I was 14 years old when my parents took me to Costa Rica, and I was kicking and screaming the entire way. It was my first time abroad, and America Online had just established a monthly flat rate for unlimited usage. But instead of starting conversations online with the requisite “age, sex, location,” I ended up immersing myself in a local culture where I ate iguana, honed my Spanish skills and spent many afternoons hiking in the jungle.
And I remember clearly, when we eventually returned to America, just how different the world felt.
It was the beginning of a long, cathartic and, at times, traumatic series of events that took me around the world, from Mexico to Spain, China, Japan, Australia and many places in between. Over the years, I’ve met other American travelers, many of whom are white, who like to showcase the stamps in their passports and compare adventures. And whenever I end up in a conversation with one of them who feels dwarfed by my global experiences, I see the light bulb over their head dim and flicker with confusion.
And they won’t say it in so many words. I’ve grown used to the sort of veiled language that betrays a deeper urge to reconcile what I’m saying with their long-held beliefs about what I’m meant to be capable of, based on the color of my skin.
“Well, aren’t you resourceful.” … Not as much as I’d like to be.
“Wow, you don’t meet many people like yourself.” … Maybe you don’t.
“You’re a long way from Chicago.” … And you’re a long way from West Palm Beach. What’s your point?
But one Austrian, in typical blunt fashion, whom I met while hiking a mountain in Salzburg, used no such euphemisms.
“Well, don’t take this the wrong way,” he said. “But you’re black.”
To which I responded: “Yes, exactly.”
It’s no secret that African Americans, and generally all people of color living in the postcolonial Diaspora of the modern world, have been historically denied the privilege extended to whites to be defined by something other than the color of their skin. Complex relationships, human emotions, family dynamics, changing behaviors and attitudes have long been the province of our white counterparts, where we compensate by remaining within the strict confines bestowed upon is.
Rapper. Preacher. Dancer. Sassy best friend who functions in the background of a story about her struggle, while a white friend narrates the plot. It’s dull.
And because portrayals of people of color in the media as well as in film and music have anchored us to a particular time (civil rights era), location (deep in the heart of Mississippi) and purpose (to inspire the “inherent kindness” of our oppressors while serving them with nonthreatening, biblical bravado), there is an automatic reduction in the space allowed for narratives that protracts beyond those boundaries.
When we dare to exist beyond the stereotypes long reinforced as the only acceptable means of governance, we essentially commit small but vital acts of revolution, which, when combined, create a powerful movement.
But black travel is not a new concept, though it is receiving newfound attention thanks to emerging media entities like Travel Noire, Black Bravado and Nomadness. Rather, black travel is a long, rich tradition in which brilliant minds seek out other brilliant minds in life-changing experiences, to collaborate on movements and strengthen ideologies that help to shape, organize and mobilize our own in America.
“A little learning, indeed, may be a dangerous thing, but the want of learning is a calamity to any people.” —Frederick Douglass
In August 1845, Frederick Douglass, one of the greatest minds America has ever produced and a driving force in the abolitionist movement, made his first trip overseas to the British Isles. While there, he toured extensively throughout England and Ireland, orating on the perils of slavery and seeking support for its eradication. It was in Ireland where he met political leader Daniel O’Connell, an outspoken campaigner for the emancipation of Ireland from British rule and fierce advocate for the complete dismantling of slavery.
The collaboration between these two minds helped reshape Douglass’ approach to leading the anti-slavery movement. This evolving position saw him distance himself from longtime mentor William Lloyd Garrison and reject his secessionist propensities. Douglass then embraced a new strategy that worked within constitutional law, shaping policies and holding political leaders, namely President Abraham Lincoln, accountable for the responsibility that a “free” democracy would entail, while leaving the Union intact.
If not for this pivotal trip, America could very likely have been a place where the North reveled in its moral superiority at the expense of the millions of slaves left behind to rot in the South.
But more than that, Douglass’ trip overseas forced him to evolve with a more dynamic, intersectional approach that acknowledged the universality of injustice, and saw him work to create models that could be replicated the world over to address oppression in different areas, as he did during the suffragist movement, as the only African American at the Seneca Valley Convention. Through travel, Douglass was able to broaden his horizons, challenge his long-held reverence for British culture and policy (witnessing firsthand its negative impact on the Irish people), and re-evaluate his own methods of self-governance.
In his travels, Douglass found allies, companions, friends … and experiences that he later described in a letter to Garrison as “some of the happiest moments” of his life.
Realizing the importance of travel in shaping the views that changed so many millions of lives, he later wrote of its importance in gaining a wider perspective on solutions to the global epidemic of injustice and oppression.
And more than 150 years before then-Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) spoke about the enduring virtues of Scandinavia’s socioeconomic policies, Douglass espoused the same philosophy:
Is America more selfish and less humane than Russia?—Is she less honest and benevolent than England? Is she more stolid and insensible to the claims of humanity than the Dutch?—What should hinder her from following the human example, and adopting the enlightened policy of those nations?
Travel isn’t a footnote in African-American culture—it is the index that has forged movements, shaped the minds of some of our greatest leaders, expanded their thinking and changed the course of history as we know it.
As Malcolm X famously wrote in a letter from Mecca in Saudi Arabia after he was exiled from the Nation of Islam:
There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white.
And to those who would look at this period of his life in a vacuum in order to undermine the more radical methods that defined his earlier career, it is Malcolm X’s personal evolution in its entirety that shaped and shifted the civil rights era, along with Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton and countless other constituents. Travel was a vital part of it.
In President Barack Obama’s deeply personal memoir that he used to introduce himself to the American people, Dreams From My Father, he notes the significant impact of living in Indonesia. From 1967 to 1971, Obama took up residence with his mother and stepfather in the Southeast Asian country, where he was directly confronted with colorism, privilege and extreme poverty for the first time, all of which seemed a world apart from his idyllic Hawaiian upbringing.
In his book, he recalls everything from eating dog meat for the first time to seeing a leprosy sufferer with no nose beg for money. It is a time he describes as both “the bounty of a young boy’s life” and his first realization that “the world was violent … unpredictable and often cruel.” This, he details in his book, was the beginning of a journey in self-discovery that challenged his life of privilege, helped to forge his identity, fueled his quest for notable mentors of color to help make sense of his unique biracial positioning, and even led him to reclaim his birth name, Barack, over Barry.
But travel is not limited to those with passports and the means to do so. It never has been. Travel isn’t only a response to broaden one’s horizons, an undoubtedly more recent phenomenon (and, yes, it needs to be said, privilege). Travel has also historically been a response to systemic trauma—where the only means of survival was by migrating to a less hostile environment, giving birth to new chapters of freedom and possibility.
“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” —Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman, one of America’s most courageous heroes and a future $20-bill-y’all centerpiece, dedicated her life to the underground transport of more than 70 escaped slaves by helping them flee North. This was not a summer vacation replete with Instagram hashtags and personal stylists. This was an intricate, life-threatening act of political rebellion that spat in the face of a legal system that functioned then, as it does now, off the backs of people of color.
Of course, Tubman didn’t do it with the concept of travel in mind, but the exodus for which she is responsible is part of that narrative nonetheless. That narrative describes how black people in America have resigned themselves to the fact that it’s easier to change our environments than it is to change the system that continues to make so many of them hostile.
Between 1910 and 1970, a Great Migration of former slaves decentralized the African-American population in the South, where 6 million blacks, exhausted by the remnants of slavery, moved to the Northwest, Midwest and Northeast in search of better economic and social opportunities. During this time, African-American populations in cities like New York, Chicago and Detroit increased by nearly 40 percent, and the number of African Americans in industrial jobs nearly doubled.
As Isabel Wilkerson wrote in her National Book Critics Circle Award-winning opus The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration:
They traveled deep into far-flung regions of their own country and in some cases clear across the continent. Thus the Great Migration had more in common with the vast movements of refugees from famine, war, and genocide in other parts of the world, where oppressed people, whether fleeing twenty-first-century Darfur or nineteenth-century Ireland, go great distances, journey across rivers, desserts, and oceans or as far as it takes to reach safety with the hope that life will be better wherever they land.
But the Great Migration was pivotal in establishing artistic movements from the primordial mess of slavery as well, adding to a rich tradition of African-American art. Without the Great Migration, we would never have been gifted with the soul-churning sounds of Miles Davis, whose father, born in Noble Lake, Ark., moved to Alton, Ill., to pursue dentistry. We would never have had the eloquent social commentary of James Baldwin, whose mother fled an abusive partner in Maryland to live in Harlem. Blues music might have remained a close-held Southern secret if Muddy Waters had never left the Stovall Plantation of Clarkson, Miss., to pursue his music career in Chicago—a genre that gave birth to rock ’n’ roll, heavy metal and even punk.
New environments stoke the embers of creative expression until they become a roaring, uncontrollable fire. And because of the unique history of racism in America, which forced people of color to go to extraordinary lengths for better opportunities, you will find no greater example of people who have leveraged the vital need to travel in order to create better circumstances for themselves and a better, richer society for us all … even if it is under life-threatening circumstances.
Five months ago I moved from Melbourne, Australia, to Berlin. I’ve lived abroad for close to a decade now. Each city in each new country has created a mini cosmic explosion of growth that saw me change in ways I never could have imagined. I don’t think I would even recognize the person I was 10 years ago. And to see so many more black men and women taking up their passports and doing the same shows me that progress is real, regardless of how slow and painful. But it also shows me that America has gotten worse in fulfilling the basic needs of its oft-overlooked and neglected people, pushing us to greater lengths than ever before to find better opportunities.
The world is smaller, and we are taking advantage of it. I can’t wait to see what kinds of arts, ideas and movements we come up with along the way. And while it certainly is not our problem to fix, who knows what kinds of solutions to this current political nightmare we’ll figure out in the process?
Until then, I say we honor the sacrifices of the people who came before us … and hit the road.