Archive for Traveling in Black

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.

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Traveling in Black: Why Iceland?

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.  

By Selena Sage

I once read that the shorter the travel distance between two places, the more alike those places start to become. Now that the world is a plane ride away, I’ve found that to be true. So many areas of the world feel so much like America it does not feel that you’ve left home. (Or the location may be so impoverished you may end up depressed and wish that you never left home!) I was disappointed to hear Jay Z playing in Jamaica instead of steel drums, and I was surprised to hear American Hip-Hop in Stockholm when I expected to hear Swedish music. Though Chinese rap was actually in Mandarin, I was rather delighted to see that the music videos on MTV in Shanghai were a clear rip of BET! In short, it can be difficult to gain a truly unique travel experience these days.

Before I took my trip to Iceland, I had the feeling that I was going to the North Pole. I had no idea what to expect, but my Icelandic friends invited me and I thought, “Why not?” Here are a few things about Iceland I didn’t realize:

  • It’s closer than you think! Iceland is only a 5 hour flight from New York, and a 3 hour flight from London.
  • Everyone in Iceland speaks perfect English! In Iceland, children are taught (starting in grade school) Icelandic, English, and Danish. Communication won’t be a problem.
  • The Icelandic countryside is amazing and there will be moments when you feel like you’re on the Moon! Volcanoes formed Iceland, so there are lava fields everywhere.

The entire population of Iceland is only about 300,000! It is a Scandinavian country, and though it is not incredibly diverse, everyone is polite. Tourism is the largest industry in Iceland, and the country receives almost one million visitors per year! Reykjavik is the capital city of Iceland (population around 120,000), and is generally the city to stay in when visiting. It is very easy to walk around the city (there are shuttles — approx $25pp — from the airport that will take you to your hotel directly, so you would only need a car if you planned to drive into the countryside yourself), and there are many restaurants and shops to visit. It has the feeling of quaint and clean town, and there are sights around the city that are worth visiting (the Cathedral, Einar Jonsson Statue Garden, Reykjavik Art Museum). Even in the city, it is possible that you have never experienced air this clean! Electricity is generated via geothermal energy, and even the water that you drink from the faucets is glacier water! You can comfortably see the sights of Reykjavik in 3-4 days.

Reykjavik is the seventh most expensive city in Europe. It’s not as bad as London, but food can be a bit pricey. I recommend always asking for the daily special, which is usually a fish with vegetable at half the price of normal menu items. The fish in Iceland is incredibly fresh (fishing is the second largest industry after tourism), and the preparation is very flavorful. Every restaurant I went to was excellent (The Fish Market, Uno, and Fish Company to name a few). During high tourist season, it’s a good idea to have a reservation.

The most amazing part of Iceland can be experienced once you leave the city beyond. If you really want to get away from it all, there are great stretches of nothingness (i.e. lava fields with moss). The air is clean and crisp and you will likely catch glimpses of beautiful Icelandic horses, sheep, and cows grazing. Because of all of the geothermal activity, there are hidden hot springs that make nice side trips. I strongly recommend booking a guided tour for at least one of the days to learn more about the landscape and history of the country. My Icelandic friends own a tour company called Iceland Luxury Tours, which provides private tours. The tours I took with them were amazing and they have a five star rating on Trip Advisor. I recommend them very highly. With special Jeeps, we literally rode through rivers and up glaciers! Once in the glaciers, you can either hike around or rent a snowmobile. It is easy to stay active as you will want to walk around and experience the sites. Beyond the glaciers, I also visited the famous Geyser and beautiful waterfalls. The scenery was unlike any place I have ever been.

For a truly unique travel experience, Iceland delivers! You will travel there and truly feel like you left home. Without a doubt, you will leave with an adventure or two under your belt. If you happen to enjoy hiking, there are many trails to explore (and some cabins to rent in the countryside if you would like a prepared meal and bed). Be sure to pack warm clothes (even in the summertime, the glacier areas can get down in the 40 degree range during the day) and prepare to go exploring! Before booking a traditional hotel, look into renting from a resident. Iceland Luxury Tours also has fully furnished loft spaces for rent that are considerably less than hotels with far more accommodations (like a kitchen!). Staying near the city center in Reykjavik is ideal.

Enjoy the journey! 🙂

Selena Sage is a guest writer. Please feel free to check her website:

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