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  • Writer's pictureForeign, Or

Black Lives Matter, All Over the World

As the BLM movement circles the globe, we pay tribute to the pioneers of progress. These Foreign-Ors sought greater opportunities outside of the Land of Opportunity, using cross-cultural, multilingual platforms to inspire understanding, tolerance, and solidarity.

James Baldwin

American writer and activist. Found himself in Paris and Istanbul. Themes of masculinity, sexuality, race, and class are woven into his fiction that narrates issues of the civil rights movement and the gay liberation movement. In this 1984 article in The Paris Review Baldwin reflects:

"I got to Paris with forty dollars in my pocket, but I had to get out of New York. My reflexes were tormented by the plight of other people. Reading had taken me away for long periods at a time, yet I still had to deal with the streets and the authorities and the cold. My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail, I was going to kill somebody or be killed."

Baldwin's characters often face internal and external obstacles in their search for societal and self-acceptance, echoing his own experiences:

"I went through a very trying period, after all, where on one side of town I was an Uncle Tom and on the other the Angry Young Man. It could make one’s head spin, the number of labels that have been attached to me. And it was inevitably painful, and surprising, and indeed, bewildering."

The author's remarks are chillingly relevant to the BLM movement today:

"You begin to doubt your judgment, you begin to doubt everything. You become imprecise. And that’s when you’re beginning to go under. You’ve been beaten, and it’s been deliberate. The whole society has decided to make you nothing. And they don’t even know they’re doing it."

Read James Baldwin's famous works Giovanni's Room and Notes of a Native Son, and don't miss the award-winning feature documentary I Am Not Your Negro.


Josephine Baker

American-born French entertainer. The St. Louis native was married twice by the time she was 15, and by 19 she had worked her way to Paris to tour as a dancer. She describes the East St. Louis race riots to be the spark that motivated her exodus:

"When I was a child and they burned me out of my home, I was frightened and I ran away. Eventually I ran far away. It was to a place called France. Many of you have been there, and many have not. But I must tell you, ladies and gentlemen, in that country I never feared. It was like a fairyland place."

Baker was the first African-American to star in a major motion picture, Siren of the Tropics. After continued discrimination at home, she renounced her U.S. citizenship and became a naturalized French citizen in 1937.

"I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad."

The superstar known as the “Black Venus” was also a secret agent during WWII, and her courage was awarded with the Rosette de la Résistance, Croix de guerre, and the Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur, France's most prestigious medal. She also continued to fight for true diversity and freedom in the civil rights movement and by adopting 12 multi-ethnic children, dubbing her brood 'The Rainbow Tribe'.

“...It looked very different from the Statue of Liberty, but what did that matter? What was the good of having the statue without the liberty, the freedom to go where one chose if one was held back by one's color? No, I preferred the Eiffel Tower, which made no promises."

Check out this BBC Wales doc The First Black Superstar and HBO's made-for-TV feature The Josephine Baker Story.


Maya Angelou

American treasure. Black expat. During her tough childhood in the depression-era south, Angelou became mute for almost five years. She eventually found her voice and in 1954-5 toured Europe with an opera production, learning bits of language in every country she visited. By the end of her life she spoke French, Spanish, Hebrew, Italian, and Fanti.

Language. I loved it. And for a long time I would think of myself, of my whole body, as an ear.

In 1961 Angelou moved to Cairo to work for the Arab Observer. She and her son then moved to Accra, Ghana, so that he could attend college. She went to work at the University of Ghana, wrote for the Ghanaian Times, broadcast for Radio Ghana, and performed for Ghana's National Theatre. There she met Malcom X, who convinced her to return to the U.S. and continue the fight for civil rights. She did; shortly afterwards Malcom X was assassinated. Devastated and adrift, she wrote this in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings:

“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill/of things unknown but longed for still/and his tune is heard on the distant hill/for the caged birds sings of freedom.”

Angelou has received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees, including a Pulitzer Prize nomination, a Tony Award nomination, three Grammys, the Spingarn Medal, the National Medal of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her wise words:

"There’s a statement by [the Roman dramatist] Terence: “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.” If you know that, accept that, then you can tell a story. You can make people believe characters are just like they are. Jack and Jill went up the hill, one fell down and the other came tumbling after. The listener thinks, “Oh, I’ve fallen down, so I can understand,” even if it happened in Holland or Kowloon. Human beings should understand how other humans feel no matter where they are, no matter what their language or culture is, no matter their age, and no matter the age in which they live. If you develop the art of seeing us as more alike than we are unalike, then all stories are understandable."

...which is the essence of the Foreign, Or philosophy.

Please watch Blacks, Blues, Black! a public broadcasting deep cut that shows the breadth and depth of Angelou's creativity.

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