African Americans Abroad

Photo Essay


Throughout American history, traveling abroad often represented a bittersweet turn for black Americans. Hadn't their ancestors been brought overseas ("abroad") under unimaginable circumstances so many years before? Unsure of their place at home—though in most cases unwilling to return to an Africa of which they knew little or nothing—artists, dissenters, and regular people looking for a better life left the United States during and after slavery. The hope of an improved lot motivated them, but often so did political sympathies. (Not all African Americans moved to escape from the U.S. government, though; Dr. Henry W. Furniss actually served U.S. interests for 14 years as a diplomat in Haiti and Brazil.) While conditions abroad for American blacks were usually more tolerable than they were back home, the same crisis of identity refused to abate even overseas. Expatriates were often regarded as black first and American second, whether they wanted to be or not. Their role as "exotics," while helping to secure employment or attention, exacerbated a sense of outsider status. Still, just as at home, attitudes began to evolve. Exemplifying this shift was the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. During competition, the U.S. basketball squad—called the "Dream Team" and consisting of a dozen NBA legends, almost all of them black—decimated its world rivals. So captivating, however, was the team's "American" style of play that enormous crowds came to see them, regardless of their national allegiance. The Americans—not the black Americans—had made a statement, sparking an outbreak of basketball fandom throughout the world. What follows is a brief sampling of African Americans who spent time overseas, a look at the experiences that shaped them, and a consideration of the way they influenced people's perceptions of black Americans.

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