LAMBEAU, Trinidad and Tobago — I watched the video of George Floyd taking his last breaths under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer while scrolling through Facebook early one morning here. The sound of crashing waves and my children’s giggles created the soundtrack for the devastating images.
My mother came out onto our sunny front patio, a cup of coffee in one hand and phone in the other. She also had news to share.
“They turned the unit I worked on into a Covid unit,” she blurted out. Everyone at her old hospital, she said, was complaining there wasn’t enough personal protective equipment.
If she hadn’t moved from New Jersey to join me here, just months before the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the United States, she would have been working as a nurse on the front lines of a war with a disease that has disproportionately claimed the lives of people of color and health care workers like her.
Our decision to leave the United States has spared us from so much suffering and danger.
“Mom,” I said, “we are refugees.”
In 2013, when George Zimmerman was found not guilty of second degree murder in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin — a black child gunned down in his own neighborhood, branded a thug in a hoodie — I knew I had to leave America.
The racism that had become all too familiar to me as a black woman was too much to bear. I packed my things, made sure to secure a few online writing gigs and moved in with my sister in Maraval, on the island of Trinidad. She’d moved from the States a few months earlier, after struggling to find work or afford a place of her own there, and secured a job with a government ministry and a two-bedroom apartment. I settled easily.
Still, as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum over the next few years, I prayed from afar that America would finally allow black people the fair treatment they’d long fought for. Instead, white Americans fired back with “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter,” and critics branded the group as “anti-police,” with some going so far as to accuse social justice advocates of inciting a “race war.”
I concluded America would never stop battling against its black citizenry.
It’s not that I didn’t have good experiences in the United States. Memories of my American childhood were once bright and vivid, like a flower-filled landscape painted in watercolor. Back in the 1990s, when I was 4, my mother moved to America from Trinidad and Tobago as a single parent with my two siblings and me. The first New Jersey neighborhood I called home was a bustling, diverse town just outside of New York City. The area was mostly Hispanic, but it also had both white and black residents. My family blended right in.
In school, I learned to pledge allegiance to the American flag.
“With liberty and justice for all,” I proudly recited every morning.
I was an honor-roll student who felt adored and supported by my teachers. I roamed the town with friends, stopping at the pizza parlor for a dollar slice, or the bodega for an empanada.
The brilliant American landscape painted in my childhood mind was ruined by anti-blackness as I grew older. The quest for security, stability and affordable housing left the biggest stains. Though my family loved that small New Jersey town, the steadily increasing cost of living forced us out.
We rented an apartment on the outskirts of a wealthy neighborhood in Orlando, Fla. For two years, I attended school there, taking honors classes with mostly white students, and playing tennis and soccer on well-funded, mostly white sports teams.
By then, at only 14 years old, I understood the code words of America’s school system. It was simple: “Bad” schools were majority black, “good” schools were majority white. Eventually, I learned that rule applied to almost everything in America.
My time in the “good” school was short. My family was once again priced out when our rental was turned into expensive condos.
By the time I was in college, my mother, tired of moving, purchased one of the few homes she could afford in New Jersey. That was her way of supporting my dream to study in New York City.
My memories of our new neighborhood are nightmarish, in ways that I now understand are the result of systemic racism: Police officers creeping through the night to raid the home next door. Poverty. Streets filled with dilapidated businesses and boarded-up foreclosed houses. The only colors that penetrate those dark memories are the blue and red lights of police vehicles parked on every other street corner, swirling all night long.
My mind had become monochromatic and plagued by a single question: Why was it so hard to have a good life as a black person in America?
I scanned history books for answers, only to find black pain, death and oppression. Slavery, black codes, lynching, Jim Crow, school segregation, redlining, drug wars, mass incarceration and gentrification. Assassinations, exiles, unending persecution. Black successes met with a storm of violence, like the surge of white supremacist hate after Reconstruction and even the election of Barack Obama.
The unfair banking practices that prevented black homeownership in the suburbs and the gentrification that reclaimed black cities for white people. Images of lifeless black bodies, casualties of war: black men and women hanging from trees; Emmett Till’s battered face; Martin Luther King lying in a pool of blood, his face half-covered by a white cloth; Malcolm X, mouth agape, dead on a stretcher.
America denies so many black people basic security, freedom and human dignity.
I had to run.
The privilege of dual citizenship afforded me sanctuary in Trinidad and Tobago. As I settled here, my life slowly became colorful and vibrant again. I paraded through the streets for Carnival in blue, teal and purple beads and feathers, surrounded by faces of every color — descendants of enslaved people from Africa, indentured servants from India, and the Amerindians who were here when Europeans arrived. I strolled through black neighborhoods with my two children in tow, with no concerns about whether we stood out as outsiders. I sat on my patio with my mother and sipped coffee, finally at peace.
And I gave myself space to mend my broken version of blackness.
But images on the news won’t let me forget why I fled: Michael Brown’s body rotting on the pavement. Sandra Bland’s hollow-faced mug shot captured before her death in police custody. Eric Garner slammed to the ground and put in a chokehold by a police officer over selling cigarettes.
By the time I caught wind of the pandemic on its way to the shores of America, I knew it spelled disaster for black Americans. I braced myself for more loss of life, more pain, and the sickening feeling of powerlessness. I felt consumed by guilt, watching from a place of relative safety.
When protests erupted over the death of George Floyd, I used social media to urge people of color back in the States to stay home instead of risking abuse and arrest or becoming infected with the virus and putting themselves at the mercy of a medical system that might disregard their suffering. One of my friends went anyway. I didn’t hear from him and was worried for days as I saw countless videos of police officers attacking protesters.
The United Nations defines refugees as people who flee their homes because of war, persecution or violence. My mother and I may not meet the formal criteria, but as I observe a country engulfed in disease, flames and justified rage, I tremble at the thought of ever returning.
I admire the strength of black people who remain in America and continue to endure. I hope and pray that one day they, too, will find freedom.
Tiffanie Drayton (@draytontiffanie) is working on a book about fleeing American racism.
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