In a country that his ancestors built, Darnell Walker feels estranged from his bequeathed home.
“We are black in a space that is very white,” says Walker.
This “space” is the United States of America—a country the disillusioned 33-year-old has a tenuous relationship with, at best.
But Darnell Walker’s distrust of America began at an early age.
His first encounter with the police was at the age of 10. Walker says he was held for over an hour during a game of hide-and-seek in Charlottesville, Virginia. Authorities claimed they were suspicious when the young Walker ran away after making eye contact, and deemed that a black child playing hide-and-seek wasn’t a sufficient reason. Through the years he’s witnessed a similar narrative of white officers wielding their power to control and oppress black bodies—especially from family and friends. And two decades after his first interaction with the police, racist policing practices in the United States make Walker fear for his life.
“My heart stops and my hands start shaking,” he says of being stopped by the police. Then he thinks, “Oh my God. I am going to die right now? Is something going to happen?”
The owner of a 1987 Chevy Caprice Classic—which he says cops stereotypically associate with drug dealers—Walker goes through this spiral of emotions often. And after being held at gunpoint by the authorities, Walker mulls over the sobering reality that one day he might not make it home alive.
But Black Lives Matter. And Seeking Asylum is Walker’s contribution to the protest movement.
Debuting online on Nov. 9 and Nov. 10, the documentary is a 45-minute account of his travels to four European countries. Over a period of three weeks, Walker explored Europe in an effort to find a place of refuge. The film is a compilation of man-on-the-street interviews—looking for an international perspective on race relations in America—coupled with his visceral reflections on the black experience in America. Themes of terror, disgust, and freedom persist throughout.
In his film, Walker actively explores the idea of leaving the country, but this trend of black people leaving the United States for social and political reasons is nothing new.
James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Nina Simone (to name a few) would all leave the United States to avoid the harsh reality of being black in America.
Rapper Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) decided to leave the United States, too, and is living in South Africa. “America is a very challenging place for me,” Bey said in a May 2015 interview with Beats by Dre. The MC went on to note the social, political, and economic climate as being unnecessarily difficult, and ultimately a hindrance to his creative process. “It does something to me. The whole shit. Yemen. Iraq. Baltimore. On and on,” Bey continued. “And to know that this isn’t an isolated moment in history, this is some sort of continuum of something that is completely whack to begin with.”
Miles Marshall Lewis, the arts and culture editor for Ebony.com, moved to France in 2004 and stayed for seven years. He mused on his experience in “No Country for Black Men.” Published in 2014, the piece was a response to the wave of police killings targeting blacks, and the decision not to indict the officers responsible for Eric Garner’s death. Now a father of two black boys, his family lives in Harlem but he is still uneasy. “It weighs heavily on my mind—the situation for black men and black boys.”
Inspired by James Baldwin, Lewis, too, returned to the United States. He wanted to experience an Obama presidency and also acknowledges that the presence and power of black voices are necessary to moving race relations forward. “Something needs to be said, as well, for staying here on the home front and protesting what’s going on. Rather than just flee the problem, stay and be a part of the solution. It cuts both ways.”
Though unsure of whether or not he will stay abroad for good, Walker has set a goal to leave the United States by 2017. “I know that I’d be better in other places. I’m looking for a place that’s as far away from America—mentally, at least,” he says.
At the top of his list are Amsterdam, Norway, Morocco, and Canada. Though the U.S.-Canadian border is relatively close, and Canada is the most accessible country on his docket, Walker admits that his decision will be more based on intuition than distance. “I don’t feel scared when I’m in Canada. I don’t fear for my life if I encounter a police officer.”
Kyle Canty made headlines weeks ago when he sought asylum in Vancouver. A black man in the United States, Canty also fears for his life. He argued that blacks are “being exterminated at an alarming rate.”
But Canada also has a troubled past.
“Black people in Canada have faced racism since the first African person set foot in the country,” says Simon Black, an assistant professor of labor studies at Brock University in Ontario. “Canada was not free from slavery, and we had our own version of Jim Crow.”
As a white man, Black refuses to instruct how black people should respond to white supremacy, but he thinks that Canada may be seen as a place of refuge because of its association with the Underground Railroad and freedom. “What limited history people might know about Canada is that it was the end of the Underground Railroad,” Black says. “It was a destination point.”
But black people haven’t exactly been at ease in Canada. In “A People’s History of the Yonge Street Rebellion,” Black explains a string of police shootings of young black men and women in the early ’90s—Michael Wade Lawson, Lester Donaldson, Sophia Cook, and Raymond Lawrence—which led to an uprising.
And in Toronto, the violence has continued.
“In terms of police violence, you only have to look to 2015 to see violence to black bodies by the state,” says Black. Andrew Loku, an African man wielding a hammer, was shot dead by police in July. Jermaine Carby was also shot three times by police officers last year.
Aside from the police shootings, Black says that institutionalized anti-black racism is rampant, noting big disparities in education and incarceration rates. “To see Canada as a place of refuge for black Americans is a bit problematic,” he says.
Darnell Walker acknowledges the race issues abroad, and remains undeterred. To Walker, leaving the United States doesn’t signify defeat, though he admits grappling with this notion, saying, “It’s more that we are tired of fighting.”
Sadly, like many black Americans, Walker longs for a sense of belonging, a sense of solidarity. “What we’ve been fighting for is the right to call ourselves American, like everyone else,” he says. “What can we claim? Who will take us and say, ‘This is what you can call home’?”
“That’s the search that I am on.”