In my lifetime I have been black on three continents. This week with my trip to Morocco made it four. I celebrated my milestone by riding a camel as the sunset swept darkness across the Sahara Desert. Shifting uncomfortably around the camel’s hump and attempting not to drop my iPhone that I was furiously taking photos with, I just took a moment and asked myself, “How did I get here?”
During the past five months of study abroad I’ve done some things I never dreamed I would do. Since starting college it seems like every few months my world expands just a bit more. I was born and raised in Chicago, but go to school thousands of miles away in the constantly sunny Los Angeles. I’m interested in covering politics, but my journalism skills have led me to chat with stars like Kerry Washington and Common. I wanted to live in London for a semester but have traveled to nearly 10 countries, picking up some new perspective on the world with each trip. Though each country has been distinctive, a continued eye-opener each culture has given me is how the African diaspora manifests itself. (The African diaspora refers to the communities of people dispersed across the world who have heritage from Africa.)
As a black woman from the U.S. who is well-versed in the Civil Rights Movement that was waged in the 20th century, I found it extremely difficult to not use the term “African American” when referring to all black people. Being black and being from America were intertwined to me. But then I saw the world. From Paris to Italy then Amsterdam to Portugal and Morocco, the black people I have interacted with along the way have completely shifted my perspective on what it means to be “black.” In Amsterdam, my two travel buddies who were also African American (one hailing from Texas and the other born in Nigeria but raised in Southern California) and I were continually shocked when we heard a black person speak Dutch. But then again why wouldn’t they? They were Dutch. Or in Portugal as I rode the train and took in the diversity of neighborhoods and shades of skin. There were dark-skinned people and light-skinned black people. There were people rocking afros and others with wavy black hair. And they all spoke Portuguese. But why wouldn’t they? They were Portuguese.
I feel like when we teach students about the African Diaspora in American classrooms (if at all), so much focus is given to its manifestation in the U.S. We forget to mention that there are large black populations in other countries as well. Admittedly, I’ve always just had the narrow mindset that black Americans embodied the pinnacle of “blackness.” I mean, we produced the likes of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and, of course, President Barack Obama. Our extensive media and music platform undoubtedly contributes to this idea. But then again every country with people from the African diaspora (aka all countries) have their own black history. Take Britain’s Olaudah Equiano, a political activist who helped bring about the abolition of the empire’s transatlantic slave trade in the eighteenth century, or the Moors from Africa who ruled and occupied Lisbon and the rest of the country well into the twelfth century. Basically any port city that experienced the slave trade, immigration or was in contact with another country in some capacity at some point (aka all countries) have accumulated their wealth of black history. As I write that now, it seems like a simple concept. But actually seeing it during my back-to-back trips across North Africa and Europe enhanced my realization. One of my favorite documentary series is Soledad O’Brien’s “Black in America.” Since I first saw it back in high school I was enamored by the idea of delving into the ties that bind among black people. Yet, studying abroad has shown me that I must expand my vision of the “black community.”
The U.S. of all the countries I’ve been or lived in is by far the youngest country. Though we tout ourselves as being the most powerful and influential in the world, during most of my travels, the black people I encountered and spoke to seemed pretty disinterested in the happenings of black America. Yes, everyone knows who Obama was and occasionally I heard people blasting Drake through their headphones while riding public transit, but I was surprised by how different each country’s black culture was to my version. It slighted me a bit. Until I realized that in the same way some people didn’t care to immerse themselves in black American culture, I was also not actively educating myself with the black culture of [insert any country here]. I realized that there’s so much room for unification — not in the argument that we all have to be the same — but in terms of better understanding the nuances and history that distinguishes people of the African Diaspora. All these thoughts coalesced in my mind while I was sitting and sweating on my camel in the desert, watching one day end. As I reflected, all the Bible stories I had learned in my childhood came rushing back — Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers, the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years, Jesus, Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt. And thousands of years later I had made my way to Africa. I was just one strand of the entire African Diaspora.
In the west, the sun made one last appearance. Then night was cast and a cool wind blew. And I promised myself, Tomorrow, I’ll won’t dismiss how different this world is from where I come from.