Like many African-Americans, Marly Pierre-Louis knows exactly where she was when she heard the Trayvon Martin verdict. But the news was especially isolating for her because of where was she was living at the time: miles away from America in Amsterdam.
“Finding myself away from community, estranged from collective experience, and without an outlet for doing anything about it [was challenging],” Pierre-Louis says. “The not guilty verdict hit hard.”
Pierre-Louis’ family moved to Amsterdam from Brooklyn, New York in 2013 after her husband Qa’id accepted a job there. (She works as a copy editor.) Although work prompted the family’s move, feelings of peace and safety provide good reasons to stay.
“While racism exists here, it’s personal and not institutional like it is in the United States,” she explains. “Racism is not related to lethal violence. [Amsterdam] doesn’t have a gun culture either, [so] I don’t think about safety because it’s not a gun culture. Here, I’m just not worried all the time. My 4-year-old son Sekani can go outside and play and I don’t feel like I have to watch him like a hawk.”
Though it’s a relief to be released from the pressing fear so many African-Americans experience—half of Black millennials don’t think they’ll live to see 35—Pierre-Louis admits she’s not entirely removed from worrying about the recent spate of gun violence and police brutality against Black people in the States. Indeed, worry travels and haunts many Black Americans living abroad.
“I struggle with ways of preparing a Black boy for resistance,” she says. “Though I’m certain that identifying Black life with struggle is problematic to me. I am not interested in the talk about how to be Black around White people and police officers. I like activism about creating alternatives for ourselves,” listing her work with Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and programs like New Afrikan Scouts and Copwatch as examples.
I don’t know if I could live with myself if we returned to the States and something happened….
“It is a weird exile,” Pierre-Louis continues. “I have a deep longing for home as well as deep fear of coming back to the States. Encountering news of yet another violent episode further deepens my fear. I don’t know if I could live with myself if we returned to the States and something happened to my son.”
Protesting injustice from afar has been a new experience for Pierre-Louis. While living and raising her family abroad has diminished the necessity for chronic vigilance, being abroad has increased Pierre-Louis’s urgency to protest injustice in solidarity with comrades at home. “The Black Lives Matter movement has created a lot of visibility around important issues,” she says. “I don’t have a television so I get a lot from social media. From what I see, there’s a lot of intervention from young people. They are sharing and building on social media, which is good for amplifying messages.”
Pierre-Louis finds America’s obvious disdain for Black people egregious. Yet, however loathsome the nation finds Black folk, Pierre-Louis locates home and comfort in her membership. “I miss Blackness! I miss community, our culture and our way of being. I miss being able to give someone a look or say certain things and affirming that knowing between us. Raising a child abroad is hard, especially without the village. One time when I went back to the States, I gathered artwork, especially photographs, to bring back [to Amsterdam]. I wanted Sekani to see himself reflected in it. I want him to see those photographs with me and my Black women friends so that he associates being a Black boy with an experience that is affirming.”
While glamour clings to portrayals of life abroad, especially for women looking for a fresh start—think How Stella Got Her Groove Back— the reality can be much harsher. “Being abroad can be really lonely,” Pierre-Louis admits. “I’m surprised that being alone [could be] this difficult. It’s like this gnawing void below the surface constantly asking for attention and recognition. Even as I have made friends, they don’t know [me], so you have to build a relationship. [Sustained] communication, years of friendship, and shared history [require] less work than beginning anew.”
The time difference and distance from family and friends exacerbates the alienation of being away, and technology doesn’t always solve the problem for her. “The digital world cheapens connection,” Pierre-Louis says. “I can stay in touch with friends, but there are only so many video messages and so much enthusiasm you can convey; emojis feel cheap. You recognize the importance of your relationships but you can’t deepen them. In Brooklyn, you can sit on your stoop and be with people. [Perhaps] it’s just a normal sadness that you feel when community life carries on without you. Sometimes I feel like I’m missing out, but talking about it helps, and working helps because it fills time.”
Even with these internal struggles, keeping Sekani safe is beyond measure for Pierre-Louis. “What is the sacrifice of going back?” is the question she asks herself for perspective when challenges arise.
So what advice does Pierre-Louis give to those thinking of raising Black children abroad? “Be real clear and real honest with your children when talking about race,” she says. “Ask questions. Always affirm that blackness is goodness.” Pierre-Louis’s advice also works stateside. Raising our children to believe and to understand that Black lives matter is always a worthwhile practice.