To feel the anguish of waiting for the next moment and of taking part in the complex current (of affairs) not knowing that we are headed toward ourselves, through millions of stone beings – of bird beings – of star beings – of microbe beings – of fountain beings toward ourselves. --- Frida Kahlo
For many of us, Trump’s US presidential win triggered an outcry, a dissolution, a desire to flee. Having made covert or direct threats to ban, expel or discriminate against Muslims, Mexicans and Jews, citizens with any kind of agency began searching urgently for ways out of the nightmare. During the election, I was on the islands of Zanzibar, a place I’ve returned to on and off for almost seven years as an educator and writer. Even though I (reluctantly) followed through on my ticket home to see family and friends over the holidays, I carried the sinking feeling that if there was any way to situate myself outside the borders of Trump’s America, I would try.
I was not alone. This feeling was not unique to me--and it wasn’t new. For years, Americans distraught by systematic racism and classism--the impossibility of living in the grips of a neoliberal Capitalist matrix--have searched for ways out that won’t destroy whatever fragile ties may exist to loved ones.
Why does the feeling of wanting to get out of the US disturb me now? Living abroad, I admit I lived with the illusion that things were somehow better--more secure--under the leadership of Barack Obama. That somehow I was ‘safe’ overseas knowing I had a liberal president who presented as though he cared about the welfare of American citizens and the world at large. I saw my own values reflected in Obama’s platform of hope. I campaigned for him in 2008, knocking on doors in Indiana. This felt right and good. Meanwhile, despite Obama’s promise to shut Guantanamo down during his first year in office, its horrors raged on. Two million citizens, disproportionately black men, were jailed inside for-profit prisons. Drone attacks spiked under President Obama, and under his leadership, more people were deported than ever before. Black boys and girls were being shot in the streets by police who faced zero consequences. Our schools continued to deteriorate, starved for resources and respect. My friend David Schein wrote to me recently: “Trump lifted the rock and underneath was the awful, toxic stew bubbling away like it always has.” Some of us are just waking up to the nightmare, while many others have lived and tried to escape the nightmare since the beginning.
US-born rapper Yassin Bey recently offered an apology to the South African government after declaring himself a ‘citizen of the world’ as his excuse for overstaying his visa and presenting, instead, a "World Passport.” Bey, arrested at the Cape Town airport while attempting to head to the Selam Music Festival in Ethiopia, was charged with presenting fraudulent travel documents. Immigration officials informed Bey that the country does not recognize the ‘World Passport,’ issued by the World Service Authority, a non-profit organization that operates out of Washington D.C.
After living in Cape Town for two years, Bey cannot return to South Africa for five years, according to court orders. Bey’s representatives insist South Africa has previously accepted the World Passport as a legal travel document and that the allegations against him are therefore false. Bey argues that using the world passport is his right as a world citizen. But we all know the world’s governments do not have patience for the performance art of world citizenry. People at the borders have no rights at all--we stand on the invisible line between one place and another hoping we will matter as one human being facing another. But this is rarely the case, and the border shows no mercy to the human without papers. We live in a world where our value is grotesquely tied to nationhood. Without papers, we are deemed an extinguishable burden.
The World Service Authority was founded by Garry Davis, a former Broadway actor and WWII vet who denounced this tendency toward dehumanization, renouncing his citizenship and allegiance to the US in 1948 when he fled to Paris, France. Appealing to the United Nations, Davis insisted on shattering the illusion of the political authorities of nation states and to usher in a ‘World Government,’ in the name of peace. In 1954, citing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [Article 13, Section 2] as its mandate, the WSA began issuing ‘world passports’ which would allow those lacking official papers to move freely throughout the world. Critics dismissed Davis’ vision as ‘crackpot,’ and ‘delusional,’ but to date, over 2,500,000 WSA passports, ID cards and birth certificates have been issued and over 150 countries have at one time or another recognized the passport; Mauritania, Tanzania and Togo still actively accept the document, in theory.
So, where do we go when we feel we can no longer tolerate the impossibilities of a government that consistently betrays its people? And what does it mean to abandon the promise of revolution at ‘home’? What does it mean to stay or leave when so much is at stake and we’re not even close to the bend? I can detach easily from the smoke and mirrors of a nasty government, but it is much harder to say goodbye to my brilliant nephews and nieces, to my aging and sick parents, to my hilarious and soulful sisters, and to my visionary friends, many of whom defy all odds as artists of some kind and who implore fighting the good fight with art as their weapon.
Leaving is a privilege not everyone can seriously consider, but for anyone who has felt marginalized in any way and musters the determination and the means, leaving may be the best kind of salvation—and the most direct way to support the revolution at ‘home’ from afar. Or to join another revolution--the revolution has no border. These are not new questions for anyone who has felt othered in the US,and they are questions that release an existential anxiety about who we are and where we belong in this world. If not to a country, then to whom? And if not to a god, then to whom? And if not to a community or a love, then to whom? What tethers us to this increasingly hot planet? What keeps us on the ground, striving to find meaningful ways to spend our days on earth? Where do we seek refuge from the hatred and fear, and if we leave, what do we risk? Our obsession with stability itself is a construct designed to keep us indebted to capitalism. But in reality, our lives are far more mutable and for many--coming apart at the seams as our institutions crumble all around us. People leave their homes for all kinds of reasons having nothing to do with revolution. We leave to find our souls a home, to make money, find God, find love, to escape violence and abuse, to take shelter and take care.
As a 14-year-old, I remember my great aunt Edna telling me at the Passover table in Skokie, Illinois (a place where many Holocaust survivors resettled) that the world hated Jews and that we should always keep a bag packed ready to flee. I had grown up steeped in the horrors of Holocaust education, what writer S.L. Wisenberg calls "a Holocaust girl," having obsessed over images of collective graves, emaciated bones, the horror. But as an aspiring ‘world citizen’ who felt kindred with my Korean, black and Indian classmates, I fought against my aunt Edna, dismissing her fears as outdated and irrelevant. Her world view threatened my naive yet budding faith in the notion of global unity, and I couldn’t understand why anyone would still hate Jews; the war was over and we had won, this was ancient history. My public education reinforced this. My middle school history teacher insisted that the Civil War was fought purely over ‘state rights,’ that we were living in the greatest democracy in the world.
I was not yet tuned in to the truth that dehumanization is one of our most basic human behaviors and that it has been deployed throughout history to conquer, coerce and manipulate all in the name of power and control of resources. We dominate much more than we surrender. We oppress much more than we uplift. We can’t run from this basic truth--though I’d argue finding temporary shelter in another world’s nightmare might keep us alive and sane a bit longer.
Over this past Thanksgiving weekend, I sat with my older sister on a Friday night researching Israel’s “Law of Return” for Jewish people living in Diaspora. This will shock my leftist, liberal and progressive friends, some of whom may not know that I still identify as Jewish and have kept some of the Zionist flames of my childhood smoldering within even as I reject Israel’s apartheid politics for over 20 years. We were raised with Zionist dreams in suburban Skokie, and both my older sister and I made the obligatory pilgrimage to Jerusalem at the tender age of 17; but it was on that six-month stay in the Holy Land that I began to resist Israeli politics that separated me from Arabs and Palestinians struggling for human rights denied by a deranged Israeli government. I returned from that trip even more committed to my identity as a ‘global citizen,’ believing that if I could love the world, the world would love me in return.
My sister and I scrolled through the Nefesh B’nefesh (Soul to Soul) website, detailing the steps one would take to make ‘Aliyah,’ meaning to ‘step up’ into the land of Israel, marveling how welcoming and seemingly easy the Israeli government made it for ‘returnees,’ those with Jewish heritage and history and who could prove it, would be received as citizens in the promised land. The tagline: Make Aliyah. Move to Israel. Live the Dream. Did I have a Jewish mother? Yes. Had I gone to Jewish camps? Yes. Did I have a Bat Mitzvah? Yes. What always existed as an absurd abstraction now suddenly felt very real and very possible.
Out of curiosity, I filled out the online application, increasingly aware of the complex feelings brewing as I read the fine print. I would receive a host of benefits and assistance as a returnee. From job hunting to language learning to rental support, Israel was prepared to receive me as I am--and in the age of Trump’s Neo-Nazi, White Supremacist haze--I had to admit that knowing this was an option felt intriguing and relieving. This was a way out--a most complicated way out laden with contradiction--but still a way out. As a returnee, I would return to a version of myself long dormant as a ‘world citizen.’ I would admit that aunt Edna and my Jewish self would stand in relief against the world's hate. As I clicked through the list of questions determining my eligibility, I thought about my concentric circles of place, tribe and country. Could I be a Jew who loved Israel if it meant leaving one oppressive state to join another? Does it somehow make me feel more ‘tucked’ into a falling apart world to reattach an identity I’d rejected for over 20 years? Why does it matter now more than ever that I am, by blood, a Jew? What allegiances do I really think I have to strangers who also call themselves Jews?
Aliyah. Homeland. The Chosen Ones. What a compelling delusion to nurture in these fragile times when the very notion of nationhood is shattering all around the world.
For Jews who can’t bear the idea of shifting to what is arguably an apartheid state, Jews in Diaspora have begun to more seriously explore the idea of returning to Europe—to the very countries where prior regimes attempted to destroy them. Even as conservative right-wing rhetoric rises in Europe (see France, see Poland, see Italy), Jews in the US are starting to wonder if living in the EU may offer some sort of shelter from the anti-semitism storm brewing here. A close friend of mine told me about a conversation she recently had with her relatives over Thanksgiving about this idea. Her relatives had started to research what it would take to reclaim German citizenship on the grounds that their grandparents were born there and had fled right before World War II. Would American Jews feel safer in the EU as the flood waters of hate and anti-semitism continue to rise here under a Trump regime? An American friend of mine with Jewish history left the US a few years ago when she secured Polish citizenship based on her Jewish grandfather’s Polish roots. Currently based in the U.K. where the recent ‘Brexit’ move could shift her status there, she still carries dual passports and an expanded sense of mobility and freedom.
The truth is that very few people have ever had the privilege of feeling safe in America, a nation of many nations, haunted by deep and profound inequality from its inception. We may feel ‘at home’ in the sensual, intimate relationships and bonds we have with our families, lovers and friends, but not in the precariousness of policies and systems set up to stifle, hord and withhold. I’ve tried many times to ‘come home’ as a traveler for the last 20 years, and in each instance, what I call upon and attempt to channel is love at its most molecular level:
chicago! give me snow. give me ice. give me a deep-fried & then grilled skokie hot dog with ketchup/mustard/pickle. give me bitter cold winds. give me vacant parking lots with flood lights. give me steamy cafe windows. give me bagel shmears. give me nephew & niece love. give me long talks with old friends. give me sisterhood! give me jewish-ness! give me unbearable flashes of nostalgia. give me awkward run-ins with old classmates that inspire surprising feelings of love. give me old and new heartache. give me real chats with the folks. give me long drives through the dark afternoon city. give me thrift and sift and cry and sort. give me lakefront contemplation. give me parking tickets! give me barbecue. give me I-94 lane changes. give me polish buffet. give me guacamole and pasole! give me bacon. give me mind-blowing wifi. give me ideas, courage, love, let me love you, chicago!
It’s within the ‘home parenthetical’ where most of us hide out. Black Americans with long histories of pain, struggle and betrayal in this country have often thought about what it would mean to escape the violence, racism, oppression, aggression, hatred, bigotry, discrimination—all the while holding on to the intimate ties and comforts of home. Now that there’s theoretically a similar ‘way out’ of Trump’s America through Ghana’s Right to Abode program, will black Americans have take the risk to relocate to Ghana on a one-way ticket?
Ghana is the first African country to offer dual citizenship to Africans in Diaspora and, according to the Ghanaian Immigration Act of 2000, “The concept of right of abode under Immigration Law is that person having the right of abode ‘shall be free to live and to come and go into and from the country without let or hindrance.” Africans in Diaspora over the age of 18 with ‘good character’ and ‘good financial standing’ can return to Africa and connect with their roots, regardless of whether their origins can be traced back to Ghana in particular. This open invitation dates back to the sixties, when Pan-African leader and activist Kwame Nkrumah first encouraged Black Americans to return to Africa by settling in and contributing to Ghana’s development.
What do we give up and leave behind with this kind of move? Are we self-exiles or expats or immigrants and how do the power dynamics play out? To date, just a few people have successfully secured dual citizenship in Ghana under the Right to Abode laws, including Rita Marley, Bob Marley’s widow.
‘Black Zionism’ (Black Nationalism) gained momentum in the 19th century when freed Blacks attempting to recover from slavery faced an onslaught of white hostility, discrimination and organized racial violence by White Supremacist groups like the Klu Klux Klan. Sensing there was no real place for Black Americans to thrive in the United States, Pan-African leaders like Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey, inspired by the Jewish Zionist movement, encouraged those with African descent to return to Africa. During the 19th century, Black Americans established the nation of Liberia, and attempted to resettle in Sierra Leone, but the movement was fraught with false promises, insurmountable challenges and faced criticism by Black Americans who felt that they had more ties to a difficult America than to a distant continent removed by generations. Liberia has long suffered under the weight of oppressive regimes. And while Ghana has technically opened its doors since 2000, it has remained unclear on the extent to which Black Americans can truly take advantage of whatever resettlement benefits are offered.
As Trump won on a xenophobic platform targeting Mexicans and Muslims in particular, it is no wonder that Canada’s immigration website crashed as US citizens urgently sought out safer harbors. In June 2016, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada welcomes Mexican citizens, and beginning on December 1, 2016, Mexican citizens no longer require a visa to travel to Canada. Trudeau hopes that lifting the visa requirement will “deepen ties between Canada and Mexico and will increase the flow of travelers, ideas and businesses between both countries.” For just seven Canadian dollars, Mexicans can now apply for an ‘Electronic Travel Authorization,” allowing travel within the country for up to six months. For extended stays to work or study, additional documents are required. Trudeau’s decision to welcome Mexicans is in stark contrast to Trump’s declaration that he will deport up to 3 million undocumented Mexicans currently in the United States and build a wall along the border, dehumanizing Mexicans as “rapists and drug dealers.” While Trudeau’s gesture to loosen visa restrictions can’t account for the millions of lives potentially affected by Trump’s policies, it creates the light many seek in these dark times.
I’ve left the US many times—as a traveler, student, employee, ‘world citizen’ carrying one of the most powerful passports in the world. I lived on a teaching artist’s salary for most of my life, making less than 25,000 dollars a year, but I always managed to find my way overseas because this was a priority to me, an urgent need to see the world as if it could be otherwise. This time, as I prepare to leave again, I am asking myself if it’s an act of cowardice or courage. What does it mean to leave loved ones in this fragile, hateful moment in our nation’s history while I scurry to root down in more loving, hopeful spaces? At this point in my life, people are everything. I own nothing, have no children or financial investments, and I don’t have any romantic ties in the US. It’s relatively easy for me to leave knowing I have what feels like nothing to lose. On good days, I call this freedom. On bad days, I am gripped with fear. Trump’s ‘win’ ruptured any sense of allegiance to this nation and its notion of democracy, but I am not sure I ever believed the US would protect me or the people I love. I find myself among those long-disillusioned by the madness and militancy of this nation who have sought refuge elsewhere.
During the heart of the civil rights movement in the sixties, writer and activist James Baldwin set up residence in Istanbul, Turkey and lived there for 12 years. Much of his classic The Fire Next Time was composed in Istanbul and landed him on the cover of Time Magazine in 1963, just one month before Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ was published. When Baldwin was asked, “why Istanbul?”, He answered:Istanbul is “A place where I can find out again -- who I am -- and what I must do. A place where I can stop and do nothing in order to start again." ... Baldwin goes on: "To begin again demands a certain silence, a certain privacy that, at least for me, to be found elsewhere."
For better or much worse, I have been very attuned to social media wailing as some kind of oracle that would tell me what to do next. Over the last few weeks, many of my friends -- teachers, activists, writers -- have rallied around the idea that what we all must do is stay and fight. ‘Being here’ is everything. That our physical presence matters. That we must put our bodies on the contested border. To show up at Standing Rock. To show up in the streets. To show up at City Hall. To show up. Lists, warnings, petitions have circulated maniacally as attempts to prepare us for the ‘double-down’ long-range fight for justice ahead. Accountability matters. And I’m struck with reluctance as I research plane tickets bound for Zanzibar. Where will I double-down and fight? And who will fight for me? To whom am I accountable? Who has ever fought for me except the ones who love me? We live in a society that offers very little relief from the tidal waves of capitalism and our life’s work is defined simply by how well we can hold on in the chaos.
These days, I wake up early and stay up late cranking my worry on the highest frequencies, and I am mostly processing alone, as each of my loved ones in turn are in their own private hells trying to answer the question, “what the fuck do we do now?” I turn to the mystic imperative that keeps my soul knowing where to go, despite doubts lodged in the ego or in the now. I am not wholly American, but I am also not willing to let go of my ties to home in America. I am Jewish, and yet still horrified and critical of those who govern notions of ‘home’ with hateful, hurtful logic. I am most at home when I know I can leave. And I find solace in the raw reality that human beings have always wrestled with the boundaries of nationhood--that when conditions become toxic and impossible, people have either been pushed out or self-exiled in pursuit of safety, security, opportunity and relative peace of mind—even if their destinations are also laden with challenge.
If this is moment is a movement—we move within, without, between and beyond. The one thing we all know is that we have been moved. In political states that feel like perfect storms brewing, each of us as individuals imagine possible futures elsewhere as acts of survival. I am weary of rhetoric too far left or right leaning which urges me to stay and fight. If there’s any fight in me, mine is one about letting go, not holding on. I know I’ll be back again. To leave is my act of resistance, an act of self-preservation, a living manifesto. I trust that no matter where we are in the world -- love triumphs.