My Turkish tales: A respite from being black in America

My Turkish tales: A respite from being black in America
Lawrence Cenk Laws explores how - like Baldwin decades earlier - being in Turkey rested his mind and heart from the divisiveness and corrosiveness of American politics.
5 min read
22 Apr, 2021
'Turkey has often been a place of reprieve for me,' writes Laws [Getty]
During my studies in Istanbul I was posed the same question many times: Why Turkey?

My Turkish friends found it odd that an American would leave the Land of Opportunity to seek an education there. My American friends were more concerned about my safety. The reasons both sides were asking may be different, but the answer is the same - because I'm black; blackness - a concept as American as apple pie and as foreign to Turks as, well, apple pie.

As the fight for racial equality in the US has reached a tipping point this year, I've found myself contemplating how Turkey has often been a place of reprieve for me, as we continue to resist racial injustices here in the US.

My dad is African-American and my mother is Turkish. My dad served in the US Army and was stationed at the NATO base in Izmir, Turkey during the 1980s. It is there they met, fell in love, and married. I was born in 1988 at the US Air Force base in Frankfurt, at the time still in West Germany. At the intersection of race, culture, language, nationality and religion in my upbringing it is also an unusual one.

It was my Turkish aunt (or "teyze" in Turkish), Yıldız, who introduced me to Black thought and politics. From 1996 to 1999, she lived with my family during her studies in America. Often, she would pick me up from elementary school and take me to the amazing HBCU campus. At home, she exposed me to works both Turkish and American, and it was thanks to Yıldız Teyze that I first learned of Malcolm X.

When asked why he came to Turkey, Baldwin famously said, "I can't breathe, I have to look from the outside."

I decided to study in Istanbul, an experience which highlighted to me how suffocated I had been feeling by the racial tensions in the US. And I came to learn I wasn't the first African-American to feel this way when coming to Turkey.

Half a century earlier, James Baldwin had moved to Istanbul for a decade to escape the civil unrest of the 1960s. When asked why he came to Turkey, Baldwin famously said, "I can't breathe, I have to look from the outside". For him, the phrase "I can't breathe" spoke of how his travels to Turkey allowed him some reprieve from the overt racism in the US.

Today, the phrase is more directly attributed to the late Eric Garner, George Floyd and others in their pleas for mercy at the hands of the police. For the wider African-American community it sums up how stifling life has been - and still is - in 21st century America.

Baldwin lived in the neighborhood adjacent to mine and I began to understand why he felt that way. Being in Turkey rested my mind and heart from the divisiveness and corrosiveness of American politics and society.

Not only that, I could see that my teyze was not an outlier when it came to Turks' support for the struggles faced by black people in America. They are often keenly aware of what is going on and are sympathetic to the causes. Muslims, and voices in the civil rights movement such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali are often held in very high esteem.

Read more: Trump, racism and America's original sin

Turkey has its own history of African diaspora communities. The Ottoman slave trade brought African populations to the Aegean coast in significant numbers. When I found out that these "Afro-Turks" had their own foundation in my mother's hometown of Izmir, I had to visit. There, I met Beyhan Türkkollu and Şakir Doğuluer, Vice-Chair and Chair of the Afro-Turk foundation respectively. I was amazed to hear of their efforts to try to reclaim their past, and how to see how it mirrored my own community's efforts back in the US. 

But what surprised me was the apparent lack of stress they had about being black in Turkey. Afro-Turks have been considered full and equal citizens under the law since the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. They never had to deal with the Three-Fifths Compromise. They didn't have to fight to just get the right to vote. They didn't have to struggle with segregationist policies or pass a Civil Rights Act to ensure that at least legally, the government could not discriminate against them. They didn't live with the fear of police brutality.

It proves to me we need to do better here in the US

This is not to say they have not faced other challenges. And as black people, they have of course had to deal with certain stereotypes and tropes, but the institutional and structural racism so pervasive in the US seems to have less of a stronghold over the Turkish system.

I am not here to tell you that any country is perfect, nor that Turkey is some haven for black people. Turkey, like all countries, has its own social divisions and challenges with respect to other markers such as religion, politics and ethnicity. But race doesn't feel like an issue I have to be on such high alert about at all times.

Yes, my biracial identity turns heads wherever I go but I can say without hesitation that I never feel the racial animus in Turkey to a degree anywhere near what I feel in the US. It proves to me we need to do better here in the US. It's sad that I feel safer in a country where I don't have citizenship than in the country on whose soil I was born.

Lawrence Cenk Laws is a public international lawyer and attorney. His areas of expertise include international law and politics, human rights, minority rights, civil rights and liberties, refugee and asylum law, and humanitarian issues.  He is bilingual in Turkish and English.

Follow him on Twitter: @llaws

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.