This January, I moved with my wife and four month old to Amsterdam for what could finally be a permanent job. I’ve been laughing because my dream was to live in Europe, particularly Amsterdam, began when I watched The Carter documentary in grad school. It opens with someone asking Lil’ Wayne’s manager, “So why Amsterdam?” And he responds, “weed is legal here. Wayne likes smoking weed. It’s the best place.” I was high at the time and thought this was hilarious. But it impressed me that this guy had the means and ability to move somewhere to work, which served a basic essential need for him. It may have been the first time I thought I could choose my environment.
I had been moving around since I left Louisiana after college in 2003. Since then, I’ve lived in Philly, Dekalb, IL; Chicago, Paris; Hannover, Germany; Menlo Park, CA; Selinsgrove, Lewisburg, PA, Berlin; and Amsterdam. My longest stay has been seven years in Chicago, and during that time, I spent summers taking Amtrak trips to see friends at home in Louisiana and Texas. At some point, I was surprised to find out that I had become nomadic.
One reason was economic. I based my academic career moves on my dad’s advice to go where my studies were paid for and avoid debt. Tuition in Louisiana was free at that point, so I’d had to stay in-state for undergrad since a full ride was not enough to get to Mississippi, and it cost too much on top of financial aid to go to the University of Texas or Emory University. Thanks to that advice, I finished my Ph.D. with as little debt as possible. It’s a big deal for a college-educated elder millennial these days to be without student loan debt.
The other was a sense of internalization with some friends when I was younger, and through a good bit of American ideology, the best thing to do was to leave where you were born. It’s the commitment to find yourself in a new and chosen environment. Life is supposed to be an adventure, so you should seek opportunities and new experiences wherever possible. It fucks me up every time it hits me that I somehow managed to do that.
Now that I’m here permanently, my nomadic movement has ceased, and it isn’t easy to imagine myself being settled. At this point, I don’t know what it feels like. I’m also someone who never wanted to be a parent and would hashtag #nevergetmarried to a friend who now has a wife and child. It’s a trip. It’s the first time I feel a sense of fixity, and it’s hard not to deal with a fear that it means I’ll be stuck in place.
I realize that feeling is a lot of pushback to the idea that I would never stop moving. But I also know I’m exhausted, so I’ve accepted it. It’s hard to be everywhere; eventually, you have to be somewhere to be anywhere. There must be a fixed anchor point you’re starting from, or you will float away into space.
As you can tell, I’m reflecting hard on this point because I’m struggling to remind myself how to be still and, in that process, recognize what I think is a human need for society and community that I write about all the time as a philosopher and believe I practice, but am learning may just have been an unfulfilled ideal. On a personal level, I also realize that this need comes from being a black person abroad.
I’ve reflected on this fact since the beginning of my travels and, like other traveling African-Americans, looked into the experiences of our traveling ancestors to think about what to expect or what has changed since their experiences. It’s been imperative for me, as my own black community was always in Shreveport, at home. I am one of the many educated black people who’s inhabited primarily white spaces (that’s a whole other article, too). As I’ve reflected over the past few years, it occurs to me that in all my movements, I’ve always been avoiding home. So it’s been interesting to see how, as I now need to learn how to build a home, I’ve found myself.
Professor Michael Thomas is the author of this article. Michael is an assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam. He was a Humboldt Foundation Research Fellow at JFK Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Susquehanna University. You can follow him on LinkedIn. You can also check out his website and other writings as well.