In honor of Black History Month, we’re highlighting influential black Americans whose experiences studying, teaching, and living abroad shaped their perspectives, lives, and careers. Historically, many black Americans, including those featured in this piece, have gone abroad to try to escape racism. Some have felt like they did so, while others have found different permutations of bias and discrimination in other countries.
Most of the extraordinary people named below realized that it’s difficult to fully understand our own culture without seeing it from inside a different one. Without a point of reference, without some comparison, it can be hard to know ourselves, how and why we are who we are. And many discovered their deeper identities, who they could become, from a new vantage point.
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) to Ireland & the United Kingdom
Douglass was a prominent activist, social reformer, author, ambassador, and national leader of the abolitionist movement. After fleeing to Ireland in 1845, in a powerful and poetic letter to William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass reflects on the freedom and equality he found on the Emerald Isle: “…the entire absence of everything that looked like prejudice against me, on account of the color of my skin—contrasted so strongly with my long and bitter experience in the United States, that I look with wonder and amazement on the transition.”
James Baldwin (1924-1987) to France & Turkey
Baldwin was a novelist, playwright, activist, and essayist most famous for the exploration of the black experience in America in his work. His essay “Equal in Paris” tells of his time as an expatriate in Paris during the late 1950s, where he sought acceptance, but instead experienced humiliation and determined that some things are universal. His short story “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” connects to that unease. In the film James Baldwin: From Another Place, made during his time in Turkey, he explains that he needed to get away from the U.S. to write and gain perspective: “One is never really very far out of the United States. Still, it is true, one sees it better from a distance. And you can make comparisons from another place, from another country.”
Audre Lorde (1934-1992) to Mexico & Germany
Lorde was an outstanding writer, feminist, and civil rights activist who gave voice to issues of race, gender, and sexuality. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, her autobiography, which she called her biomythography (thereby creating a new genre) describes her year in 1954 at the National University in Mexico. Her time there was invigorating and liberating; she went to escape racist McCarthyism and discovered feminist and lesbian movements and cultures.
Maya Angelou (1928-2014) to Ghana
Angelou was a celebrated and moving poet, singer, memoirist, and civil rights activist. She traced her identity during her years in Ghana in her auto-biomythography, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes: “If the heart of Africa remained elusive, my search for it had brought me closer to understanding myself and other human beings.”
James Meredith (1933- ) to Nigeria
Civil rights activist, writer, and Air Force veteran famous for being the first African American to integrate the University of Mississippi. After graduating, he enrolled at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, where he studied political science and proceeded to fight against white supremacy.
Marian Wright Edelman (1939- ) to France, Switzerland, & the Soviet Union
Edelman has a storied career as an activist and advocate of children’s rights and founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund. Her exemplary academic achievements and desire for an international perspective allowed her to study abroad to Sorbonne University in Paris, France, the University of Geneva in Switzerland, and the Soviet Union as a Lisle Fellow. She had planned on a career in foreign service but decided against it once the Civil Rights Movement occurred in the U.S. Upon her return to the states, she served as a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement, became a John Hay Whitney Fellow, and earned a juris doctor degree.
Alice Walker (1944- ) to Kenya and Uganda
Walker is a novelist, feminist, womanist, short story writer, and poet most famous for her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Color Purple. Walker won a scholarship while at Sarah Lawrence College to study abroad in Uganda, and during her time there she also visited Kenya. In her time there, she debunked popular American myths about Africa, which she explores in her works like “Everyday Use.” She also became a prominent voice in the black feminist movement. In her short story “Coming Apart,” she coined the term “womanist” to connect feminism more deeply to the intersectional issues facing black women.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1950- ) to Tanzania and England
Gates is a renowned literary critic, teacher, historian, and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker most famous for his groundbreaking series Finding Your Roots on PBS. He took a leave of absence from Yale to visit Africa, working as an anesthetist in a hospital in Tanzania and then traveling through other African nations. In 1973, Gates became the first African-American to receive the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship to study at Clare College, University of Cambridge, where he earned a Ph.D. in English and became an assistant professor at Yale with a joint appointment in the English and Afro-American Studies departments.
Ta-Nehisi Coates (1975- ) to France
Author, journalist, and comic book writer, Coates crafted the NYT Best Seller, Between the World and Me, which he wrote as a letter to his son about the realities of being black in the United States. Coates discusses learning a new language and culture during his time in France in The Atlantic and speaks about his time in Paris as part of the Washington Ideas Week: “I fell in love in the subway station. It wasn’t the Louvre, it wasn’t like I had a baguette or the wine, but I was in the subway station, man. The people were so brusque, not mean, but It felt so real to me. And it really reminded me of New York…I instantly felt at home. This sounds so cliché, but culturally I immediately fell in love.”
Often, we have to leave home to discover who we are and who we want to become, as individuals and as a society. As evidenced by these extraordinary Americans, our experiences abroad have an enormous influence on our inspirations and aspirations. Whether they sought to escape or explore, they expanded their horizons by living in other countries and cultures.
AFS-USA is committed to making our organization and programs accessible and inclusive for people of color. In particular, the AFS-USA Students of Color Exchange group, composed of AFS Staff, Returnees, and Volunteers, is dedicated to helping students of color navigate their international exchange experience. We work with students before they depart on program and after they return to offer them support and guidance on how to use their unique background to enrich their experience and fulfill their role as an AFS Ambassador. Last year, about 1/4 of the U.S. students that studied abroad with us identified themselves as students of color.
If you are interested in learning more about the Students of Color Exchange group or have any questions, please contact us at [email protected].