I am in Istanbul, Turkey for the next few days, and have had the opportunity to take in a number of fascinating aspects of contemporary Turkish culture. My vague forethoughts of dervishes, fundamentalists and stern Ottoman raiders has been displaced by visions of a thoroughly modern, yet ancient city. In Istanbul, which literally straddles East and West—the Asian continent is on the east side of a local sea, and Europe on the west—a mixing of cultures, languages, and histories is to be expected.

What I didn’t expect, however, was that black Americans would be present here! Of course, there are very few out and about on the streets (and those that are here are likely in town for this week’s meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank). But it may not stay that way for long.

An organization called Diversity Abroad, in conjunction with the Turkish Coalition of America (my gracious hosts for this weeklong trip) has long sponsored study abroad scholarships for students of color in the United States. Since inception, dozens of black and Latino Americans have been given the opportunity to live and learn in countries like Turkey that are off the beaten path for typical international education programs. The Congressional Black Caucus and the United Negro College Fund have also been supporters of the program.

Judith Gay, Vice President for Academic Affairs at Community College of Philadelphia, says the experience has been rewarding for the associate degree students she’s sent for two- and three-week exchanges in Turkey:

A lot of students have never been out of Philadelphia—they don’t have suitcases, they can’t leave because they have kids, or they have jobs and obligations. .. Some people think you need a long study abroad to be effective—but if you’ve been prepared, it’s earth-shattering.

Beril Unver of the TCA explains the reasoning behind this synergy: “We thought African Americans could be good allies to us, because they have faced the same disadvantages as we do in the United States.” Turks are a relatively small and recently arrived ethnic group (there are an estimated 500,000 in the States), but have an interesting history with black music in particular: Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records who signed Ray Charles and others, was Turkish.

Perhaps more interestingly, on the 40th anniversary of African American Studies departments at US universities, Bahcesehir University, the school that pioneered American Studies in Turkey, is now offering the nation’s first classes in black culture and literature. Zeynel Erdem, president of the board of directors, was gleeful about its creation: “American studies is organized to be a translator of Turkish culture and history to the United States and vice versa. We now have a great opportunity [to do so]."

The department will teach courses like “African American Literature and Culture,” “The American South” and “Literature of the Harlem Renaissance”—the latter of which will expose Turkish students to the writings of Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen, Nella Larsen, Jean Toomer, and Zora Neale Hurston.

John McWhorter, as Felicia Pride has pointed out, has been calling for a new type of African American academic tradition:

In an African-American Studies department of the kind I suggest, speakers and teachers of all walks would be permitted--note: not just conservative ones--and students would be able to come to their own conclusions. That is, be educated in the true sense.

Perhaps this is what he had in mind?


Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.