating race into crevices where it doesn’t exist. In the words of W.E.B. Dubois, “I see racism even where it is not.”
Don’t take this to mean that other countries don’t have racism. Unfortunately, Afrophobia is world-wide, even if you went to Africa, you’d still be an outsider. There is not a crack or corner of this world that a Black American can go and won’t meet some aspect of bigotry. However, what you won’t find is that thick, molasses-like malaise that floats in the air and is created by the hundreds of years of hate, discrimination and social conditioning. I have walked through spaces in China and I could feel that I was a foreigner. But when moving through American spaces I notice people’s faces when I walk by, how people’s body language shifts and women get uncomfortable. I’ve even had white people lock their car doors when I passed by their very cheap, unimpressive Nissan Altima. That tension can be felt in the air. It exists as a sort of energy that may slip underneath your waking consciousness, but on a somatic level that tension accumulates in the body as stress, disease and other acute pains and ailments. America is literally bad for our health.
Race takes up a lot of our mental space as well, there is so much of life that we miss out on because we are concerned about this megalith called racism that has been erected in our minds. Living in China gave me the ability to experience life outside of that tension. It gave me some well needed R and R, and my break from the battle showed that I had a lot of healing to do. The break from battle, the final rupture with an abusive partner, can be so liberating in the amount of clarity it can bring. Miles away from the front lines, I saw how America’s societal issues are deeply carved into the core of society and require Jungian-like psychoanalysis. As a people we can’t do that for America, America must do that for itself.
For me, traveling outside of the U.S. allowed me to come to know the corners of my soul that I have never thought to explore, to come to know myself as a human in ways that you can’t when your entire being is relegated to just being ‘Black’. The depth of a person is so much more than skin, a man is so much more than a color, which designates his societal caste. Throwing off the yolk of American ignorance allowed some of the finer aspects of myself to come forward and be, because they were seen as a part of me, not “but Black guys don’t usually…” I realized I didn’t know who I was outside of being Black, but traveling allowed me to be unracialized and humanized. I was finally not a whole societal problem, but a whole person.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.