I’ll Fly Away: Notes on Economy Class Citizenship
UNITED AIRLINES (NRT—BKK) NOVEMBER 2012
I fly to Southeast Asia to begin living in Thailand, a country I have briefly visited twice. Many factors contribute to my decision to leave the United States but whenever asked I only provide one: “Because I want to focus on writing.”
During a connecting flight from Narita Airport to Suvarnabhumi, I read The Cross of Redemption, an anthology of previously uncollected writings by James Baldwin. One of my little sisters gave me the book as an early birthday/Christmas/parting gift. In one of Baldwin’s essays, “On Language, Race, and the Black Writer,” a passage shakes my bones:
…for a black writer in this country to be born into the English language is to realize that the assumptions on which the language operates are his enemy. For example, when Othello accuses Desdemona, he says that he “threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe.” I was very young when I read that and I wondered, “Richer than his tribe?” I was forced to reconsider similes: “as black as sin,” “as black as night,” “blackhearted.’ In order to deal with that reality at a certain time in my life, I left the United States and went to France, where I was unable to speak to anybody because I spoke no French. I dropped into a silence in which I heard, for the first time, the beat of the language of the people who had produced me. For the first time, I was able to hear that music (114).
32,000 feet above Vietnam, lost in this essay, Baldwin articulates my desire to live abroad. I want to drop into silence.
I am moving to Thailand because I want to focus on writing, yes, and I want to escape from the everyday oppression I feel as a person of color in America. I want to break from a continued and systematic white supremacy so pervasive it is entrenched in the vernacular I use to express myself.
I have never felt nationalistic, and I have an aversion of most things identified as intrinsically American, especially literature. In school, I had to read Huckleberry Finn because I’m American and it is a great American novel. I remember Twain’s work never really spoke to me, and like Baldwin, I found it hard to identify with the “ethical dilemma” concerning Nigger Jim. As Baldwin explains in his aforementioned essay, “It was not, after all, a question about whether I should be sold back into slavery” (114).
Many experiences in America confirm what I’ve always felt. The slave-owning founding fathers did not consider someone like me when they scrawled all men are created equal onto that famous parchment. In America, I spend a lot of time fighting about my unalienable rights. A lot of my focus goes into having to explain my civil liberties.
As my flight lands at BKK, I consider a question Baldwin heard Malcolm X ask a young sit-in student, “If you are a citizen, why do you have to fight for your civil rights? If you are fighting for your civil rights, then that means you are not a citizen” (115).
Can one feel a sense of citizenship in a place they’ve been made to fear? Some parents teach their children to respect authority; my mother taught me to be invisible. At a very young age she told me the law protects some men and victimizes others. She encouraged me to stay vigilant and to avoid situations that might bring me in contact with law enforcement. She told me, when confronted by a cop—not if, when—keep quiet, be apologetic, don’t talk back. “They don’t need a reason to arrest you,” she said. “They will kill you.”
I know many honorable men and women serving as police officers. However, when I see the badge and uniform I often have difficulty forgetting my mother’s warning and the many instances where her words felt true. I find it difficult to forget my first safety belt violation, because the officer’s hand never left the grip of his gun as he spoke, his pointer finger floated between the barrel and the trigger guard. I didn’t dare correct him. Before he excused me I found the courage to look down at the polyester strap hugging my chest to make sure I hadn’t imagined putting it on. I understood then that it didn’t matter if I believed I was wearing my seatbelt. The officer was the law. The officer taught me a frightening lesson, something my mother had tried to explain. He didn’t need reason. Racism in America includes the ability to ignore what should be seen, it thrives on a system in which one group’s perception is considered more factual than another. The officer tilted his head. Staring at the restraint stretched across me, he told me to, “Have a good day.”
I remember being seventeen. On a fall evening, leaned against the rear hatch window of my mother’s Ford Explorer parked a few feet from my front door, I was talking with two friends (one black the other Hispanic). A police cruiser rolled up. An officer stepped out, and he asked for ID. While he crosschecked our names with his dashboard computer, he instructed us to lie facedown in the street with our bellies and palms pressed against the cold wet asphalt. I stayed quiet, but one of my friends spoke up from the ground, shouting at the officer: “He lives right there. You see his address on the driver’s license, right? That’s his house. We’re from this neighborhood. We’re the good teenagers.”
Once the officer was done, he ordered us to rise. He returned our identification and told us not to stand around because it makes people nervous. “You shouldn’t be here,” he said.
The officer’s words lingered long after I had finished shaking the damp leaves from my clothes. I have never stopped debating if he was right. Tucking Baldwin’s collection into my backpack, I head to the baggage claim wondering if it was ever possible to belong to a place where I am expected to vanish to avoid being erased.
NIPPON AIRWAYS (SEA—NRT) MARCH 2014
What has to be unseen, kept visible, to make you dead to a culture? The clothing, the language? The color of the hair or eyes? Can you move to a city? Can five pots save you? Sixteen drops of blood? Yes, the blood, kept in a little sanctified vial. In the end, how scientific is this vision of race and life: that existence depends on objects that are quantified, preserved, capitalized upon. The human body on its own isn’t enough to prove a life, let alone a way of it (158).
At the AWP conference in Seattle, I attended a panel where Paisley Rekdal spoke about her memoir, Intimate: An American Family Photo Album, and how it incorporates prose, poetry, creative nonfiction, and photography to examine cultural identity.
I am finishing Rekdal’s book somewhere far above the Pacific Ocean on a flight back to Bangkok, and it leads me to consider how we define race and what parameters we use to determine who belongs to a population.
What makes me African-American?
What makes me black?
My language? My skin? My hair? My experiences?
What is an Oreo or a House Nigger or an Uncle Tom? I’ve been called these things for as long as I can remember. Whatever it means to be black, why am I not black enough for some and too black for others?
I remember every instance a person has characterized me as a traitor to my race.
I remember friends of all colors teasing about how white I am, citing the way I speak, the shows I watch, the music I listen to, and what I read as evidence of my unbearable whiteness.
I rise from my seat to stretch by an emergency exit door. Members of a Thai tour group watch me bend, pull and bow. I smile, and they smile back.
I wonder how they view me. To them I am black. Is that all they see?
My skin tone is not desirable to many Thais. Darker skin complexions are common among laborers and the perception is those who work in the sun have less money. Neocolonization and popular Western media that propagate Anglo standards of beauty reinforce these perceptions about skin color and class. There are prejudices, but in spite of the apparent hierarchy associated to skin color, I am profiled less in Bangkok. Fewer expectations and presumptions are based on my race.
I remember, at my previous job I was once late for an offsite meeting with two white coworkers. After I arrived they made jokes about how, if they were racist, they could say I suffered from colored-people-time.
I remember, I used to eat fried chicken in restaurants until one day when deciding where to have lunch with a black schoolmate I suggested a wings place. She sighed and said, “You really want to perpetuate that stereotype?”
In Thailand I don’t have to worry about how my actions will speak for others or how my choices play into narratives forced upon me. Most Thai citizens are unfamiliar with any African-American stereotypes I may affirm or dispel. I can’t imagine a Thai person calling me a nigger or an Oreo. They see I am black, but the white gaze does not pock my skin. My blackness is not determined by what it is not.
Leaving America provided me an opportunity to see myself in different social constructs. I am free to invent myself, unburdened by America’s history of aggression towards black bodies. I can build my own narrative.
I think of Rekdal as I return to my row, side-stepping to avoid a flight attendant distributing tiny cups of water. “THREE SUBJECTS circling each other,” Rekdal writes. “Eros, identity, and elegy. A natural progression. In love with the newest mask, we strip each covering back to another version of the self” (236).
Is this new freedom I enjoy in Thailand the result of donning a new mask, or do I feel more freedom because I’ve removed the guises I had to wear to survive America?
CHINA AIRLINES (ATL—AMS—BKK) JUNE 2015
Does the altitude prompt me to think about how race and identity are irrefutably chained to citizenship? The constant roar of the jet turbines and the sound of air rushing past become a long hymn conducive to reflection. On eighteen-hour flights I rise out of time and cross a dozen borders. I don’t inhabit a continent. I am removed. In transition between destinations and identities, I find it easier to think about nationality, perhaps more objectively. I have no affiliations in the sky. It’s only me, and a few hundred others. A small nation of travelers soaring miles above earth and sea. Up here there exists apparent hierarchies too. Some receive preferred treatment; they have advantages because of the position of their seat and row. I don’t know why it has to be the same on the ground or why some are expected to accept economy class citizenship.
I am thinking all this on the first flight of my return trip to Bangkok, from Atlanta to Amsterdam. I was in South Carolina visiting friends and family. In Greenville, SC, I found a copy of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. I read it once, and I read it again on the connecting flight from the Netherlands to Thailand.
The book makes me angry. I am infuriated by my familiarity with the experiences described. Rankine captures the exasperation of being a black American in the twenty-first century. She examines a frenzy that comes from being told to calm down while a nation tries to devour you.
Everything shaded everything darkened everything shadowed / is the stripped is the struck—/ is the trace / is the aftertaste. / I they he she we you were too concluded yesterday to know whatever was done could also be done, was also done, was never done—/ The worst injury is feeling you don’t belong so much / to you— (146)
Rankine explains the origins of the same maddening frustration that led to violent clashes in areas of Missouri following the killing of Michael Brown. The same ire witnessed in the unrest in my home state of Maryland after the murder of Freddie Gray.
I remember watching news coverage of rioters tearing through Ferguson and Baltimore. I recognized that fury. I understood the rage born from feeling ignored for so long, let down for so long, the feeling that I don’t really own anything but a life and body consistently threated by a governing structure that promises to protect me. I recognized the desire to burn it all down in hopes of rising from the ashes.
I often ask myself in flight, “Am I a citizen?” I mean more than legally.
I was having dinner with some friends during my recent visit to America. Someone at the table asked me when I planned to return to the States to live. I told them I wasn’t sure I would return, and I wasn’t sure I’d want to. Another friend at the table asked me to explain, and I told them, “In Thailand I can get a sense of what it must feel like to be white in America, and it’s nice.” We all laughed nervously.
I’ve never been white in America but I assume it means the freedom to go where one wants without having to prepare an explanation. I imagine being white in America includes having the freedom to arrive late without it being indicative of an entire race, and having the ability to talk outside with friends in one’s own neighborhood without being viewed as suspicious. These things are commonly associated with white privilege and I have only ever experienced them living in Thailand. I have a sense of freedom that I never had at home.
I was talking with a Thai friend who spent his childhood in the same area of Maryland where I grew up. We discussed the shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston. He asked if I watched the cellphone video, and I nodded. He asked if I planned to visit America during the summer and I told him yes.
“Are you sure you want to do that?” he asked. “It’s crazy over there. Is it even safe for you to drive around?”
“You know,” I said, “it’s always been like this, right?”
“Sure,” he said, “but now I know about it, and you know you can be somewhere else.”
If I am a citizen of the United States, why did I have to move to the other side of the world to escape the anxiety, resentment, frustration, and danger inherent to living as a black man in America? And why am I accused of race-baiting when I try to pose these questions or share my experience? If I am told to forget all I remember, isn’t that an attack on my citizenship?
The plane begins the long descent and I ponder World War II and its role in the foundation of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. While serving throughout Europe and the South Pacific, black soldiers experienced freedoms they did not have in the country of their birth. I can’t relate to fighting for a country that doesn’t fight for me. But now I can better imagine black soldiers like Medgar Evers returning to the United States and seeing how far away they were from equal. It is discouraging that sixty years after the start of the movement so many promises are still unfulfilled, and I’m urged to use hashtags to remind fellow citizens my life matters.
A nation which aspires to noble ideas—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all—must first acknowledge how it falls short of those governing principles. A country that congratulates itself on being global liberators should make the emancipation of populations within its own borders a priority. The United States must first acknowledge that some have more freedom than others and then examine why this is allowed to continue. This can’t be done when those subjugated by America are silenced or dismissed. When citizens rather ignore systems of oppression than admit how they might profit from them, when citizens victimized by those same oppressive institutions are told to get over it because their voice makes others uncomfortable, America fails.
When the plane lands in Bangkok I will sleep for days and awake to headlines of a church shooting in Charleston. I will recall over a dozen attacks on predominantly black houses of worship in South Carolina since the 1970s. I will think of six lives claimed by a similar evil at a Sikh temple in Oak, Creek, Wisconsin, in 2012. I will remember the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, September of 1963.
I’ll be reminded of a page in Rankine’s Citizen that lists recent black casualties to systematic racism, and in the blank spaces that follow the names Walter Scott and Freddie Gray the book should be updated to include, “In Memory of Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Rev. Sharonda Singleton, and Myra Thompson.
I’ll watch outrage shift as social media explodes with impassioned status updates by white friends demanding legislators remove the confederate flag from statehouses. And I will wonder if these allies believe that they can throw racism away with Dixie Outfitters apparel. I won’t LIKE or LEAVE A COMMENT because I’ll have noticed the sales of confederate flags on Amazon rose sharply before the company decided to remove them from stock, and because removing the confederate flag from plain sight makes it harder for me to identify those nostalgic for an era in America when blacks couldn’t have citizenship. I’ll keep quiet because symbolic gestures often have been used to avoid the real work of bridging gaps between disparities, and I’m not sure how sending the flag underground will advance the lives of a population forced behind.
Rebel colors will come down across the country with a wave of new arsons and bomb threats on black religious institutions. I will be incensed. Before anger eats me alive I can close my laptop. I can turn off my phone. I can take a walk, get lost in a crowded part of Bangkok, and not worry about being noticed. I can run my fingers over the embossed cover of my passport and consider the guilt and privilege I feel to be able to fly away.
Rumpus original art by A.D. Puchalski.
Baldwin, James, and Randall Kenan. The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings. New York: Pantheon, 2010. Print.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2014. Print.
Rekdal, Paisley. Intimate: An American Family Photo Album. North Adams, MA: Tupelo, 2011. Print.