But even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race. You are cut off from many of the advantages which the other race enjoy. The aspiration of men is to enjoy equality with the best when free, but on this broad continent, not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours. [Even when you] go where you are treated the best…the ban is still upon you.
–Abraham Lincoln, “Address on Colonization to a Deputation of Negroes,” 1862
We are in the midst of an interminable bloody season. In the past few months alone, white domestic terrorists have heaped violence on the unsuspecting at an alarming rate, and even after the recent tragic events in Charlottesville, our elected officials are doing very little to tamp down this upsurge in outwardly expressed supremacism. Their collective failure to name racialized brutality for what it is along with their refusal to work earnestly to defeat it renders complicit each one of them whose sole actions are stale, pedestrian utterances of regret in the aftermath.
Americans should not be wholly surprised by such disturbances occurring in our public spaces in such rapid succession. We had every indication of this possibility. Take, for instance, President Trump’s now-infamous question from the campaign trail. “What do [African Americans] have to lose….What the hell do you [African Americans] have to lose?” Trump’s spectacle was an affected performance of a “tell it like it is” posture before a near-white audience; as he feigned a desire to win the Black vote, Trump sarcastically rattled off a list of what he deemed to be African American failures, including the community’s supposed naive faithfulness to the Democratic party.
With a mocking tone, Trump connected Blackness to inherent deficiency, offering a thinly-veiled reinforcement to his base that the Trump/Pence ticket subscribed to notion that somehow African Americans are pathologically irresponsible, impoverished because of their own laziness and lack of grit, and owners of nothing from which it would hurt them to part. The most significant extrapolation from this particular dog whistle and the Trump administration’s contemptible actions thus far is this: Black bodies are the vessels upon which anything can and will continue to occur unabated in the name of upholding white supremacy.
The number of politicians from the right and the left who have joined in the call for the removal of Confederate memorials after the progressive counter-protester Heather Heyer was murdered in Charlottesville should give us pause. That such a motley group of politicians is now trotting out phrases such as white supremacy and domestic terrorism as well as urging the dismantling of memorials is curious and reminiscent of the quickness with which the South Carolina state legislature acted in 2015 to remove the Confederate flag from its state house grounds in the aftermath of Dylann Roof’s attack on Black parishioners at Charleston’s Mother Emmanuel AME Church. This most recent cadre of elected officials’ concurrent epiphanies about racism feel calculated and forced. And while the removals appear to be a step in the right direction, we must ask ourselves what has been accomplished legislatively in the past two years to counter the historical effects of racist policies in South Carolina and the nation.
The immediate indication is that those folks are not serious about social justice. As the Confederate memorials come tumbling down across the nation, here’s a proposition: perhaps Black people should leave “America” behind.
I daydream often about flight these days, of somehow being accorded an ability to escape, even briefly, the reality that our everyday norm in the United States is steeped in a brazenly articulated contempt for our existence. Every day, the knot in my stomach persists, ever-tightens. Where can we find respite, a place to be still and safe and welcome…free and alive? My fantasies of exodus are not mere folly, but located in a history of Black strivings for liberty and controversies over whether African Americans would ever be able to establish a home in this land given the persistence of racism.
Along with most of his free Black contemporaries, for instance, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass was a staunch integrationist and as such, he railed against repatriation and emigration efforts, including the unexpected strategy proposed during a meeting that President Abraham Lincoln held with a contingent of Black leaders at the White House on August 14, 1862. In the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln floated a plan for African American colonization in Central America, and attempted to reason with the men with hopes that they might champion the scheme among their respective communities. In a direct appeal for separatism, Lincoln attempted to strike a tone of compassion, but his bigoted rationale offended his guests and engendered distrust instead:
You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word we suffer on each side. If this is admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated….
Our white men [are] cutting one another’s throats, none knowing how far it will extend; and then consider what we know to be the truth. But for your race among us there could not be war, although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or the other. Nevertheless, I repeat, without the institution of Slavery and the colored race as a basis, the war could not have an existence.
Lincoln’s problematic argument for repatriation centers the blame for white suffering and the Civil War conflict on the very presence of Black people, presaging the subsequent postbellum nation’s propensity for anti-blackness, misdirected resentment, and brutal violence.
Predictably, the men and their community members balked at Lincoln’s plan and Douglass, who went on to have a relatively collegial relationship with Lincoln, referred to him in that moment as a “genuine representative of American prejudice and Negro hatred and far more concerned for the preservation of slavery…than for any sentiment of magnanimity or principle of justice and humanity.” Incidentally, Douglass’ conclusions here are aligned with a warning issued by the Black nationalist and abolitionist David Walker who had expressed years prior in 1829 that free Black people should remain in America, but because of an even more pointedly stated set of reasons. Walker famously argued about what he viewed as the inanity of emigration in his Appeal, in Four Articles:
Let no man of us budge one step, and let slave-holders come to beat us from our country. America is more our country, than it is the whites–we have enriched it with our blood and tears. The greatest riches in all America have arisen from our blood and tears–and will they drive us from our property and homes, which we have earned with our blood? They must look sharp or this very thing will bring swift destruction upon them. The Americans have got so fat on our blood and groans, that they have almost forgotten the God of armies. But let them go on.
White racists did in fact “go on” in the ensuing decades in the sense that oppressive forms merely shifted in their application throughout the nineteenth century and during slavery’s afterlives. In the twentieth century, the idea of Africa as a liberating homeland remained in the consciousness of some African Americans, including those interested in Chief Alfred Sam and Marcus Garvey’s West African repatriation schemes in the 1910s and 1920s. Others embraced Pan-Africanist philosophies which, in brief, are concerned with the worldwide uplift and well-being of African descended peoples, but remained committed to fighting for the civil rights cause in the United States.
In All God Children Need Traveling Shoes, a travel account of her two-year exile in Ghana in the 1960s, Maya Angelou catalogs a demonstration that she and other African American expatriates held at the American Embassy in solidarity with the March on Washington back in the United States. Angelou explained that the participants’ emotions were heightened by the unfortunate news that the renowned sociologist, historian, and activist Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, who had spent a lifetime on the civil rights agenda in the United States, only to expatriate to Ghana at an advanced age, had passed away the evening before. A plaintive voice rose up amongst the mourning crowd, singing a spiritual about freedom and the necessity of resoluteness. Soon afterward, two American soldiers emerged from the embassy and raised the stars and stripes ceremoniously, irritating the emotional crowd and prompting a participant to respond sarcastically to the creators of the scene, “This isn’t Iwo Jima, guys….This is Africa.” Angelou goes on to reflect soberly on the demonstrators’ anger and yearning as well as the disappointment and fleeting hope that the flag’s presence generated,
I shuddered to think that while we wanted that flag dragged into the mud and sullied beyond repair, we also wanted it pristine, its white stripes, summer cloud white. Watching it wave in the breeze of a distance made us nearly choke with emotion. It lifted us up with its promise and broke our hearts with its denial. We hurled invectives against the soldiers’ retreating backs, knowing that the two young men were not our enemies and that our sneers did not hide our longing for full citizenship under that now undulating flag.
The expatriates would have to contend with the flag on American soil more quickly than they anticipated. By 1966, Kwame Nkrumah was deposed by a CIA-assisted military coup, forcing many members of the expatriate population to return back to the United States. Within two decades, however, significant numbers of everyday African Americans and other peoples from the transatlantic slavetrade diaspora once again turned their attention to Ghana and other African countries, feeling as if temporary and permanent ancestral homeland journeys, as imperfect as they tend to be, might fulfill their yearnings for a country that earnestly loved them back.
What Angelou and the other expatriates’ reactions indicate is that for people of color in American society, there is a continuous negotiation with a sense of uncertainty: one minute, we marvel at our country’s beauty and promise and the next, we are yanked back into reality by reminders that far too many segments of our nation loath our very existence and will stop at nothing to ensure that we are relegated to far corners inside yet outside of the nation.
Charlottesville. Charleston. Olathe. College Park. Portland. Whither justice in a land of unbridled white supremacists wont to thriving on our blood and tears? When there is continued indifference to the vulnerability of Black life in America…when we are perceived firstly as threats to be silenced permanently rather than precious human lives, we rage and mourn but also endeavor to imagine new possibilities for survival. Ours is a legacy of creative and persistent agitation against any ideal that forecloses the possibility of liberty for people of color. The perpetuity of injustice is why we would do well to never stop dreaming of the kind of place to which we might travel to truly make a life. But where in the world can we go? What kinds of new spaces can we create? This is urgent. It has always been urgent. We have everything to lose.
–Michelle Commander is an associate professor of English at the University of Tennessee. She is the author of Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic, which is forthcoming from Duke University Press. Follow her on Twitter: @professormdc and check out her website: michelle-commander.com