Guest Article Written by Tyrone Fleurizard
When I reached my boarding gate at the Hong Kong International Airport, I sat only for a minute before walking to the farthest charging station to call my homie, Tim. I was fatigued by the sixteen-hour flight from New York, and daunted by what I had noticed: several small clusters of people schmoozing, an insufferable number of hiking packs, and an equally overwhelming number of hydro flasks emblazoned with stickers. Virtually everyone at the gate was white. When I flipped the FaceTime camera to show Tim, all he could say was, “Damn.” As we boarded the plane and the jet bridge was sealed, so, too, was my fate: I am the only black man in the cohort this year.
The full weight of this revelation came all at once during orientation in discussions on identity. Before arriving to Kuala Lumpur, I had dedicated time poring over personal narratives and academic papers to understand what it might be like living and working as a black person in Malaysia (I even joined a Facebook group for black travelers in the region). In every respect, I was prepared—or, at least, I thought I was.
In these discussions, after we got through the thick of deconstructing privilege, a message I hadn’t anticipated was made clear: despite the cohort’s various identities, we are American first and should always be cognizant of this during our time in Malaysia. No one objected to this, I guess reasonably so, but my physiological response was visceral. I can admit this might seem like an odd reaction—after all, Fulbright is an international exchange program; I’m in Malaysia on behalf of the U.S. government—however, as an underrepresented minority in the U.S. and among the cohort (there are 100 ETA’s; seven are black), race is the lens through which I see myself and the world—not nationality. I expected a celebration of our differences to be what unified the cohort, given the fraught history of the one commonality that brought us to Malaysia in the first place.
Since its inception, the label “American” was exclusively reserved for white, northern Europeans. Despite efforts to invoke E pluribus unum—“Out of many, one”—, or the belief that U.S. citizenship is solely based on a shared commitment to ideals such as liberty and equality, American-as-white is ingrained within the global psyche. Studies published in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology found that both African and Asian Americans are less associated with the label “American” than white Americans. “The conclusion that can be drawn on the basis of the six studies presented here is unambiguous,” the researchers write. “To be American is to be White.”
This is the reality of American identity for people of color at home and abroad. I felt hopeless. Not only did it feel as though my blackness was being diluted from my American identity, but it wouldn’t be long before my American identity was being denied because of my blackness.
More than a century before I would come to feel this dissociation, and only thirty-five years after African-Americans were granted citizenship in the United States, W.E.B. Du Bois, a black sociologist and civil rights activist, was writing about the double-consciousness of black Americans in The Souls of Black Folk:
One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
This is the dissonance I struggled with: In one hand, I wield one of the most powerful passports in the world, but my other hand must always stay free, perpetually clenched, ready to fend off attacks against my humanity. I couldn’t bask in The American Promise because I was agonizing over America’s transgressions: a criminal justice system which so explicitly criminalizes black people; a medical establishment that allows black women to die from preventable maternal deaths at two-and-a-half times the rate of white women; and an education system that so often fails black students. How could I possibly represent this America?
I had to reconcile this contradiction: Yes, it’s true that at times it would feel as if my ethnic-racial identity would be at odds with my nationality, but nonetheless, I am American because of my blackness, not in spite of it. If anyone has a claim to the label American, with all its unique privileges, it’s folks that look like me.
This is hardly a revolutionary idea. Black Americans have been theorizing this for quite some time. In 1903, Du Bois wrote “[T]here are to-day no truer exponents of the pure human spirit of the Declaration of Independence than the American Negroes.” Sixty years later, in 1963, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. echoes this in his letter from a Birmingham jail: “[T]he goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny.” And just this year, on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to America, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the award-winning journalist, in writing about the American flag that her father flew in their yard, asserts, “No people has a greater claim to that flag than us.”
What was clear to Du Bois, King, and Hannah-Jones, but which took me being 9,000 miles from home to appreciate, is that America belongs to us, too, the tried and weary. I felt the sentiment James Baldwin expressed in Notes of a Native Son: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Indeed, in Malaysia I would learn to criticize her; not out of contempt, but out of extreme ownership of her ideals.
Living and working in Malaysia has been a transformative experience. There are days that are harder than others, of course, but that’s to be expected. For the most part, these past ten months have been marked by immense growth and development. Being immersed in my local community has expanded my global consciousness, sparked a desire to deepen my faith, and revealed opportunities where I could be a responsible cultural ambassador.
I have certainly had experiences that forced to me to confront the legacy of racism—some unique to Malaysia (like, how, during my first week at school, an unassuming Form 1—the U.S. equivalent to eighth grade—student asked me if I was a negro, or, when a local pressed me to give them the secret to black male speed), and some that aren’t (like having to dispel the myth that Obama’s presidency means America is a post-racial society, or when students don’t address me as “Mr.” or “Sir” and instead opt for “bro”)—but each time I extend grace where it’s due and work hard, every day, to invest in the relationships that affirm and sustain me.
I have also had experiences which gave me a deeper appreciation of my blackness. For example, in Vietnam, through the bustle of a busy intersection, a black man and I fell upon each other’s gaze, smiled in the way only black people meeting in an unlikely place could, and gave attesting nods as we went our ways. In canoes on a floating market in Thailand, when another black man and I noticed each other, I extended my right hand out towards him; and with a soft smile he said, “What’s good?” and reached out in kind to dap me up. A woman sitting behind me asked if I knew him. I didn’t. In these contexts, we are connected, not by name, but by our mere existence—one that is cause for celebration, always.
Du Bois ends The Souls of Black Folk with a negro spiritual:
Let us cheer the wea-ry trav-el-ler,
Cheer the wea-ry trav-el-ler, Let us
cheer the wea-ry trav-el-ler
A-long the heav-en-ly way.
Whenever I get weary, just as I was in Hong Kong, exhausted from mounting financial insecurity, and the loneliness of being the sole black person in my immediate vicinity, and reliving past racial trauma, I find solace in knowing that there are those before me who made it, however scathed, more grounded and unapologetic in their being. In those moments, and every moment, if I close my eyes, I can hear them cheering me on.