The African-American identity within the international community is much like a global brand which historically has helped enable the career success of Black U.S. citizens outside their homeland. That is less surprising than it first might seem when considering: the heroic roles American Blacks have played in events such as World Wars I and II in Europe; or when acting as ambassadors of the cultural arts worldwide; or, when coaching voters in South Africa on how to elect Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (1918–2013) as the country’s first Black and democratically-elected president.
The body of literature on African Americans’ adventures outside the United States is extensive and among the world’s richest and most entertaining. The significance of such explorations has been well documented in volumes like Tyler Stovall’s Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light (1996); and, in musician Stew’s and Heidi Rodewald’s 2008 award-winning musical, Passing Strange (adapted for the screen by director Spike Lee in 2009).
Fans of iconic author James Baldwin’s famous 1953 essay, “Stranger in the Village,” will recall his blues-flavored musings, while staying in a snow-covered hamlet in Switzerland, on the evolution of racial identities in America. Contemporary author Darrell Gartrell’s 2016 memoir, 21 Years of Wisdom: One Man's Extraordinary Odyssey in Japan, contains equally-compelling insights but presented, obviously, through a very different lens.
Baldwin was an American Black Man self-removed from his beloved community of Harlem in New York City to escape the toxic atmosphere of Jim Crow racism and further develop as a writer. Gartrell did something many techno-charged Millennials accustomed to the practice of working remotely at home might find intriguing: he left his home in South-Central Los Angeles with the intention of seeking and claiming his fortune in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Journey to a Distant Shore
Gartrell introduces readers to his life in the city of Osaka, Japan, 1990s, as he is driving home on a mostly deserted street at 4 a.m. and pulled over by a policeman––on a bicycle. (The scene is more gently humorous than foreboding; yet, for readers unable to shake scenes of fatal encounters between Black people and American policemen over the past decade, it makes a strong contrast.) What starts out as a routine traffic stop for running a red light on a street absent of any other traffic evolves into a requirement for the author to upgrade his international driver’s permit to a valid Japanese license. As he begins to accomplish this, he is reminded of a lesson in survival particularly valuable for the millions of people today immigrating, or fleeing as refugees, from one country to another:
“I would discover in the most blatant way that the driving exam itself had little to do with actual driving, but rather, how well you could take an ass kick’n and keep on tick’n—or at least smiling––a fundamental theme in Japanese society and culture called gaman” (21 Years of Wisdom, pbk ed p. 8).
In the pages which follow, as he experiences a series of thrilling ups and painful humbling downs, it become clear this ability to survive in order to thrive has served him well more than once. And very likely will do so again.
Before delving deeper into the narrative detailing his rise to eminence in Japan’s language school, or “eikaiwa (ae-kai-wa)” industry, Gartrell takes us back in time. Readers are treated first to the thoroughly American story of his mixed ancestry. We are then steered through scenes from his youth, including a visit to Savannah, Georgia, at the age of six with his father, Barnet Gartrell.
From Tragedy to Triumph
Thanks to the entrepreneurial “hustling” of Barnet Gartrell, our narrator’s family had the good fortune of living in relative upper middle class comfort next door to Harlem Renaissance great Flournoy Miller (a celebrated performer whom this writer wrote about in Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance). Comfort, however, did not mean immunity from disruptions such as some of the most violent race riots in American history, harrowing confrontations with members of L.A.’s notorious street gangs, and death. As he points out regarding one fateful season in his adolescence:
“There was a lot to ponder that summer: losing my father to cancer, my best friend and two classmates to murder, even the dog was killed” (p. 30).
The very elements which shade his youth with a sense of tragedy also push him to earn a B.S. degree in finance from California State University and begin exploring possibilities of establishing a life for himself in Europe, or elsewhere, outside the United States. A series of almost mystical encounters eventually find him negotiating his way through the intricacies of Japanese language and customs.
Striving for Success
There is little Gartrell does not cover in his memoir, a book which could also serve as an important college classroom text on business ethics or cultural literacy. From the kind of quirky racial biases and distinct social preferences found in most countries, to observations regarding cultural r/evolutions and his own sexscapades, he paints a large, detailed, and frequently fascinating picture.
Since he is writing about a Black American living in Japan, readers might expect accounts similar in tone to the first chapter’s. Such stories are in fact delivered in a style which effectively blends rhythms of the author’s personal anxieties with the kind of detached observations one might expect from an anthropologist. This becomes less surprising when noting his basic personal philosophy: “…My main beliefs were and continue to be rooted in science. A scientific mind and a refined intuition constitute the perfect balance for any self-respecting Libra” (p. 166).
Anchored by the convictions of his beliefs and his Cal State degree, Gartrell takes his first steps as a “certified sensei,” or teacher, shortly after his arrival in Osaka during Black History Month 1991. In addition to working with a prestigious business college, he pulls double duty by offering private English lessons on the second floor of a McDonald’s restaurant while also managing to learn the Japanese language largely on his own.
By page 102, he is conducting lessons in his apartment. Then, rather “improbably” as Barack Obama described his election to the U.S. presidency, only 78 pages later he is opening his first Wisdom21 school. “I settled on the name ‘Wisdom21,’” he writes, “to reflect all the knowledge I had gleaned from reading New Age books, as well as the new millennium just a few years away” (p. 180)
The various obstacles he overcomes to expand this eikaiwa enterprise teaching English as a second language take their emotional and physical tolls. Keeping his eyes on a long-sought prize, he eventually manages to open a sixth branch in Japan’s capitol city and one of the major financial centers of the world: Tokyo.
NEXT: African Americans Far from Home (part 2): Intimacy, Ethics, and Take-Aways
Contemporary award-winning American author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.