Just when the Black Travel Movement was gaining so much speed, we now all find ourselves confined to our houses. While the onset of COVID-19 has put the entire world on the no-fly list, we don’t have to pass this time idly. Instead, we can use these weeks we’ll be grounded to absorb the work of the legends that paved the way for us to be able to lead our nomadic lives. If you have been previously unfamiliar with the work of black travel writers, you’re in for a treat: Black travel writers can offer a perspective on cross-culturalism that you may not find elsewhere. If you’re unsure where to start, here are 12 exceptional examples of travel memoirs and other books written by black authors.
1. Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica by Zora Neale-Hurston
As published in the Guggenheim Foundation’s annual report for 1935-36, Zora Neale-Hurston was awarded her fellowship that year for “the gathering of material for books on authentic Negro folk-life, in particular a study of magic practices among Negroes in the West Indies.” The resultant manuscript was Tell My Horse, a work that is part travelogue, part ethnography, part strict, addictive narrative.
Interestingly, she uses quite a bit of her bandwidth in this work ruminating on the existence and the validity of the black diaspora — something many of us take for granted to exist today — as if she had someone to convince of our mutual heritage and cultural touchstones. I would imagine that she would be satisfied to know that this work still resonated with contemporary black readers and that for us, those touchstones do exist.
2. Due North by Lola Akinmade Åkerström
This Nigerian-born, America-educated travel writer and photographer has had quite the storied career — one that included a stint right here at Matador Network as an editor. These days she’s based in Stockholm, and her book, Due North, is a 2018 Lowell Thomas Gold Award Winner for best travel book, and you should definitely read it if you’ve ever had a dream destination.
In this work, Akinmade Åkerström tells the origin story of her desire to see the world; of being a teenager fascinated by maps; of deciding that she would, one day, go to the north pole; and of how this elusive feat has shaped her life and travels. It is a must-read if you have a yet un-attained travel goal.
3. Mandela, Mobutu, and Me by Lynne Duke
A 1985 graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, the late Lynne Duke was nominated for a Pulitzer before the decade was over with her incredible reporting from Miami Florida, about the crack epidemic that was then ravaging black neighborhoods. Though she is also well known for her depictions of post-9/11 NYC life, she is maybe most popular for her reporting from Southern Africa in the ‘90s. This book one of the results of those travels.
Mandela, Mobutu, and Me is an account of what Lynne would call, her “Africa beat” — that time in her life when she gave up everything else to tell this story, when she gave her whole self to this time and place that saw so much history: the fall of apartheid; the rise of Mandela; the spiritual and literal end of the nation of Zaire and, with it, its leader, Mobutu Sese Seko. Long hailed as one of the best reports of southern Africa in the ‘90s, it offers a perspective that navigates western ideas about the African continent while accurately depicting the corruption that existed in African politics at the time.
4. Richard Wright’s Travel Writings edited by Virginia Whatley Smith
Possibly most famous for his 1945 bestselling memoir, Black Boy, which details his life as a boy and young man, Richard Wright came a long way, literally, from Roxie, Mississippi, where he was born. Wright first relocated to Chicago, then New York, eventually fleeing the United States completely, where he famously became one of many black American expats in Paris, France in 1946.
This collection of essays details some of his travels and shows his proclivity to approach cultures as a student rather than a colonizer and vulnerably relate his awakening to the concepts of French existentialism and pan-Africanism. While now this type of immersive travel is commonplace, this was a radical approach at the time. Even now it is worth revisiting the unprecedented way he portrayed his relationship with African and black people in travel writing.
5. Kinky Gazpacho by Lori L. Tharps
An associate professor of Journalism at Temple University, Lori L. Tharps credits her time in Spain for helping her to understand her own blackness in a global context. Born in an all-white suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, her relationship to race was colored by the experience of frequently being the only black person in school or in her neighborhood.
Kinky Gazpacho tells the story of her personal journey after moving to Spain,