Living in Tanzania has its perks. A weeklong staycation has me bicycling across the tropical island of Unguja, Zanzibar, swimming in ancient caves, relaxing on white sand beaches, feasting on grilled red snapper and mangoes, refreshing myself with sugar cane juice. Even with this lifestyle, however, I still cannot detach myself from the harsher aspects of our reality streaming live on my feed.
Yesterday morning, I was jolted out of sleep from what are now recurring nightmares. In the dream, I am screaming as I see a family member right after he’s shot in the face by a police officer’s rubber bullet during a Black Lives Matter protest. As loud as I cry, no sound comes out.
In anguish, I watched the events following George Floyd’s murder via the news and social media on the other side of the planet from Dar es Salaam, a quiet residential neighborhood in the heart of Tanzania’s commercial capital. Anti-Black racism in my home country, the United States, exacts a toll on my mental health irrespective of where I am. It gives me nightmares even when I’m more than 12,000 km away.
In the 1970s, a doctor by the name of Sherman James coined the term John Henryism. It explains why a disproportionately high number of Black and Brown Americans suffer from increased heart rate and high blood pressure. Chronic exposure to psychosocial and socioeconomic stressors like racism and capitalism can cause one to exert considerable energy. The psychological burden of anti-Black racism, alone, no matter where one lives on the planet, is quite literally killing us.
Working at a consulting firm in Spain for two years, I experienced unconcealed, relentless and overt racism. Senior managers and colleagues who look at Roma people with such disgust that they consider the word gitano (gypsie) to be a curse word. A colleague who “jokingly” greets me in the morning with a “heil Hitler” salute. The colleague that jokes, “When you move to Mozambique, you’re going to starve to death . . . because it’s Africa.” Having to tell colleagues: “No, Black people don’t excel in track and field because of a ‘fast twitch’ muscle.”
I started keeping a tally of the number of times colleagues would direct a racist comment towards me. Only then did I realize this happened multiple times a day, five days a week. I liked to believe the insults rolled off my back, or that work colleagues felt ashamed when I reprimanded them in front of everyone for being so antagonistic and racist, but I know that’s not true. It hits hard and working in such a hostile environment isn’t sustainable.
Msumbiji na Tanzania
So, why move to East Africa if the scourge of racism still affects me here? There is no romanticized story behind my decision to move to Africa. I didn’t move to Mozambique, and eventually find myself in Tanzania, searching for validation. I had no intention to escape racism. Its effects are ubiquitous. However, living in a country where my skin color is not considered a threat, lifts a weight. Walking through the streets of Maputo and Dar es Salaam where I am mistaken for someone’s cousin, close friend, and even (once) brother, allows me to lower my guard — that’s a blessing.
I befriend a Mozambican artist when I got here. He has a comprehensive collection of books that catalogue the voyages of hundreds of negreiros (slave ships) that made their way down the coast of Mozambique, stopping at different ports to pick up enslaved human beings. Twenty-five people in Ilha de Moçambique, 65 people in Quelimane, 70 people in Sofala, 90 people in Inhambane, 30 from Xai-Xai. Then, a 130-day voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to Port-au-Prince, Saint Domingue (Haiti).
I pause as my eyes lock into the negreiro’s final destination. Half of my family is from Haiti, the other half Barbados. A flash of consciousness opens in my head. I often joke how people’s faces are recycled over generations. Well, now I am seeing members of my own family being unloaded from the bowels of the negreiro into Port-au-Prince and being readied for auction. My roots were gouged from the soil of these coasts, leaving a bloody stump in its wake for me to return to.
“I’m Black alright.”
Being both American and Black affords me the opportunity to see the U.S. for exactly what it is. To be a Black American and conscious doesn’t allow me to turn a blind eye to the country’s contradictions and flaws. We stand in the clutches of an unforgiving system. A homicidal scorching sun that burns black bodies for profit. And despite the adversity, still we achieve.
People are rightly focused on where the U.S. is headed after the 2020 election results are made official. However, regardless of the outcome, the struggle in the United States transcends a presidential election. Political leaders are compelled to acquiesce to their constituents only when pressed hard enough, and substantive change is achieved only through continuous community participation, advocacy, activism, protests, and attrition.
So, we carry on. We don’t stop.
At the height of the U.S. terrorist Jim Crow era, world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson explained the situation: “I’m Black. They never let me forget it. I’m Black alright. I’ll never let them forget it.”
Alex LarrieuxAlex was born in New York and raised in the Greater Boston area. In 2011, after receiving his Juris Doctor, Alex moved abroad to pursue a career in international development and currently resides in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Alex was the Ella Baker fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights in 2010.