I was around 7 the first time I remember traveling. By today’s standards, it would barely register for most people — a simple day trip from Boston to Connecticut to visit a train museum my mom knew would interest me. Still, in the pre-smartphone, GPS, and internet days, the complexities of travel and logistics were mysteries.
As I grew older, my desire to travel outpaced my ability to do so. However, as a kid who enjoyed literature and the arts, I was willingly whisked away by the stories of an imagined extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins. The experiences of these African Americans opened my mind to traveling and imparted knowledge and wisdom that are at the core of how I approach travel today.
1. Josephine Baker
Singer. Dancer. Spy! I was still very young when I first learned about Josephine Baker. In fact, I remember being as scandalized by her stage costumes as I was amazed by her story. She was only a handful of years younger than my great-grandmother, which added to her mystique. I used to think, “How would my life be different if great grandma did what Josephine did?” Baker’s choices to move from Jim Crow America to Paris to pursue her career, and then to remain as part of the French Resistance during WWII, appealed to both my wanderlust and my little boy fantasies of becoming a spy.
Josephine Baker inspired my first visit to Paris and introduced me to the concept of being an expat. Most importantly, she demonstrated that travel could be a means of reinvention. In addition to reinventing her career, Baker was at the forefront of pushing society to reinvent its notions of how a Black woman could use her agency to be successful, pursue joy, and build community.
Despite it being a vague concept at such a young age, I grew up believing that if one place or experience no longer offered what I wanted, travel could provide the opportunity to experiment and find new community elsewhere.
2. Langston Hughes
Contrary to Josephine Baker’s air of mystique, Langston Hughes pulled back the curtain. I was probably in my early teens when I read I Wonder as I Wander. Hughes was the first author I read whose anecdotes — globetrotting by sea and land in a time before air travel was common — didn’t make travel sound glamorous. His journeys included encounters with fierce storms, cumbersome logistics, hunger, illness, and isolation.
Still, if Hughes’ sense of adventure was the force that kept me turning the pages, his sense of humor is what’s remained with me long after finishing the book. Despite all the obstacles and dangers, his relatively easy-going approach saw him through the challenges and endeared him to strangers, from Western Europe through Central Asia and into Japan.
Today’s modern comforts and conveniences mean I’m unlikely to experience much of what he endured. However, I learned from him that a good smile is often the best accompaniment to a sense of adventure. One may motivate you to seize a moment; but it’s the other that will see you through.
3. Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston and Jacob Lawrence (see below) were contemporaries of Langston Hughes, but I didn’t learn much about them until taking a college course on the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes’s worldly adventures captured the imagination of my younger self, but Hurston and Lawrence opened my mind to the power of domestic travel and exploring my own community. In today’s world, perhaps they would fall somewhere between heritage travelers and documentarians. During their era, however, their decisions to explore and elevate African American life were controversial and under-appreciated.
I was initially perplexed by Hurston’s interest in leaving booming Harlem for rural Florida. My limited understanding of early-20th century Florida was of a hostile place for Black people, particularly women, and even more so for one with an anthropologist’s eye. While Hurston didn’t downplay any of the conditions, she was skilled at revealing the creativity, the love, and the imagination of her subjects. Her observations of and interest in listening to people from remote places illustrated the importance of community, shrank the distance and differences I felt, and led me on a path toward re-examining my beliefs.
4. Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence’s travels also took him to the rural South. Through a body of work known as The Migration Series, I had my first visual introduction to The Great Migration, a period of history that I had never before seen pictured. In 60 paintings, Lawrence illustrated the economic and social forces that motivated Black America to leave the South and move to cities in the North, Midwest, and West. Imagine, an estimated six million people using their agency to move and reinvent their lives!
To this day, I’m most drawn to a painting featuring a crowd, at an unknown station, preparing to board trains destined for Chicago, New York, and St. Louis. Every time I see it, I can almost feel the crush of people, the steady, energetic shuffle toward the platforms, and the heartbreak of community lost to disbursal.
Together, Zora Neale Hurston and Jacob Lawrence imparted the importance of learning from and listening to local stories. But, more importantly, they offered the lesson of observation and engagement without judgment.
5. Malcolm X
Malcolm X is ever present in my hometown, Boston. My neighborhood, Roxbury, hosts the family’s house; namesake Malcolm X Blvd; Masjid No. 11, where he was the first minister in 1953; and a mural with his image at 2385 Washington St.
I connect Malcolm X to travel due to his writings about the Hajj pilgrimage. In addition to describing Mecca, he shared the experience of being at an event that was personally transformative. In his autobiography, he expressed being moved by the global diversity and hospitality of the Hajj pilgrims and recalled how being immersed in that community challenged his thinking about belonging and pushed his ideas to evolve.
Malcolm X’s descriptions were so vivid that, years later, I remembered bits of them when I visited Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, the first mosque I had ever seen inside. But, more than anything else, he presented me with the idea that travel is greater than a destination and a collection of sites. It’s also the doorway to transformative experiences that can be the start of new personal growth, sometimes in unexpected ways.
6. Nichelle Nichols (Uhura)
Nichelle Nichols is on my list because of her role as Uhura in the original Star Trek. As the ship’s communications officer, Uhura had a useful, if somewhat underdeveloped role. But what I appreciated about the character is how she was poised, elegant, and occasionally entrepreneurial, particularly during encounters when the rest of the crew or the ship were in some sort of extraterrestrial mess. Over time and through various reboots of the character, Uhura was also revealed to be multilingual and adept at navigating various interplanetary cultures.
I don’t think I’ve ever consciously thought about the lessons learned from that character. Yet, decades later, I aspire to improve my foreign language skills and the ability to transition comfortably between cultures and countries. Although there aren’t any places left to “boldly go where no man has gone before,” I travel with an open mind and remember that our shared humanity transcends our superficial differences.
My younger, pre-internet self would never have expected most of the travels taken in the more than four decades since that trip to Connecticut. Fortunately, I had the resources and the role models to stoke the continuous sparks of imagination that still power today’s explorations and moments of wonder.