The United States has not been kind to the black community in the past, to put it lightly; and even today, racial profiling and discrimination are still rampant. Lest we forget what we can lose to racism, here are 8 black icons who left the US looking for a better life.
America has been—and remains—an unfortunate example of a discriminatory nation. It harbors all sort of lamentable mentalities, driven by hatred, fear, ignorance, prejudice, and superstition. So it’s no surprise that, over the years, it has lost many amazing talents who’ve simply had to run away from American toxicity and build a life elsewhere. African-American talent is a prime example of this tendency. And that’s America’s loss.
Many black people sought refuge throughout the world from the constant humiliations or outright discrimination they faced in the U.S. Among them are these 8 black icons who escaped the blatant racism of their native country.
After a racist society let them down over and over again, many African-Americans were unsurprisingly drawn to the egalitarian promise of communism. Harry Haywood was one such person. His primary motivation was to put an end to racism through what he saw as the noble ideals of absolute equality, and his goal was to connect the political doctrine of Communism as a whole with the particular racial issues of his time. He moved to Russia’s Soviet Union in the 20s, where black people were treated particularly well, to study the effects of the communist approach to the racism he saw in his native America.
Passionate about theatre and acting, Aldridge left the United States in 1824 under the certainty audiences there would never accept a black actor performing the great Shakespearean roles. So he moved to London and became a British citizen. There he also met resistance, but he never looked back. What followed became theatre history, as he remains the only African-American ever to be honored with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. Prussia and Russia also awarded him top distinctions from the heads of state—an unthinkable recognition in the minds of Americans at the time.
100 years after Aldridge paved the way, Robeson became only the second black actor to star in Othello at the West End. It took even more time for him to become the first African-American to portray that character in a major U.S. stage, when he reprised his role in 1943, this time on Broadway. American audiences were that reluctant to see a black actor leading a prominent production. Robeson had to settle in London for the early stages of his career, as he never would’ve made it under the highly malignant conditions of America. He went on to become a famous concert artist, film actor, and activist.
The Jazz world was lucky to have the likes of the "Sophisticated Giant" playing at a time when America wasn't welcoming. Standing at 6 feet 6 inches, Gordon was also known as "Long Tall Dexter," and was much admired among his fellows musicians. He specialized as a tenor saxophonist, but also ventured into acting, earning an Academy Award nomination for his role in Round Midnight (1986). Gordon left the United States to spend over 14 years in Europe, where he enjoyed an easier life because, by his own admission, he suffered much less racism and found a public who respected jazz much more.
Carlos Wesley "Don" Byas was another American saxophonist who had a better time in Europe than he did in the United States. In 1946 he went to Paris to tour with other great jazz musicians, and remained in the European mainland for the rest of his life, dying of lung cancer 26 years later at the age of 59.
Baldwin was one of those rare talents whose vision was far ahead of his time. As a novelist, playwright, essayist, and social critic, he spent his entire career exploring the complexities of racial, sexual, and class disputes across western societies in general and throughout America in particular. His sexual orientation studies came way before the gay liberation movement in the 20th century, and he anticipated its spirit by decades. Facing constant racial discrimination, Baldwin became thoroughly disenchanted about life in the United States for minorities, especially after a particularly upsetting incident in which he was refused service at a restaurant for being black. So he left America when he was 24 and settled in Paris and never looked back. The U.S. lost an extraordinary icon right there.
McKay immigrated from Jamaica to the U.S. in 1912 to pursue a literary career. He was initially shocked by the extreme racism against African-Americans in the south, where segregation was rampant, which inspired him to write poetry about the situation. He became drawn to communism as well and moved to Russia for a while to better understand it. After some years, McKay was disillusioned with the communist ideal, but remained firmly convinced racism was the biggest issue plaguing America at the time. His texts focused on challenging white authority and on celebrating his own Jamaican heritage.
Josephine Baker was an American-born entertainer who was adopted by France in the 20s. She was a celebrated dancer during her early career in New York, and later became a notable character both in World War II and in the American Civil Rights movement. In Europe, she reached international fame, where she was part of the French Resistance against the Nazi Occupation.
After the war, she was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor (the highest French order of merit), and awarded the Croix de Guerre. In the 50s she became involved with the struggle of African-Americans to secure basic civil rights in the U.S., and she was even offered the unofficial leadership movement after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination (which she declined for the sake of her children).
Two years before she died, Josephine Baker summarized the feelings shared by most on this list.
“One day I realized I was living in a country where I was afraid to be black…So I left. I had been suffocating in the United States…. A lot of us left, not because we wanted to leave, but because we couldn’t stand it anymore…. I felt liberated in Paris.”
Speaking from the heart of her brothers and sisters, representing whole generations of people systematically oppressed by a toxic U.S. mentality (back when, according to some, “America was great”), Josephine’s words echo through the hearts of millions even to this day.
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