“For me honestly as a Black person, the most troubles that I’ve had with my blackness has been in the United States, hands down. And that’s after traveling to 125 countries.” – Jessica Nabongo
When I saw this video (click image above to view) I immediately resonated with it. Jessica Nabongo is the daughter of Ugandan immigrants, born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. She’s on a mission to become the first Black woman to travel to every single country in the world. She’s getting close. As I write this she’s now been to 134 countries. Only 61 to go.
I’m personally inspired by her for so many reasons. Obviously I would LOVE to travel to as many countries as she has. I have a long way to go before I can even come close to catching up. And she’s the force behind Jet Black, a “boutique travel firm that offers a variety of travel-related services to individuals, governments and brands that focus on encouraging tourism to countries in the African diaspora.” I would love to do something similar.
But I also relate to her opening quote on the video. I also feel like I’ve had less issues with my “blackness” when traveling internationally than in the United States. Well perhaps with the exception of the few days I spent in Arles, France back in the late 90s when I kept getting the cold shoulder from shopkeepers and waiters. I wondered if I was just being sensitive, until I met a man from Mauritania who explained to me that African immigrants (and people who looked like them) were not very welcome in this particular community. We left as soon as we could.
But more pronounced and ongoing are the experiences I’ve had at home – whether it’s being followed in stores because people think I’m going to steal something, being harassed for being in an interracial relationship, having people assume I’m not intelligent or educated, or being flagged for extra scrutiny when entering back into the U.S. And of course always wondering what might happen to me if I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, pulled over by the wrong cop in the wrong moment. There is no escaping the tension that being Black in America brings – worrying about safety, fair treatment, dealing with micro-aggressions and narrow, inaccurate perceptions of who I am.
Travel is where I can mostly be free of the drama. Not that travel doesn’t come with its own stress – but for the most part it doesn’t feel tied to my “Blackness.” I can step outside of our country’s history of slavery and the decimation of Native people, with its deep trauma wound scars and acrid mistrust on all sides, and catch a bit of a break. There is racism and injustice everywhere of course. But as a foreign traveler, I become the observer instead of being embroiled in the thick of it – and what I learn widens my perspective about our struggles at home.
I love that more and more people who look like me are becoming high visibility travelers. I love Jessica’s goal of becoming the first Black woman to travel to every country (check out this Forbes article about her digital nomad life). And that another travel hero, Oneika the Traveller, is now the host of two Travel Channel web series thanks to her successful blog (which includes a section exploring issues related to “Traveling While Black“). I am excited to see the booming Black travel movement – evident on social media in particular (check out my podcast episode interviewing Danny Rivers Mitchell about Black Girls Travel Too). As a result, Black travelers are slowly becoming more represented in the travel industry where until recently most travelers in ads and destination images were predominantly white. It’s about time. Black people (and people of color as a whole) DO travel. And we do need a break from the racial tensions in this country, and deserve to experience that freedom.
So thank you Jessica for what you are doing. You are setting the bar high and we are rising to the occasion. We need powerful role models like you, representing and showing what women of color are capable of. The sky (and the world) is the limit.
Have you traveled extensively as a woman of color? What have your experiences been?
Please leave a message in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.