Traveling in Black: What Do You Mean I’m Not Black? One Woman’s Voyage Through the Global South

The “Traveling in Black” series will share the experiences of people of color when traveling abroad. You’ll find out all sorts of cool places to go and fun things to see. Each article will specifically touch on how you may be treated internationally, what the culture is like, and how to prepare for your visit.  

My affinity for the term Black goes back to my childhood. I can remember being about seven years old and explaining to my older sister that when you mix all the crayon colors together, you get the color black (I know it’s more like a dark brown, but just humor my seven year old logic for a moment). I, miraculously, had somehow been shielded from the negative connotation attached to the word black. On the contrary, I felt a sense of pride, even specialness, in being identified as Black. I thought that Black people must be the result of the mixing of all the races and therefore the crème de la crème of humanity. Of course, as I got older I realized my Crayola melting pot theory was a bit inaccurate, but I still never wavered from self-identifying as Black. I joined Young Black Scholars and the Black Student Union. I applied to historically Black universities. Even when the Black vs. African-American debate hit a fever pitch around the millennium, I held fast this terminology. But when I decided to participate in the Semester at Sea program and embarked on a 100-day voyage around the world and through the global south, my Blackness was called into question for the first time. I traveled to ten ports of call in nine countries on three continents. My experiences with Blackness in Japan, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brazil, Cuba, and on the ship were certainly eye-opening and at times uncomfortable, but the exchanges I had in India, Kenya, and South Africa with other “Black” people (and people of darker hues) had the most profound and paradigm-shifting effects on me.

Sentinelese Indians

If you are a Black American, or African-American, or American African, or New Afrikan, or however you choose to name yourself as a person of African descent whose immediate ancestors were born in the United States (pause to breathe), I want you to think about how you would answer the following question: So you’re a Negro? This was the question my traveling companions (three other young women and one young man of African descent) and I were faced with as we attempted to mail postcards in a post office in Chennai (Madras), India. The young man who asked me this question said it with all seriousness and no hint of animosity or condescension. He genuinely wanted to know if we were Negroes. This was the follow up question to the typical “Where are you from?” all travelers hear as they attempt to navigate a foreign system all the while sticking out like a sore thumb. Upon responding that we were from the US, I could see the young man’s eyes dart back and forth as he searched for meaning in what I had said. It was almost like the light bulb went off in his head when he asked, “So you’re a Negro?” Stunned into silence for a moment, my response went something like this, “Uhhhh…..noooo…..well…..I think I know what you…..but we don’t use that term anymore. You can say we’re Black or African-American.” Having meant no disrespect, the man quickly apologized. He went on to explain that “Negro” was the word he had learned in school to describe Blacks in America. Now mind you, he was a young man, maybe in his mid-twenties, and not more than 10 years out of school. I’m sure that better educated Indians would have been familiar with the proper terminology, but it appeared that this average Indian Joe in 2002 had little knowledge of contemporary Blacks in America. This wasn’t the first time during this voyage that I found the person I was talking to had never met a Black American in real life, but I felt something of a sad irony in southern India where most people where 6 or 7 shades darker than me and many were downright Black-skinned. At this half-way point in my journey, it became clear that Black Americans were like unicorns to some people in the world – “I’ve heard of them, but I’ve never seen one with my own eyes.”

After India, the next stop was the Motherland. Mombasa, Kenya to be exact, then on to Cape Town, South Africa. Surely, I would be welcomed home as the long lost cousin on my ancestors’ continent. My response to that assumption is similar to the answer I gave the young man in the Chennai post office, “Uhhh….noooo…..well…..sorta.” In one conversation I had in Kenya, the follow up to the question, “Where are you from?” was “No, where are you from?” After answering with “the US”, “America”, and “The United States of America”, the man we were talking to finally asked, “Before that, where are you from?” Of course I already knew what I didn’t know, but I had never had it called out like that before. As Black Americans, we just know our ancestors are from Africa. If you’ve studied at least a bit of our history then you know your ancestors were probably from West Africa, and it usually ends there (this was before mail-order DNA testing and all that). As we attempted to explain why as an African American we didn’t know exactly where our ancestors were from, another young Kenyan man in the conversation leans in and casually says, “Black Americans don’t know where they’re from because they don’t care. That kind of stuff is not important to them.” Wait, what?! We figured it was time to let ‘em know what Black folks were all about. My friends and I proceeded to school him on the experience of Black people in the Americas, making sure he understood the relentless attempts to strip us of our history and culture and of the pride we feel in our African ancestry, however nebulous that may be. All this, of course, with my best educated sister-girl delivery. Again, I know that this one man’s comment was not representative of all Kenyans or all anybody. It was his misguided assumption. But, that experience kept me thinking once we were back on the ship. There, in the fabled birthplace of our ancestors, it wasn’t that the people didn’t know Black people existed, but that they had a woefully inaccurate image and understanding of us. This was made all the more disheartening by that fact that these were people who looked like me. When you see your own reflection in the mirror, you should recognize it. This time, there was a prickly sense of unfamiliarity.

Leaving Kenya for South Africa, I was decidedly more cautious with my assumptions. But even with my expectations in check, nothing could have prepared me for being told that I wasn’t Black. Yep. Just like that. During my visit to Cape Town I was unofficially adopted by a Colored woman that I met in the Bo Kaap Museum and her family. I visited with them every day I was there and the topic of race eventually came up (How could it not in South Africa?). My Colored “mom” explained to me that she did not consider me Black. “Black,” she explained, “means you know what tribe you are from, you speak that language, like Zulu or Xhosa or Ndebele. Black Americans are more like us because you don’t have a tribe, you don’t speak the language, and you’re mixed with other things.” After thinking about her explanation of it all, I’ll admit that I did feel a certain kinship with this family and by extension the Colored people of South Africa. And while I was there, my interaction with the other racial groups, including Black South Africans, was limited. The longing for a lost history I sensed from my Colored companions, however slight, stirred a kindred feeling in me as a Black American. But even with that, I still felt some kinda way about being told I wasn’t Black. And it wasn’t like I was being called Colored either. Like “Black” in South Africa, “Colored” carries a very specific definition and historical reference. For some people in South Africa, there was no proper term for those that call themselves Black in America. I came to understand that the word can have a different connotation, significance, even sociopolitical reference depending on where you are. There, in the city jokingly called “the southernmost European city”, my blackness, or lack thereof, had again been defined for me.

During the final month of the voyage, I would cross the Atlantic Ocean to dock in Brazil and Cuba before returning stateside. Blackness, or negritud, is probably even more complicated in Latin America, and I would have my Blackness questioned, challenged, negated, and affirmed many more times before I stepped foot on American soil again. But all of the weird, uncomfortable, and down-right rude exchanges I had around race and identity were dwarfed by the soul-stirring experiences and connections I made with people who look like me all over the world. In a Dalit (Untouchable) Education Center outside of Chennai, I was moved to see a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King hanging next to the Indian hero and champion of the untouchables Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. In Kenya I went to a hip-hop club where Tupac t-shirts and Maasai beaded bracelets blended perfectly. I played with kids that look like my nieces and nephews at Ile Ife Afonja in Salvador, Brazil. In the end though, I realized that I must define who I am and the terms by which I am identified. I realized that even though we use a variety of terms to claim our Blackness, it’s there in us all, in the way we dance, in the way we eat, in the way we worship, in the way we speak. That’s what I found my Black to be: a way to describe all of that in all people whose ancestors came from the soil of Africa. So I guess the Crayon wisdom of little seven year old Saudeka was not that far off. When we mix all the light browns, and blue-blacks, and high yellows, and mochas that make up our people all around the world, we get Black.

Comments are closed.