How Zim Ugochuku’s work help’s us remember that
Though this pandemic has made it difficult, travel is one thing that has always united the world and its people. It has allowed us to learn about ourselves just as much as it has allowed us to learn about each other. It has allowed us to cultivate history, art, and culture. Even if many of us aren’t loading onto ships to go on expeditions, we still travel. We travel for those we love and we travel to ensure our basic needs are met. But many of us travel to explore and satisfy a sense of curiosity about the world around us. We travel to search for the meaning of life and find more than what the mundane rat race has to offer us and into a life of spontaneity and adventure. But some of us don’t come into travel in such a poetic way.
Traveler and founder of Travel Noire, Zim Ugochukwu’s story of travel started when she took her first cross country road trip with her mother to flee an abusive relationship. Along the way they were robbed, and found themselves in women’s shelters and on welfare. They bounced back and forth until they ended up in Rochester, Minnesota. But despite her rough childhood, Ugochukwu graduated from college and when she found an opportunity to live and work abroad, she sold all of her things to move to India. But the transition wasn’t as smooth as she had hoped when she was confronted with colorism and racism. Shocked at the treatment she faced she decided to go looking for answers by living on a train with 450 twenty year olds. At 5 am every morning, they would all stop to shadow a social entrepreneur for the day. During these shadowings she would hear about the struggles faced by black and darker skinned people. Struggles that were identical or similar to the experiences of black and darker skinned people at home. Both at home and abroad she found that black people felt barred from exploration. They didn’t see black people traveling or going to certain places. Traveling to them felt inaccessible because the world isn’t safe for black people and therefore travel isn’t safe either.
But it wasn’t always like this.
Black people have been traveling since before the dawn of the written word when earlier homo sapiens migrated from the continent into the Middle East. Since then humanity has only grown, evolved and developed and covered every landmass on the globe. But exploration has never stopped.
The history that has been taught in the American education system would have us believe that Africa is a place that has been explored by outsiders and not a place where Africans explored the outside, but that is far from the truth. During the Golden Age of Africa, Africans were actively exploring the world and participating in the global trade system. Trade routes crossing the Sahara desert from West Africa to the Mediterranean showed that an economic connection existed before the 16th century and trading towns and routes engaged in intercontinental and international trade going as far to Asia. The mining of gold attracted many people from all over the world to African shores and also allowed Africa to stand on equal footing with civilization in Europe and Asia. In regards to exploration, Africans conducted travel for official delegations and independently. The first African Kingdom to send a diplomatic mission to Europe was Ethiopia who sent out a delegation of 30 people to meet with the king of Spain and the Pope in modern day France. Independent missions were made also. Ethiopian scholar Yohannes spent his life traveling Europe and Asia before spending the last period of his life as the bishop of Cyprus. But Africa’s influence on the world and it’s autonomy declined as it came under the umbrella of colonial rule. With the trans atlantic slave trade and the dangers that racial violence posed on those of African descent, travel and it’s accessibility changed drastically.
In the United States black travel in the United States has always been perilous. Segregation deprived many black people access to hotels, bathrooms, and restaurants. White motorists would deliberately damage expensive cars driven by black people to remind them of their place in a racist society, sundown towns across the country banned black people from the streets after dark, and police officers who pulled over motorists of color raised the threat of violence or death during the encounter. In fact, traveling while black in the U.S has been so dangerous, that a Harlem resident and postal worker named Victor Hugo Green sold a book called the ‘Greenbook’ which was a national travel guide that would help black motorists navigate the treacherous waters of the U.S. The Greenbook became somewhat of a bible for every black highway traveler in the 1950s and early 1960s. The book became so popular it attracted many corporate and government sponsorships while also using coded language to communicate to black audiences and advertise the best of the black elite. But as discussed on this platform, racism isn’t the only thing that black women have to worry about. According to data from the US Department of State, fewer than half of Americans have a passport and if we do many of us think travel is too expensive or not something that black people do. While many women who have dreams of traveling, especially traveling solo, are warned about the dangers of rape, assault, murder and sex trafficking. All of which are valid concerns. According to U.S.A Today, 99% of sex trafficking vitctims are women and girls. I remember I was made well aware of the dangers of traveling as a black woman, while on a cruise with my family back in 2018. The cruise ship had stopped in Haiti and my family and I had spent the entire day enjoying the beach, the water and the excursions. But the weather that day was hot and wore down my senses. My sister and I were on our way to a souvenir shop when I saw a man calling to me but feeling antisocial and irritable by the heat, I ignored him and figured he was just a salesman. My sister on the other hand went over to him and I grudgingly followed. We got to him and he asked us how we were and how our trip was. We responded politely, surprised at how pleasant he was. With our guard down he offered us to show us a picture he had been working on and asked if we would like to see it. Naively, we agreed. He got up from his seat and went to go get his picture. Fortunately I didn’t follow him, thinking that he would go get it but my sister looked at me expectly and right before she followed behind him, an officer nearby saw the exchange and intervened. Being minors at the time, he warned us to stay close to our parents and not to venture off too far. The man disappeared and we never saw him again.
Even today when I look back on that memory my stomach does flips as I realize the danger we could’ve found ourselves in. I sometimes wonder how my life would’ve turned out and sometimes if I would’ve returned home. My sheltered life deprived me of these valuable street smarts but regardless of how scary that experience was it reinforced a very important lesson: being safe is more important than being polite.
But travelling for black women isn’t always scary nor does it have to be. With the increase of technology and knowledge there is an abundance of resources to support and inform black women travelers on their adventures. Living in fear of travel can keep us from the abundance that the world has to offer us. For author and blogger Sheri Hunter travel actually helped her heal after the death of her husband through what she called “dare-apy,” a form of therapy in which she and her friends embarked on several worldwide trips while engaging in daring activities. In doing so, Hunter found excitement and an alter ego as she zoomed around a NASCAR track, rode a motorcycle, ziplined in West Virginia and skydived. But she took it a step further when she traveled solo, adventuring to 32 countries including Mozambique, Thailand, Seychelles and Kenya. But Hunter isn’t the only black woman who has embarked on epic journeys around the world. Veteran traveler Jessic Nabongo became the first black woman to visit every country in the world in 2019 and is a great source of representation in a very white travel blogging industry.
In order to combat the whitewashing of the travel industry, Ugochukwu founded Travel Noire, a digital media company that works to make international travel more inclusive and representative for explorers of color. With this brand, Ugochukwu helps travelers of color explore the world around them and connect with it’s people. In doing so, she reestablishes the fact that travel is inherently black.
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