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When asked to write about the question “Why should African Americans travel, particularly abroad?”, 
I immediately thought back over my history as a voyager. Originally from Houston, Texas, my family did not travel much outside an occasional trip to Galveston Beach or to Dallas to visit the amusement park, Six Flags over Texas. When we took our first plane trip, it was to Michigan to visit one of my mother’s friends. In none of these sojourns did we ever exit the realm of lack American culture.


  Now I find myself living in Paris, France with an ever-increasing desire to see the world and to learn about the people in it. Is it wanderlust? I think not, for I am a true “homebody.” Escapism?   No—my husband, family and friends will tell you that I am a driven, project-oriented person with both feet planted firmly (sometimes too firmly) on the ground.   So, what is the attraction?

Wells

  For me, travel for the African-American serves two major purposes. First and foremost, it removes us from our familiar and insulated environment and exposes us to other cultures, other lifestyles and other “ways of being.” It allows us to see how Africans and people of African descent live and are perceived by non- blacks in other areas of the world. It also allows us to see how foreigners, including Africans and people of African descent, react to us as Americans of African descent. We get to see things that previously were only pictures in a book or images on television, and to evaluate firsthand the stereotypes of foreigners that are ingrained in us by the American media. We go beyond ourselves to connect, however briefly and/or superficially, with another part of the world. In short, we broaden our horizons.

The second major purpose involves something deeper and more personal. In observing how non-Americans view us and react to us, we can hopefully begin to look at ourselves from a perspective other than that of the color-conscious society in which we live. We can develop and strengthen a resolve to view ourselves as people first and as black people second. From this vantage point, I believe that we can more effectively deal with the trials and tribulations of life in America.

African-Americans have unique psychological baggage that we carry with us wherever we go. Because we are so conditioned to deal with every aspect of our lives in terms of race or color, it is extremely difficult for us to believe that the entire world does not operate in the same manner. So it is generally with shock, followed by welcome relief, that the African-American traveler finds that skin color may be of secondary importance to the people that she/he meets abroad. As an example, this is precisely why many African-Americans moved to France after World War I, and why they continued to do so after World War II. While the “color-blind” French society is a myth, the African-American quickly notes that in France, what matters more is the fact that she/he is American.

My brother Malcolm also loves to travel, and shares my belief that it is very important for African-Americans to do so. In speaking with him about the subject, I discovered that despite the difference in our ages and our life experiences, our mutual desire to travel developed in exactly the same way. It was during our college years that we first came in contact with large numbers of people who were not from Houston, not even from Texas. Suddenly among our companions were people from “up North” or “from the West Coast,” speaking with strange accents and slang that we had previously heard only on television. They had actually seen the Golden Gate bridge, had experienced blizzards and ridden the subway, and were used to eating instead of rice with their meals. How marvelous to be introduced to different areas of the country, different ideas, and different lifestyles by people our own age, striving for goals similar to our own!

Malcolm went to college in Texas, but I ventured off to school in Philadelphia. So, in addition to the differences that I observed in my companions, I also experienced firsthand the completely different geography, urban planning, and weather of the East Coast. The proximity of New York, Baltimore and Washington, allowed me to take short trips to the homes of my new friends. Even taking Amtrak to these cities was a new experience for me—in Texas everyone drove between cities. I found these forays exhilarating and enriching. I became acutely aware that there was really a world out there, something tangible that I could experience if I only made the effort. The pursuit of a minor in French awakened in me the realization that I might even be able to go abroad someday. The land of 365 cheeses, berets and the Eiffel Tower awaited me.

And why not? While I had no role models for world travel in my family or immediate circle of friends, neither did I have any for going to college halfway across the country. I was comfortable with being away from home and enjoyed the feeling of conquering the unknown each time I visited a new place. Equally stimulating was my belief that I could move to any place that I chose, making a life for myself and succeeding at whatever I decided to undertake. Call it the arrogance of youth or whatever you like—I was confident enough to try anything.

I was also focused (remember those firmly planted feet that I mentioned earlier), and realized that to succeed at whatever I chose, wherever I chose, I needed education and credentials. So France became a dream deferred. During the years that I spent in professional and graduate schools in Philly and central Ohio as well as during my first two years at work, I saw friends of mine go off to Africa and the Caribbean to do humanitarian work. Another friend was given an expatriate assignment in northern England. Another went to Taiwan to pursue graduate studies. Yet another was expatriated to Switzerland for several years.

All of these people are African Americans, and the vast majority are women. Suddenly there was no lack of role models for travel abroad—my peers had done so, and regaled me with tales that whetted my appetite for my own foreign adventure. Most returned home, but a few chose to remain abroad. All had gone overseas and achieved their goals, and were extremely positive about their experience.

During this time I also traveled as much as my budding career would allow. I won a trip to Jamaica during veterinary school, and had the uncomfortable experience of having black servants wait on me in the villa in which I stayed. I visited Haiti and witnessed the kindness and generosity of a people living in overwhelming poverty. I visited Barbados to see the friend who had gone to the Caribbean to work in the Peace Corps. I had the pleasure of being invited to Montreal for a job interview and to be wined and dined by the company, only to turn down the job offer extended to me. And I took two trips to Europe, the first on a fun-filled excursion with friends to London and Paris and the second on a job search to laboratories in France and Switzerland.

With each trip, I learned a little more about the rest of the world in comparison to my own. That the problem of race relations in the United States pales in comparison to the abject poverty experienced by the Black people of Haiti. That, as an African-American woman, I could be sought after for my professional skills without having to think that affirmative action was behind a company’s interest in me. And perhaps most importantly, that people react to other people and to events similarly, regardless of color or nationality.

When I finally moved to Paris in 1992, it was the thrill of my life! While immersing myself in all things French, I also sought to maintain my connections with my own culture. I became involved with a group of African-American women who would eventually organize themselves into an official association called SISTERS. This group was primarily for African-Americans, but women from the Caribbean were also invited to participate in meetings and activities, provided they could speak English.

It quickly became apparent that the black experience of the SISTERS from the Caribbean was very different from our own experience in America, and that the two points of reference were often a cause of conflict. I also became aware that there was a self-imposed segregation among the black populations of Paris, with people from the Caribbean keeping their distance from black Africans. And one of the African-American women who I met through SISTERS had a much more serious encounter with interracial conflict. As a public health professional who worked often and extensively in Africa, she narrowly escaped with her life during the massacres that occurred in Rwanda in 1994. Thus, I learned that being black is not enough to transcend the cultural differences and biases born of ethnocentricity and nationality.

It was also because of SISTERS that I eventually authored a soul food cookbook. It is filled not only with recipes highlighting cooking from Texas and Louisiana (my mother’s home state), but also with discussions of the origins of soul food, the culinary history of Texas and Louisiana, and the history of several ingredients not commonly known to the French. The book was published in French, with a preface written by perhaps the most successful French chef of contemporary times, Alain Ducasse. I am happy to say that it has been received with great enthusiasm, as much for the cultural aspects as for the food. The curiosity and respect that the French have demonstrated for African-American culture since after World War I is now extending to our culinary history.

I believe that in a small way, my book is bringing people of different cultures closer together. For me, this is a source of individual and cultural pride. It is yet another example of how we, as African Americans, can dare to dream and can achieve on our own merits, and be admired and respected for who and what we are. It is unfortunate, but sometimes this is easier to accomplish on foreign soil than on our own.

I now have a much broader perspective on many aspects of life in the u.s., particularly the ever-present racial tension that plagues our nation. The problems that we face as black people in America have arisen from a historically unique set of circumstances, but they are not fundamentally different than those of other repressed peoples (including whites). Traveling has allowed me to see this and to internalize it. I believe that this realization is crucial for African-Americans, in that it will permit us to look more objectively at ourselves and our history.

From this global vantage point, we cannot fail to develop and strengthen a deep-rooted sense of pride in our accomplishments and our capabilities as a people. With this inner fortitude, and with the knowledge of how we are respected and emulated as a culturally distinct people, we can return to the United States and share this cultural wisdom with others in the African-American community. In this way, we can begin to shed the psychological baggage that I mentioned earlier, and build a healthy emotional foundation from which we can successfully do battle with the pettiness and ignorance of racism and other forms of intolerance that we encounter at home.

These are the lessons that travel, and particularly travel abroad, has taught me. My life in Paris has confirmed these lessons time and again. I fervently believe that if we as African-Americans have the courage to leave our enclaves throughout the u.s. and venture forth to embrace the world, we can only enhance our belief in ourselves and become stronger as individuals and as a community.

Monique Y. Wells is a veterinary pathologist and an 8-year resident of Paris, France. She is the author of Food for the Soul, a soul food cookbook which is to be published in the United States this year. The French translation of the book, entitled La Cuisine Noire Americaine, was published in France in October 1999. Dr. Wells and her husband are also the owners of the travel service 
Discover Paris!:Personalized itineraries for Independent Travelers
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