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A damaging love affair with the U.S. ends in heartbreak in 'Black American Refugee'

Black American Refugee, Tiffanie Drayton
Viking

In her engaging memoir, Black American Refugee: Escaping the Narcissism of the American Dream, Tiffanie Drayton tells the story of coming to the United States as an immigrant child. Driven to succeed in her new homeland, the author ultimately discovers that no level of accomplishment would enable her to shake the burden of Blackness in this nation.

In this expansion of a piece published in The New York Times, Drayton doesn't just detail her family's experiences of trying to secure the American dream. She also concludes that a nation that has pathologized Black people throughout its history would do well to turn its focus inward. Having escaped a toxic romantic relationship with a narcissist, Drayton recognizes the same unhealthy behaviors in her relationship with America. She structures the book accordingly, with each chapter addressing an aspect of narcissistic relationships.

The narrative begins with Drayton and her two older siblings leaving their home of Trinidad and Tobago to join their mother in New York, where she, like so many others "ventured from the West Indies in the nineties seeking refuge from the uncertainty of the economy, lured by America's promises of wealth, opportunity, and freedom for themselves and their children." Those early years after their reunion don't produce wealth, but Drayton describes them as near idyllic. The family settles in a multicultural immigrant neighborhood in New Jersey where she can roam the streets with friends after school and over the summer, while her mother works as a bank teller. When rents rise, their mother adds nursing school to her full-time job to ensure a secure, middle-class life for her family. Increasing costs eventually lead them to pick up and move to Texas, where they remain optimistic about their fortunes, having found a good school district near family in Houston.

This period is what Drayton refers to as "love-bombing," the earliest phase of abuse during which the "abuser sells the victim promises of the perfect life, a life not only rich with comfort but also destined, ordained by a higher power, and thus structured so that the victim won't question the narrative." It is during the next phase, "devaluation," when Drayton begins to regularly encounter anti-Black racism. The slurs and slights are heartbreakingly commonplace and could as easily come from a former friend or friends' relatives as from a teacher or principal. When she develops mastery of an online game, Literati, her opponents respond in the chat box to her victories with racist, misogynistic assaults that can't be repeated here. These attacks, she notes, would cease when she used a non-race-identifying avatar. The disrespect that a now-preteen Drayton comes up against is compounded by violence, or its threat, in her school and neighborhood.

It is at this point that Drayton says she "reconciled the ongoing reality of Black hardship with the idea that Black people were free and equal by internalizing the myth that this conflict was simply meritocracy at work, and that participation in meritocracy could save anyone." She begins attributing her own family's struggle with her mother's decision to have "too many" children and leave her (abusive) husband. This dissonance between the reality of the Black American experience and the American promise continues to confound Drayton as she and her family continue to seek the "the comforts of a middle-class life," moving for better opportunities to Florida, and eventually back to New Jersey. All the while, they advance through the various phases of narcissistic abuse.

It is only when she enters her final years of college that Drayton is introduced to "the hidden reality of white supremacy and Black oppression, forces that had been acting on my life for years." Drayton enrolls in "Economic Stratification in the U.S. Economy" where the first Black man she has ever had as a teacher, Prof. Darrick Hamilton, explains "that race was a social construct and that in America, a social hierarchy exists that positions whiteness at its pinnacle and Blackness at its dark depths." (Full disclosure: Darrick Hamilton is a board member of Americans for Financial Reform; it hosts Take on Wall Street, where I am employed).

This knowledge is liberating, but Drayton finds that it is not enough, just as beating the racists who taunted her during online games of Literati wasn't enough to dull "the reality that those white cartoon faces represented the thoughts of real-life white Americans." Ironically, it is the very place where Drayton develops her sociopolitical analysis that overburdens her capacity to withstand life in the United States. After completing her graduation requirements, while working, having an internship, and maintaining an "A" average, Drayton is not allowed to receive her college diploma because she is unable to pay the remainder of tuition she owed. On the day she is scheduled to graduate, Drayton announces she is returning to Trinidad and Tobago. Perplexed family members wonder if she is fleeing a bad breakup. Drayton realizes that she is: "I was running from heart break. My relationship with the United States was the most tumultuous relationship I ever had, and it ended with the heartrending realization that a country I loved and believed in did not love me back."

Drayton writes her story, both extraordinary and representative, from Trinidad and Tobago. It is from there that she witnesses the uprisings following the murder of George Floyd. It is from there she observes "an unprecedented pandemic [that] revealed what everyone knew but had been able to ignore: America's promise of equality for all wasn't one the country was even trying to live up to." In her homeland, Drayton can finally celebrate being free from American racism. Still, despite everything she has experienced, and while noting that "abusers seldom change," Drayton retains hope that America will eventually live up to its promise. Only time will tell.

Ericka Taylor is the popular education manager for Take on Wall Street and a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Bloom, The Millions, and Willow Springs.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ericka Taylor