Tips for African-Americans Living Abroad

NPR's Farai Chideya talks with African-American writer Kiini Ibura Salaam, who's lived in Brazil and most recently Mexico, about what to do and what to avoid if you're thinking of joining the thousands of African Americans living outside the U.S.

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ED GORDON, host:

Various African-American writers, entertainers and intellectuals have chosen to live abroad. James Baldwin and Josephine Baker picked Paris, and W.E.B DuBois moved to Ghana. Add to that list Louisiana-born author Kiini Ibura Salaam, who lived in both Brazil and Mexico. She traveled there with her young daughter. The author shares her experience and the relevance of skin color in her travels with NPR's Farai Chideya.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Let me ask you specifically about the issues of race and the diaspora. What has it given to you as a writer, and what do you think it's going to give your daughter to be part of a community that's international and not just a community in the United States?

Ms. KIINI IBURA SALAAM (Author): Well, as you know, I'm sure, that a lot of American society has blinders on, and the things that we take to be true are so easily refutable once you travel, once you even read about other things. So as a writer, for me, to take myself out of my life where I look and around and I see, yeah, this is the way it is, and I have my judgments and my assumptions, and to go to another place where I look at one person, I might make an assumption about them, but they open their mouth and something else comes out. And then I have to step back and rethink it, and that happens over and over again. It puts me in a new place as a writer to kind of not work from a sort of staid, you know, I already know everything place and come up with fresh ways of looking at the world. And it helps me personally, as well.

But I think it does the same thing for my daughter. I'm surprised at this point. I didn't think that I would be able to have such a flexible life where I could even give her these experiences that I didn't start doing until I was in college, and something that's such an important part of my life, and I think it's defined me a lot. But watching her and watching how she interacts with other people--even when we were in Mexico, even though she was speaking Spanish for three and a half months, when she came back here her language was--her English language was so much more complex. And I feel like that's a nuance that she has from navigating two different languages and having two different sort of realities in her head `cause language is--carry a reality. Sometimes in some languages you don't have a word for something and in other languages you have a million words for it. It gives you different perceptions of the world.

CHIDEYA: Let's move on to the practicalities of travel. On a very simple practical level, what kinds of documents do you need to travel or to live outside of the country, and what kinds of things do you need to do when you're leaving?

Ms. SALAAM: You're going to need to research the requirements each--whatever country you has toward a US citizen. But we have enormous privileges as American citizens. Most of the world is open to us, and the places that aren't are due to maybe war or our own country's policy, such as Cuba, rather than the country itself. So in terms of going to Mexico, if you spend a limit of six months there, you don't need a visa at all. You can just go, spend six months, and leave when your time is up.

CHIDEYA: And what kinds of questions should you ask about the country where you're planning to live?

Ms. SALAAM: Well, for me, I'm adventurous to a point. I am not going to be someone who's going to be backpacking it through the countryside or anything like that. Even though I've traveled quite a bit, I always go to cities--not necessarily huge cities, but cities. I feel like I need to be in an urban environment so that I can get, or at least have access to, the types of services and lifestyle that I'm accustomed to. So in terms of Oaxaca, I was concerned about how much day care they had. It's a city that's six hours away from Mexico City, and I had heard a little bit about it, so I knew that there was housing; I knew that there would be a way for me to get around. Basically transportation, housing and safety are the big issues that I have. You really don't know exactly how you're going to respond to an environment until you get into it, and I sort of feel like once you investigate whether or not it's a safe city, it's pretty much everything else is for you to learn as a traveler; to come and see, well, what is this culture about? What is this lifestyle about?

CHIDEYA: Now we occasionally hear your daughter in the background. I'm sure that you have to get back to her. But before we let you go, one final word: Why should other people, other African-Americans, in particular, consider taking time out of their lives in the US and living somewhere else?

Ms. SALAAM: Well, because it can change your life. I think that each of us have many capacities that we may not even connect with, and traveling gets you outside of your box and gets you considering sort of new options and new ways to interact with the world. And once I figured out that it wasn't that difficult and that the world is sort of similar in the basic ways, in terms of people supporting each other, family, food, that kind of community, then I felt free to explore the world.

CHIDEYA: Kiini Ibura Salaam is an author who has lived abroad in places including Brazil and Mexico. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. SALAAM: Thank you, Farai.

GORDON: And that was NPR's Farai Chideya.

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