Lessons I've Learned as a Black Woman World Traveler

by Juhanna Rogers During my first class in graduate school, my professor asked which of my college experiences had the most profound imp...

by Juhanna Rogers

During my first class in graduate school, my professor asked which of my college experiences had the most profound impact on me. At that moment I began to think about traveling as a critical learning experience. So I asked myself what traveling has taught me about being an African American woman. Elaine Lee’s 1997 book, Go Girl: Black Woman’s Guide to Travel and Adventure, was one of the first pieces of literature I came across that explored and exposed the highs and lows of traveling as a Black woman. The contributing writers to Lee’s text illustrated how regardless of the country, language, or time spent abroad, being identified as a black woman means something far beyond one’s American identity. These personal narratives solidified how travel challenges and affirms ideals on what it means to be a woman of African descent. This was further solidified during my first travel experience to the Bahamas with my mother, as well as the trips I’ve taken to the Latin Caribbean, Central America, and United Kingdom since. During all of these journeys, I too have learned unique lessons about what it means to travel as a Black woman.

Spain, 2003

This was the trip that kicked off me realizing my dream of traveling the world. In August 2003, I traveled to Spain as a study abroad student to learn Spanish culture, language, and history during my senior year as an undergraduate. I lived in Spain for five months with a host-family while I attended classes at a local university. This experience was especially significant, as I was the first in my family to leave the country. After the first two weeks, I was learning about my own personal character and strength, as much as I was learning about Spain’s culture. My host family treated me like a royal guest; I was not permitted to cook my own food, do my own laundry, or clean. I spent my mornings in class at the local university, and as a typical Spaniard, I would come home for comida ad a siesta (a midday nap). During my free afternoons, I spent countless hours walking and exploring. It was during my afternoon walks that I experienced Spain through the lens of an African American woman. Many black women I passed on my way from point A to point B worked menial jobs or were involved in sex work. Although I grew up in urban New Jersey, seeing this in Spain—and observing the lack of collective social or political action on the behalf of the Black working class—left me perplexed. My American passport was definitely a privilege. However, that privilege easily became a burden as I realized that people who looked just like me were treated with far less dignity and humility.
Lesson Learned: The presence of Africans, specifically African women, in Spanish society reflected racist and sexist policies observed so often throughout African American history. Opportunities for men and women who came to Spain for work to provide for their families were limited. On more than one occasion, I saw African women lining the streets at night as sex workers. Their faces resembled mine. The only difference between them and me was my passport. Being an African American granted me access and opportunities. I returned to the United States with a greater appreciation for civil rights.

Dominican Republic, 2005

I traveled to the Dominican Republic for the first time for the same reason most women do: I needed a girls get-a-way filled with eye candy and beautiful beaches. However, I got there and fell in love with the culture, the people, and the spirit of the place. The sea of Black and Brown faces drew me into local restaurants, nightclubs, and the overall community. Since 2005, I have traveled to the Dominican Republic 15 times and have worked as a guide, leading over 100 people—including college professors, students, and women’s groups—in enriching cultural experiences.

Lesson Learned: Many tourists to the Caribbean islands strictly limit their exploration to resort activities. However, when you connect with local organizations and community leaders, you learn more about their experiences of their culture and community. Through establishing relationships with locals, gains a different perspective, which opens up your mind and opportunities, personally and professionally. One of the most powerful memories I carry with me from the Dominican Republic, was a conversation I had with a group of Haitians immigrants living on a sugar plantation. In speaking about the unique oppression that Haitians face in the DR, they told me, “We don’t need gifts. We need Malcolm X’s autobiography and other writings from Black leaders—written in our language—so we can educate ourselves, reclaim our power, and achieve freedom.”

Costa Rica, 2006

When I traveled to Costa Rica, I had gone through a number of pivotal life changes. By 2006, I had become a mother and I had a year and a half of grad school under my belt. Thus, my sense of culture and womanhood had changed drastically since 2003—especially as these things intersected with race. This was also my second study abroad experience. While many other students lacked a critical understanding of the intersections of culture and race, I felt like a big fish in a small pond.

The Costa Rica trip focused on service learning. I traveled with a racially diverse group of undergraduate and grad students. I went as a master’s student to study sociology and improve my Spanish language and writing skills. I lived in a small town north of San Jose. My host family also hosted two other students while I was in their home: one was a semi-pro soccer player, and the other was a student in my program. We lived in a studio apartment they built in the back of their home.

Lesson Learned: While in Costa Rica, I conducted research about the American students’ experiences. I watched as white students cried about not speaking the language and listened to them describe their living conditions in rural Costa Rican communities. I learned that traveling out of the country with people who have a limited understanding about the realities of race and White privilege—and who lack a critical understanding of colonial history—can be counterproductive to a truly meaningful travel abroad experience.

United Kingdom, 2013

My travels to London started out upon an invite from a someone I was dating. I made three trips to England during the course of that relationship. The experiences I had informed my thinking as a scholar, my fashion sense, and my thoughts about the experiences of Black women. When I arrived in the United Kingdom, I was reminded and made completely aware that I was Black. I was retained for an hour in the airport by security about who I was visiting and if they Identified as British. Being the typical Jersey girl, i immediately responded defensively to the racist and classist implications of the questions. I was finally released and met the driver hired to pick me up. He was a pleasant man of Southeast Asian descent and he happily referred to me as Michelle Obama. I found this ironic, considering what had occurred in the airport. I went literally from one extreme to another. That set the precedence for my time in London: I was either treated as a second-class citizen or someone worth paying attention to, depending on where I was.

During my time there, I also conducted research on the experiences of Black female faculty and administrators as a graduate student project. I attended a conference while there and met several prominent Black scholars and graduate students.
Lesson Learned: My experience in London taught me about the significance of ethnic identity. I learned that being Black British is a distinct group, just like being African American. There is a rich transnational history around the experience of Blacks living in England and the United Kingdom. From the conversations I engaged in with Black scholars, I learned the history and varying cultural experiences within the African Diaspora are valid areas to study and explore. While England is a one of the richest countries in the world, Blacks and other ethnic minorities living in England are still struggling against many of the issues Black Americans are fighting against.
I have explored cities in Spain, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic. I have sat in cafes, offices, and the homes of Black educators and scholars in England. I have eaten fresh lobster on private coves. I have watched sunrises and sunsets while dancing on the shores of the Mediterranean and Caribbean Seas. I have traveled to the spaces where the local working class people live and eat, leaving the comforts of resorts behind me. It is in these spaces that I saw and absorbed cultures, cuisines, and traditions that changed the course of my life. In each of these places, I learned more about the African Diaspora—our complex histories, experiences, and cultures. In every country I gained a more nuanced understanding of the racialized experiences of Black women and men. Traveling beyond American borders offers me solace. Travel teaches me more about Black womanhood than I could ever learn inside the confines of the U.S. alone. Our stories, our experiences, our lives are richer and more colorful than we can imagine.

I am grateful to travel as a student. I am grateful to travel as a teacher. I am grateful to travel and explore the different experiences of African Diasporic culture. Most importantly, I am grateful to travel as a Black Woman.

Photo: Shutterstock

Juhanna is a regular contributor at For Harriet.

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