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What Do Expats Have in Common with an African-American Activist from the 1800's?


W.E.B. Du Bois

Ever since a black intellectual explained rap music to me, and what made it art, I’ve kept my ears open for their cultural insights.

I wish I could remember his name. That one podcast inspired me to bear down and listen to a form of music new to me, music that eventually rewarded me with the genre’s often brilliant narrative and rhyme (and will probably come to an abrupt halt if rappers ever find out I’m listening to it.)

That one podcast taught me a life-long lesson about music in general, that it evolves. That if we don’t evolve with it, we get locked out of fresh and beautiful places music can take us. 


One of the most prominent intellectuals in African American history was W.E. B. Du Bois.  Dubois recently got my attention again when I learned he’d died an expat in Ghana.

That wisp of commonality, learning that his unhappiness with the United States ultimately reached the point of his leaving the country made me wonder more about him.  Did he leave the United States for the obvious reasons that a black man of is his generation would? Or was it something else?

As it turned out, he left for reasons completely unrelated to racism, just like most expats.

God knows he had more to complain about than most. He lived much of his adult life in the Jim Crow South.  In his day, W.E.B. Du Bois was the most educated African American in the United States, graduating from Fisk, then Harvard and then continuing his post-graduate studies in Germany. Seeing America from the outside opened his eyes.

Germany did race relations better than the United States did - at least better than the United States did in 1893. He’d traveled and gone out drinking with white German friends. He almost married a German girl. He knew that racial inequalities weren’t inevitable from his experiences traveling through Europe.

He came back to America understandably tweaked. His experience living in another country changed his whole approach to how he studied the black community and racism throughout his career.

Many accused Du Bois of being too harsh, particularly on black churches, not unlike people who return to America from living or traveling to other first-world countries are even more vocal about America’s short-comings. 

Du Bois was a man who couldn’t get a break. The Jim Crow era rolled right into the McCarthy era and DuBois got rolled right into both. As a vocal pacifist, he found himself targeted by our government as both a black activist and a communist spy. Even the N.A.A.C.P. turned its back on Du Bois for suspected (never proven) ties to Russia.

The leading social scientist of black America became a casualty of the Cold War, not racism (Which only shows you can never tell what’s going to get you in the end).

The Justice Department sought to indict Du Bois on the sham charges typical of McCarthyism. Ultimately the judge dismissed them, not terribly excited about trying an 83-year-old man who had Albert Einstein lined up as a character witness.

At about that same age, Du Bois ran for Congress. He knew he could not win but felt the campaign would give his anti-nuclear message a bigger platform. In other words, for the fun of it, at least for black intellectuals who had lived through Jim Crow.

Just like people quote Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as a book that could be written today, Du Bois’ recounting of his senate campaign experience at  a Yale University’s Law School address echoes things we’re seeing in the U.S. right now.

“America has never been a democracy...Our industrial enterprise is dominated by vast monopolies and our freedom of thought increasingly chained by law, police spies and refusal to let anyone earn a decent living who does not think as he is told to think.”

As late as 1953, long after formal charges were dropped, Du Bois continued to be hounded by the State Department

In what can only be described as passive-aggressive bullying, given Du Bois' reputation all the government could do to retaliate against him was to yank his passport, then give it back, yank his passport, then give it back, denying the world-recognized scholar the opportunity to travel to international peace forums and deny him the pleasure of interacting with true peers.

This retaliation did what even racism could not. Du Bois, like so many expats before and after, had finally witnessed enough. Passport once again in hand but not knowing for how long, Du Bois and his wife left American shores for good for Ghana after he turned 92. He eventually renounced his American citizenship.

One of the most amazing subsequent aspects of Du Bois' life was that when he arrived in Ghana he revived his project of creating an Encyclopedia Africana, a body of work that he projected he would complete at age 102.

Like I've always said - even as a retired expat, you should always have a goal.

Related links:

The first rap song I ever loved was kind of "elevator" rap.  I can still sing most of the words to Erykah Badu and the Roots beautiful classic "You Got Me."

I've never been good at distinguishing rap from hip-hop, but I love the narrative in these older songs (The sound track for the movie Black Panther has some great new songs).

The Knux - The List

3rd Bass - Wordz of Wisdom

Mos Def - Quiet Dog

Next up:  Corruption in Mexico is more complicated than the police bribe.

Most recent: I've always been a disaster with jewelry, but ever since I put on Mexican silver, I've had this feeling my luck is finally going to change.

About the author:

Kerry Baker is the author of two books. The first is "The Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online."  Interactive links in the book take you to the best free features and websites for learning Spanish.

Use the lesson plans in the book or create your own unique lesson plan every day. Boredom is the biggest obstacle to learning a second language. These tools have been created by the best teachers on the web and you'll never find them in a Google search.

The second book, "If Only I Had a Place," is the insider's guide to renting in Mexico. Realtors would love you to believe it's not different in Mexico. It is. Very. This information and its listing of rental concierges will ensure that you do it right, and pave your way to the best, most holistic expat life.