Up Close From Afar: On Being A Black American Abroad

PETAL team
The team of PETAL (Promoting Empowerment Through Awareness for Lesbian/Bisexual Women)

I recently came across an article on Facebook where the author, a black American woman living abroad, was telling other black Americans to “stay woke” while living in other countries. She insisted that we need to stay involved in American politics by communicating with legislators and absentee voting on state and local levels, among other things. She also spoke about acknowledging our privilege of having the luxury to live abroad, and using that unique position as a way to stay politically active.

While I don’t disagree with what the author was saying, there was something about the piece that bugged me. I’ve been thinking about it and trying to figure out what it was. I realized that what was bothering me was the author’s emphasis on politics. Who is to decide what is “political” for someone? Why assume that black folks moving out of the States are separating themselves from politics, or that the act of distancing one’s self from the trauma and oppression of systemic racism isn’t a valid form of “being woke.”

Even though I am living here in Belize, I am still affected by what is happening in the States. It is still present – on television and radio, in folks’ conversations, and in my online spaces. I have been emotionally impacted by the recent murders of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and so many others by police officers, especially as I empathize with my black friends and family in the States who fear for their safety and wellbeing. Part of why I moved to Belize was to ensure my own.

I am grateful for no longer having to endure the daily racist microaggressions I experienced for years. I recognize the privilege I have to be able to distance myself physically from the violence against black folks in the States. I also believe that I do not have to engage the American political system in order to offer support and affect positive change.

Here’s the thing about being a black American abroad: my identity is political. It includes my racial, cultural, ethnic, social, national, sexual and gender identities. The fact that I am American informs every aspect of my life here, from the ways it allows me access to how it makes me a foreigner. Navigating and engaging that mindfully is something I am constantly doing. I have been talking a lot about what’s been happening to black folks in the States with my Belizean friends, and these conversations are often enlightening because they tend to reflect a real disconnect between what has been touted as the liberated, democratic image of the US and what it really is. And I am not interested in “fixing” that. That’s not my job.

What I am interested in is connecting with black folks here in Belize, and supporting community health and wellbeing. Last week I was invited to be a guest on the Speak Out radio show at Hamalali radio station in Dangriga to talk about mental health and the counseling work that I’ve been doing in the area. The hosts and I talked about the importance of black people healing from the trauma of slavery and colonialism, here and abroad. I’m interested in supporting that. I’m interested in supporting the LGBTQ+ community in Belize through my work with PETAL, an organization that has been inspired by the advocacy and activism of the LGBTQ+ communities in the States.

I believe that by supporting the black communities here, there is greater potential for their support of black Americans. As folks of the diaspora, we all need to support each other. That is community. That is love. Those are my politics.

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