7 unexpected travel destinations to learn about the African Diaspora
After studying abroad in Argentina for several months where black people are few and far between and the porteños point, stare, and want to touch your skin because it’s much darker than their own, I was desperate to find a face that looked like mine. There weren’t many in Buenos Aires, other than the study abroad students like myself and a few Brazilians here and there. However, I did find blackness in the mammy figurines in a few restaurant kitchen windows. This made me curious about the countries past and relationship with people of African descent.
Since then, when traveling to a new place, I’m always on the lookout for black history. Whether we see immigrants, descendants of slaves or historical artifacts, black travelers can land on almost any continent and find hints of people of African descent.
Here are a few unlikely places to look:
It’s reported that when artist Josephine Baker traveled to Argentina in the ’50s, she asked the mixed-race minister of public health, Ramon Carilio, “Where are the Negroes?” Carilio joked, “There are only two – you and I.”
There are many stories about why the second largest country in Latin America is lacking melanin. Although most records show that Buenos Aires was a major slave port, you won’t find many descendants of those slaves in the country. Some historians say that Yellow Fever epidemics in the capital wiped them out. Others report that many black men were sent to fight in a war against Paraguay. Others say that that they married and had children with the white population until black people became unrecognizable.
The majority of historians will agree that Argentina’s famous dance, the Tango, was influenced by a Candombe, a dance and music style of former black slaves in the city. Their legacy lives on through this dance.
If you’re looking to learn the dance, Tango lessons are offered at milongas, tango houses, and at Caminito, a famous tourist street in city of La Boca, the birthplace of Tango.
Chances are if you take a trip to Panama City you’ll visit a place with a lot of black history: The Panama Canal. Though this epic structure, a monumental feat for international trade, is often not mentioned in conjunction with black history, people of African descent played a crucial role in building the canal. Afro-Caribbeans were brought in from the West Indies to construct the canal. On the job, they faced treacherous working and living conditions, low if any pay, racial discrimination and high death rates.
Because of previous years of slavery and recent migration, people of African descent make up about nine percent of Panama’s population.
If you’re backpacking through Europe and find yourself in Rome you might run into several Ancient Egyptian obelisks. Taken from Egypt after Roman conquest, these obelisks have been erected throughout the Italian capital. The Romans also created their own obelisks, borrowing the iconic Egyptian design. Rome houses the most obelisks of any country in the world. Check out a few of the popular obelisk sites, including St. Peter’s Square, Piazza del Popolo and Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano.
And if you happen to travel to London, New York, or Ethiopia you can find Egyptian Obelisks in those cities as well.
Belize is known for its beautiful beaches, Mayan ruins and multicultural society. About six percent of the population is Garifuna or “Garinagu.” Garifuna are descendants of West Africans on a slave ship that shipwrecked off the coast of St. Vincent. Survivors swam to shore and lived prosperously until exiled to the island of Rotan off the coast of Honduras by the British. There, nearly half of the population died. Others settled on the mainlands of Honduras and Belize. Currently, Garifuna villages can be found in Hopkins and Punta Gorda in Belize.
Tourists in these areas are invited to try their famed cassava bread and take drumming lessons from Garifuna residents. Additionally, visitors can check out the Garifuna museums in Belize City and in Dangriga, Belize.
There is a very small population of African Sri Lankans. Many of them are descendants of African slaves and soldiers brought to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese during the 16th century.
Although the current community remains in the low thousands, their ancestors left their mark on Sri Lankan music, creating the popular dance music of the country called Baila. The music style is often played at parties and other celebratory events.
As we learned in U.S. history classes, runaway slaves often escaped by taking the underground railroad north, sometimes as far as Canada. To this day, several historic Unground Railroad sites remain in the country.
Ontario is home to the Freeman Walls Historic Site & Underground Railroad Museum, a site that pays homage to those who escaped American slavery and leaders of the civil rights movement. The site contains a log cabin that was home to fugitive slaves. The museum also boasts an Underground Railroad pathway simulation, a few artifacts from the civil rights movement, and a cemetery of fugitive slaves and Walls family members.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site is also located in Ontario. This home-turned-museum is where abolitionist Josiah Henson wrote his memoir, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, which Harriet Beecher Stowe used as inspiration for her anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
A few travel agencies offer heritage tours that take tourists to these places along with a few historical sites in Detroit.
Ever notice how the Olmec Heads in Mexico look like black faces and how the pyramids have similarities to the ones in Egypt? The sameness extends beyond conspiracy theories.
According to historian Ivan Van Sertima, author of They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America and several other historians, linguists, archeologists and botanists, African pioneers and drifters crossed the Atlantic sometime between 800-680 BC. These explorers became a part of the culture, fusing their traditions with traditions of the native ancient Mexicans of the time.
Sertima suggests that these ancient Africans from Nubia and neighboring civilizations could have influenced the construction of the Olmec Heads and pyramids in Mexico.
In modern times, because of slavery and immigration, a Dec. 2015 Mexican survey reports that Mexicans of African descent make up about 1.3 million.
Black history can be found almost everywhere. Yet, sometimes uncovering the stories of people of African descent who have walked the paths we now travel to takes a little digging.