The Black Artists Leaving America
WHEN THE VISUAL artist Ellen Gallagher was 20, she sailed on an oceanography expedition from her home in New England to Martinique. It was 1986 …
WHEN THE VISUAL artist Ellen Gallagher was 20, she sailed on an oceanography expedition from her home in New England to Martinique. It was 1986, and students in the former French colony were agitating for the right to take qualifying exams to attend university in France. To the sea-weary Gallagher, their protest looked more like a celebration. But she also felt, in this nexus of “Europe and Africa in the Americas,” she says, the “whimsical cruelty” of the imperial powers that had sought to carve up the globe, imposing vast cultural distance between places — predominantly white, Anglophone New England and Black, Francophone Martinique — that were so close you could readily sail between them.
She moved to Rotterdam in the Netherlands, as if to defy and suture those borders, in 2001. By then, the now-55-year-old artist had become known for sorting clusters of googly eyes and thick lips into minimalist grids; paintings that slyly located the roots of Western abstraction in minstrel caricature. Gallagher’s move “off the grid” of New York (and into a port city reminiscent of her hometown, Providence, R.I.), while partly motivated by her Dutch partner and collaborator, the 58-year-old filmmaker Edgar Cleijne, seemed to plunge her deeper into the history of racial abstraction, extraction and myth. The “Watery Ecstatic” series she began shortly after her move depicted a surreal marine kingdom populated by enslaved West African women and their unborn children who jumped or were thrown overboard during the Middle Passage to the United States. The figures’ bulging eyes and distorted features suggested that minstrel physiognomy was inescapable even for those Black subjects who were not born into the New World. But there was a painful wit in Gallagher’s refusal to imagine the underwater children as exempt from this history of figuration: In these works of watercolor, oil, ink and cut paper on paper, colorful Black bodies tunnel through the veins of sea creatures, jump out of the water and fill fish bodies with eyeball-shaped cells. Here, the foundational homelessness produced by the slave trade emboldens a reimagining of what and where home can be, and who else might be there.
The poet and rapper Mike Ladd, photographed at his studio in St. Denis, France, on July 1, 2021.Credit…Manuel Obadia-Wills
“STEAL AWAY,” goes the traditional slave spiritual, a song that enshrouds a call to escape the plantation with an appeal to the afterlife; and Black Americans have responded to the original theft of the slave trade by stealing themselves back and away from the United States in myriad ways — to places beyond America, and to autonomous worlds within it that are defined by region and family rather than the nation-state. In the antebellum period, enslaved people who escaped joined Indigenous people to form secret maroon colonies in North and South America and the Caribbean, and white supremacist agencies found some free Blacks eager to join the cause to repatriate them to Africa. When Reconstruction policies aimed at social reform sparked violent backlashes and an increase in lynchings, thousands of Black Americans left for Liberia, a free nation with an elected Black government. Decades later, the Jamaican-born leader Marcus Garvey claimed to have inspired millions of adherents to his Universal Negro Improvement Association, a global benevolent association with its own dreams of African return. And throughout the 20th century, Black American artists and intellectuals including the sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, the performers Paul Robeson and Nina Simone, the visual artists Augusta Savage and Romare Bearden and the writers Jessie Fauset, Richard Wright and James Baldwin traveled to Europe, the Caribbean and Africa seeking political alliances, creative opportunities and personal safety and sanity. Even when, in the 1960s, leaders like Malcolm X reconceived racial separatism in domestic rather than international terms — demanding that the U.S. government cede some states to Black citizens as reparations — activists like Amiri Baraka and Angela Davis sought refuge and revolutionary education in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, while writers like Julian Mayfield and Maya Angelou moved to newly independent Ghana. Many Black Americans have subsequently made new lives abroad for personal, creative and political reasons: the conceptual artist Adrian Piper in Berlin; the writer Andrea Lee in Torino, Italy; Tina Turner in Zurich; Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) in South Africa, among others. Earlier this year, Stevie Wonder announced his plans to move to Ghana, where the tourism ministry recently ramped up its decades-long outreach efforts to Black Americans by hosting a Year of Return in 2019.
Still, the decision to leave, like the decision to stay, has always been fraught. Was Africa a recoverable motherland, or had the Middle Passage marked an irreversible break (a concept examined by the scholar Saidiya Hartman in her 2007 book, “Lose Your Mother,” and underscored by the name of Ghana’s point of departure for the enslaved: the Door of No Return)? Was it better to fight racism at home or leave without trying to integrate into what Martin Luther King Jr. called “a burning house”? To risk malaria in Liberia or lynching in Missouri? More frivolously, should one believe the hype about Paris? Langston Hughes didn’t think so. “Style, class?” he wrote to Countee Cullen, another poet, in 1924. “You see more well-dressed people in a New York subway station in five seconds than I’ve seen all my three weeks in Paris.” “Stay home!” he advised another friend. This was not an option for artists such as Baker, Baldwin and Simone, who saw escaping the racial terrorism of what Simone called “the United Snakes of America” as the only way they could survive. Baldwin frequently cited a breaking point at which he felt he would kill, or be killed by, the next white American who called him the N-word.
White American artists have also left, of course — think Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald moving to Paris in the early 20th century — but with less urgency and more faith in their capacity to enjoy the “movable feast” (to borrow the expat Ernest Hemingway’s term) of white privilege anywhere in the world. Black artists, on the other hand, have often had to leave the States in order to activate the power of mobility denied them at home: A U.S. passport grants Black citizens access to most other countries, whereas merely jogging and driving while Black can prove fatal in America.
This contradiction fuels the contemporary trend known as Blaxit, a term named after the United Kingdom’s 2016 Brexit vote and attributed to the American human rights consultant Ulysses Burley III, who used it to describe the Black desire to escape both Donald Trump’s administration and ongoing police violence against Black people. Like earlier exoduses, Blaxit is driven by Black visions of “imaginary homelands,” as Salman Rushdie called them, but it also relies on individual capital and emphasizes personal fulfillment. The Blaxit Global Podcast, hosted by the 47-year-old New Jersey-based digital marketing entrepreneur Chrishan Wright (who also runs a related blog) begins with a seductive appeal: “Close your eyes and imagine living a life you love … free from daily microaggressions from Karens and Kens, free from the fear of police brutality and systemic racism. Wouldn’t that feel amazing?” Many people report that it in fact does — even as Blaxit discourse, driven as it is by corporate interest, as well as a desperate optimism about Black prospects abroad, tends to mute the racism and other forms of oppression that mark life beyond the States.
For all its complexities, Blaxit is perhaps most significant as a reminder that Black Americans (that is, those with the financial means to travel, who are not imprisoned or otherwise constrained by life in the United States) aren’t trapped. This message, so crucial in the midst of our current racial crisis, explains why even those African American writers who have stayed in the States have recently paid homage to iconic figures who’ve left. Earlier this spring, the Los Angeles-based poet and essayist Harmony Holiday, writing on Lit Hub, conjured the sacred Black space that Baldwin, Baker and the scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. created during a dinner in the South of France in 1973; Hanif Abdurraqib, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, writes in his 2021 book, “A Little Devil in America,” that he envies Baker (to whom he dedicates the book) because she “left America before it could persuade her to fall in love with it.”
FOR A CURRENT generation of African American artists, the decision to leave is often a love story, although it is less about breaking permanently with the States than about pursuing romantic or creative prospects abroad. (Gallagher embodies both impulses.) Black creative relocation is as temporary or as permanent as love itself; one figures it out as one goes. While contemporary Black expats do not enter ready-made communities akin to the so-called Negro colony formed by Black expats in Paris between the world wars, or the 1960s writers’ community in Accra, Ghana, they often work closely with contemporaries in their chosen sites — an aspect of life abroad that Blaxit publicity, with its neocolonialist treatment of the adopted home as a blank slate of individual betterment, tends to forget. Their moves are at once personal and driven by a desire to connect; and if these artists do not expect to feel wholly at home anywhere in the world, neither do they assume America is the only, or the best, place to exercise their collaborative gifts.
Stefanie Batten Bland, a 46-year-old choreographer raised in an artists’ community in downtown New York, was dancing with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in the early 2000s when she left the States to perform with Pina Bausch’s company in Germany. Bland, who identifies as an artist of “European and African descent” (her mother is a white science writer; her father was the Black jazz composer Edward Bland), had no illusions about finding greater racial acceptance in Europe; but she had been raised to “go where you are valued” as an artist. Aside from the limited professional options for dancers of color, Bland’s theater-dance sensibility seemed better suited to European traditions than to the non-narrative postmodernism then ascendant in the States. After Bausch, she danced with Pal Frenak in Hungary and France; later, having followed a lover to Paris, she auditioned for the role of Josephine Baker in the biographical musical produced by the Opéra Comique. The director Jérôme Savary hired her, not as “Jo” but as the head choreographer, and soon encouraged her to create her own shows. She founded her own company, SBB, in 2008. But after austerity measures cut public arts funding in Europe, where mentorship models were also lacking, she moved back to New York in 2011. She returns to France regularly (her partner is French), and retains a European dance corps in addition to an American one.
Bland delights in describing the cross-cultural interplay between her U.S. and European teams, where the Americans bring hustle and fire — products of a system in which, for instance, a small, independent company can compete with New York’s Lincoln Center for the same source of funding — while the Europeans revel in process, research and detail. Sketching a common scene, she tells me how the Americans are impatient to make headway on a project, whereas “my European team might be like, ‘Well, why don’t we just think about this a little more? Is it even worth it?’ And then we start eating.”
Around the time Gallagher and Bland were moving abroad, Mike Ladd, a poet and rapper from Boston known for mixing abrasive punk with Bollywood samples and discordant jazz, left the Bronx for Paris. He had fallen in love with a Parisian (now his wife, Fanny Ladd), but he left behind a vital musical community in New York, including the rapper El-P and the guitarist and drummer Jaleel Bunton. He did not expect Paris to benefit his art. On the contrary, as a student of global history (his undergraduate thesis focused on 19th-century Black American travel writers like William Wells Brown and Nancy Gardner Prince), Ladd felt that the lights had dimmed on the Paris that had allowed earlier Black artists to shine; those energies, he believed, had shifted to cities like Lagos, São Paulo and Mumbai. The first record he made while abroad (his seventh overall), “Negrophilia: The Album” (2005), is a complex homage to the historian Petrine Archer-Straw’s account of Black modernists in France.
But Paris did eventually foster Ladd’s genius for collaboration. Now 51, he has worked with artists like the French rapper Casey and the legendary American jazz saxophonist (and fellow expat) Archie Shepp. Still, for years he toured so often that he imagined himself not a resident of Paris but an occupant of an “invented megalopolis” that included New York and London (Ladd’s friend and longtime collaborator, the pianist Vijay Iyer, has called it the “Atlantic Rim”). Plus, he “had little reverence for European culture.” This posture was liberating: He felt freer to experiment in front of audiences whose opinion he didn’t value. “The downside,” he says, is that in the absence of “my people, Black people, who are the toughest audience in the world, my craft wasn’t necessarily honed.” Now, when he performs for members of that original scene, he sometimes questions his work: “Is it excellent?” That concept, close cousin to the hustle that Bland describes, encompasses both a performance standard and a constant source of pressure that defined Ladd’s musical community at home. But he has learned to combine the possibilities of exilic experimentation with the rigor of that training ground. He cites one especially memorable gig with the Parisian Afrobeat band Arat Kilo and the Malian singer Mamani Keita, held at Maison la Grand Cour Desbassayns, a former slave plantation on the island of Réunion. “We decided we would do some spiritual housecleaning onstage that night,” he says. “We didn’t need to burn sage. We just performed with the type of vigor, bravery and generosity that bad spirits can’t handle.”
SOME ARTISTS FIND peace and power in the state of transience. Brian Keith Jackson, a writer who grew up in Louisiana and now, at age 53, identifies as a “vagabond,” was living in New York when, in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, he felt the city’s energy change. He had published three works of fiction, including a vibrant 2002 novel of manners and masquerade, “The Queen of Harlem,” but, he says, “I didn’t feel good.” He left for Beijing, where he had visited once before, in 2007, when he and the artist Mickalene Thomas had gone to visit Jackson’s friend the painter and fellow wanderer Kehinde Wiley. Jackson stayed in China for five years, then moved on to Tunisia and, over the years, frequently visited Dakar, Senegal, drawn by the water and by Wiley, who established an artist’s colony, Black Rock Senegal, there in 2019. Jackson returned to Dakar in February of 2020 for what he thought would be another short visit, but ended up staying, through the Covid-19 lockdown, for over a year — not only in Dakar, but inside. When we spoke in May, he estimated he had left his house 15 times. It was unnerving not to have a doctor or a hospital in the midst of a pandemic, yet empowering to be in a Black country. “We all talk about, ‘Oh, representation matters,’ like in the newsroom and on television,” he says, “but it’s still minuscule compared to being completely surrounded by people who look like you.” They aren’t all good or bad, of course, but the experience of living among them is restorative: “I think people need that,” he says.
The need for Black community is no less pressing in majority-white spaces. Gallagher notes that Rotterdam is unique among European cities, in that people of color live in the center. That’s where “everybody wants to be,” she says, “like in New York.” (She keeps a second home in Brooklyn.) Ladd likewise began to feel at ease in Paris when he found areas that resembled New York: He rented a recording studio in the banlieue of St. Denis, which is like “the Bronx or Brooklyn of Paris,” he says, because “you’re surrounded by people of color.” It’s not that he feels politically safer in France. “We keep a jump bag,” he says, in case French nationalists gain more power and his family needs to leave. But he does feel more physically secure. He was walking down his street one day shortly after his move when it dawned on him: “There are no guns here — and 35 years of subconscious pressure just shot right out of my body.”
To some extent, the U.S. passport gives African American artists not only mobility but also protection from the abuses sustained by people of color elsewhere in the world. In the 1950s, Baldwin felt his Americanness acutely when he saw how brutally Algerians were treated in France; their struggle for independence from French colonial rule was not his war, and his nationality partially exempted him from its consequences. For all that has changed in the decades since, Americans of all ethnicities are still often seen as the agents of empire, and their reputation for arrogance and jingoism persists. Jackson tries not to reinforce that stereotype — “I’m always respectful that I am a visitor,” he says — while being aware that this state of not belonging cuts both ways for the Black traveler. He writes in a 2010 essay of leaving one store in Brazil for another in search of cooking ingredients and being stopped by police who assumed the Black men in the car (a group that included Wiley) were buying drugs. The cops, like many men in the Rio de Janeiro favela, were armed. As Bland notes, biases of class, color, nationality, sexuality and gender “just shift around” from place to place. She describes being hounded by neo-Nazis in Germany and being propositioned in Italy, while dining alone, by men who assumed she was a prostitute. She has spent her life defying these assumptions, even if she can’t escape them.
IT CAN BE hard to locate oneself among such shifting affiliations and prejudices, but also to affix one’s identity to spaces that are themselves always in flux. Jackson describes the changes he witnesses in Dakar — the dust storms and coastal tides, as well as the rapid urban development underway even during a pandemic. The spot where Bland, and then her children, once played in SoHo was converted into a dog park. Amid these changes, these artists turn to constants: Jackson’s methodical revision process, rewriting everything as he incorporates edits to his novel in progress; the decision Ladd made, long ago, to privilege family over work. (“This is totally off the record,” he tells me, “because I don’t want my family to develop some kind of neurosis … but they’re kind of my platinum record.”)
These artists are also grounded by global struggle — the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, as well as their counterparts around the world. While Ladd and Bland believe there is a more advanced, longstanding conversation about race in America — one that Bland believes may spur a “reverse exodus” of people of color to the States — Jackson notes that people have recently taken to the streets of Dakar to contest political leadership; and Gallagher sends me photos from a June 2020 protest in the Netherlands staged in support of American B.L.M. activists, and also to contest local racist violence: thousands of people stretching over the River Maas on Rotterdam’s Erasmus Bridge. The potential for people of diaspora to make a place for themselves in the world among far-reaching kin is encoded in the title of Gallagher’s 2013 Tate Modern retrospective, “AxME.” A nod to the Black American vernacular (“ask me”), the title also signifies the artist’s desire to hack through Western fantasies of innocence and purity; while also, as Gallagher’s friend the historian Robin D.G. Kelley points out in a catalog essay, reaching back to Africa to evoke the Yoruba word for life force, “Axé,” perhaps as a blessing.
“What it means to be a Black creative person in the world — that is hard won,” Gallagher says. “And we share it over time.” She speaks of feeling “threaded” with other Black and brown people — an artisanal image that is also a natural metaphor, evoking a spider’s web. The threads that stretch and bind people are invisible and tenuous, but also intricate and durable. They come to the fore in moments of racial unrest. For the working artist, the threads of interconnection also expand in quotidian, practical ways: as curators of color from Asia and Africa exhibit Gallagher’s work, which is often passed over by major Dutch museums; as Ladd records a new album with the rappers Juice Aleem (from Birmingham, England) and Ngnima Sarr (a.k.a. Tie, who lives in Paris and Dakar). Their trio is called the Exillians, a name that speaks to the fugitive alliances of those who, like the maroons of the slavery era, are stateless, restless and intent on being left alone to create something new together.
As Hartman writes in “Lose Your Mother,” “If the past is another country, then I am its citizen” — a Black American who inhabits the afterlife of slavery, as well as a keeper of the historical memory that binds her to Black people across time and space. These contemporary artists express a similar sense of kinship with the iconic Black travelers who preceded them. For Bland, Baker’s real genius was to blend the sounds of her African American heritage with “the exotic-erotic mannerisms that the public wanted to see” and “play this status game, where ‘We’ll learn your language, we’ll master it, so that you are now buying my product.’” She hopes to extend this legacy through her own subversive, syncretic work. Gallagher sees her life in Europe as made possible by travelers like Baldwin, who himself “could be in Paris” because of Caribbean and African writers, such as Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor, who came before him. Contemporary artists do not only inherit these legacies; they reinterpret them. Challenging the story that artists like Baldwin left the States for their art, Jackson notes, “They were just as often going to hide.” His remark reminds us of other, less glorified reasons Black Americans have left: Because they could, and were curious about what would come next.