When I first left America, I left behind a lifetime of waiting for racism to end.
It was 2013, I was 23 and had just finished college. I bought a one-way ticket dated the day of the graduation ceremony. As the plane took off from JFK and landed in Trinidad, relief washed over me. I finally felt like I could breathe. I had no plan for how I would make a life for myself, but I knew there wasn’t one for me back in America. Still, I tried time and time again, even after that moment, to return to the home I knew, only to realize again that it would never fully embrace me as a Black woman.
Measuring the harm of racism, of something as all-encompassing, and as subtle as it is overt, is an impossible task. But when I finally picked up and left, my decision felt born out of time that had been stolen from me. The hours I had sunk into internalizing negative messages about Blackness, moving after being priced out of neighborhoods, reconfiguring my identity and my body to try to appease white standards, and begging for others to acknowledge the pain and trauma I had endured. Fighting to survive as Black woman in America had exhausted me.
How can I account for the number of seconds, minutes, days, years, that I waited, and waited, for a day uncolored by racism? It’s unquantifiable, but here’s my best guess: There are the hundreds of hours I spent astutely absorbing history lessons as a child, my kinky hair braided or pulled into Afro puffs, wondering why the brown faces in my textbooks that resembled mine were consolidated into chapters only about their pain and struggle. The moon rose high the many nights I lay in bed contemplating the hideousness of racism that incited crowds of white people to scream and jeer at little Black girls and boys who dared venture into whiter pastures in search of an education. Behind the darkness of my eyelids played images of enslaved Black people sojourning through the woods of the South with only the North Star serving as a beacon of hope for their freedom.
Countless sunrises illuminated my mother’s travails in search of the basic necessities for her and her family. A single parent, she worked for decades as a hospice nurse at the bedsides of dying patients — some of whom were old and white and called her racial epithets — to provide for her three children. The sun set on many family dinners while Mom tried to explain why we could no longer attend the “good” school.
“I can’t afford to buy, I’m sorry,” mom would say when we were priced out of our Florida neighborhood, her voice heavy with shame and defeat.
I spent 300 hours of my childhood on road trips moving from New Jersey to Texas, Florida and back, 30 hours moving my family’s things from home to home. Once, we tied mattresses to the hood of our car and laughed while stuffing towels into the cracked windows to stop the rain from leaking in and soaking us.
Such hardships never stopped the labor of my bootstrap-pulling. As a young woman, I tied my sneaker laces too many times to count and clocked hours running, the bass of the music in my ears setting the pace of my quest to slim down like the white women I watched on television. I buried myself in my studies and maintained mostly A grades in school and university, all in a quest for social mobility and assimilation and “success.” Perhaps then, I hoped, I would be more desirable and acceptable in the white world that promised comfort and security.
As a writer, for years I argued that generations of people should never inherit wealth or hardship purely based on their skin color, and that we must close America’s racial wealth gap with reparations if the country truly aspires to equality.
“I don’t see color” was the most common dismissal I heard of my writing, as if America’s ghettoization of Blackness was something hard to see.
It was especially evident to me when I spent 72 weeks of my life pregnant. During my first prenatal doctor’s visit, I waited for three hours to be seen by a white male doctor for 10 minutes in a clinic that served mostly Black women.
“Your next appointment with the doctor will be in about four weeks,” the nurse told me, though I had barely received any medical care. I knew in that moment that I’d need to spend more time looking for another doctor.
Afterward, I sat for two hours on the phone with the Medicaid bureaucracy before I was able to see a doctor in a “better” part of town that served a more diverse clientele. I left the new doctor’s office with a prescription for levothyroxine for hypothyroidism after blood tests revealed that I was not producing enough thyroid hormone necessary for a fetus to properly develop. Had I waited as suggested by my doctor, my health would have been at risk. And my firstborn might have had developmental issues or even died in my womb, leaving us another Black infant mortality or maternal death statistic.
I endured seven total hours in labor to bring my two children into the world. In those first hours of their lives, I prayed that I would find a way to provide for, support, and protect them from the racism that made my life so much more difficult. That the world would see them through my eyes, in all their perfection, forever.
But when I tried to envision the future my Black children would have in America, I could only see their lives marred by pain, hardship, and degradation. I was haunted by fears of my son becoming the next Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice — Black boys gunned down by police or vigilantes for merely existing. In my daughter’s tiny brown face, I saw the vulnerability of Black girls like Honestie Hodges, who died of the coronavirus at age 14, only three years after her violent arrest by Michigan police made national headlines. With them in tow, I boarded a flight back to my birth country, hoping the choice could set them on a safer trajectory. One filled with welcome and opportunity for their Blackness.
Centuries after millions of enslaved Africans journeyed across the Atlantic in the belly of slave ships, their spirits, and those of the millions of Black lives claimed by the white appetite for Black suffering, haunt America. They stand behind the millions of Black Americans still fighting to survive a centuries-old genocidal system. They visit me in my nightmares. Their backs are scarred, their wrists, ankles, and necks are bruised, and their bodies are riddled by bullet holes.
The gaping lesions created by systemic racism are widening and continue to fester as thousands of Black lives are claimed by Covid-19, which has disproportionately impacted communities of color that were already insufficiently armed to win the war against the pandemic. Families of color are being plunged into economic despair in a “K-shaped” recovery that favors white families and turns a blind eye to Black suffering. This is one of America’s darkest moments, and the North Star cannot lead Black people to the light of freedom.
Two years have passed since I left America for good, finally accepting that the country may never make good on its promise of full citizenry for Black people. I tallied the centuries’ worth of fighting expended by Black Americans and the many hundreds of hours I spent thinking, enduring, and battling — and I realized I could see no end to the struggle in my lifetime.
I am 30 years old and my life is not yet perfect, but it’s so much better. My sister joined me seven months after I moved, and my mother joined us in the months that followed. Together, we eat breakfast and drink coffee every morning while the kids play, free of the burdens we certainly would have carried had we remained in the US. If Mom had waited longer, she, as a nurse, could have been among those whose lives were claimed by Covid-19.
It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the guilt of surviving and escaping while so many continue to suffer. Not everyone has the option. And moving far away from family and community connections is hard. I understand why someone couldn’t make that sacrifice.
But there was something I couldn’t sacrifice, either — another moment.
Tiffanie Drayton is a writer working on her first memoir about escaping American racism (Penguin/Random House 2021). She previously wrote for Vox about what reparations means for Black women and Americans living abroad who voted in the 2020 election.