If there's one thing I love to do when traveling anywhere, it's finding out about the black culture or communities of that region. Even in places where one might be apt to ask, "Are black people even living here?" I'm always curious to find out about the African diaspora and its history all over the world. And trust me, our footprint is everywhere---whether through ex-pats or our cultural and political influences. Since it's indeed Black History Month, here are a few must-see global destinations on my list to get beyond the usual museums and landmarks.
Italy: Rome and Tuscany
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Rome is a top-of-mind spot for travel to Italy considering it is indeed the capital, but let's veer off a bit from the usual gelato, pizza, and wine joints and get into a little history. Take a visit to the Arch of Septimius Severus, which was built in 203 A.D. in celebration of one of the emperor's triumphant battles. Septimus Severus was born in the Roman province of Africa and is described as a nomadic moor by several historians. Though his ethnicity in today's terms might be in question among some circles, it's still worth a trip (and a bit of research) while visiting the northwest end of the ancient Roman Square.
On another note, Rome is also the place where Berry Gordy, Billy Dee Williams, and Diana Ross filmed cult classic Mahogany. The theme song for the movie was a No. 1 hit in 1976, and was nominated for a "Best Song" Oscar that same year. Add a little glam to that suitcase and retrace some of the sites that Tracy, the lead character played by Ross, visited in that legendary photo shoot montage.
You can also take a trip to Tuscany, a hilltop city that includes Barga and the small village of Sommocolonia, where the legendary Buffalo Soldiers played a pivotal role in World War II. (See, Spike Lee's Miracle of St. Anna for a bit of dramatized back-story.) The town is full of beautiful cathedrals and restored castles, and local villages host antiques and food festivals.
Mexico: Veracruz and Mexico City
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Mexico has had its moments of issues with acknowledging citizens of African heritage as well as the African contribution to the country, but with a bit more understanding, more tourism support through travel, I think this can change. Veracruz, a port city has a large population of Afro-Mexicans, has a history impacted by Caribbean culture and foods brought by slaves from island nations. The first free slave community in the Americas was actually founded here and is called Yanga, named after Gasper Yanga who led the revolt for freedom. His statue stands in the city not far from Veracruz's other beautiful beaches, historic chapels, and San Juan de Ulúa, which was once a major fortress, prison and palace where slaves were traded.
Mexico City is where actress Lupita Nyong'o, a Mexican citizen of Kenyan heritage, was born. The Oscar-winning actress who won Best Supporting Actress for 12 Years A Slave (a film that made history as the first film directed by an African American to win Best Picture) spent time in a small Mexican town in her teens and told one publication she had to take a bus more than two hours away back to Mexico City just to find someone to braid her hair. In the city, you can visit the statue of Vicente Guerrero, the first (and only known or widely publicized) black president of Mexico, as well as enjoy their beach resorts (like the super-exclusive Nima Local House Hotel), Afro-Caribbean fusion restaurants, and street food spots in the Coyoacán or Michoacan markets.
Africa: Cairo and Ethiopia
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Everyone knows about Accra, Ghana, which hosts the return of thousands of African Americans to trace their roots, visit the slave castles, and be welcomed back to the native home of their ancestors. But there are other African locales that have a link to African-American history as well. Cairo, the capital of Egypt, has a metropolitan area that's the largest in Africa and was the place where Maya Angelou worked as an editor for the Arab Observer. While there, she counted as friends luminaries like David Du Bois (the stepson of W.E.B Du Bois), and she describes this experience in her book, The Heart of a Woman.
Also, many researchers and historians stand behind the premise that the ancient royalty of the country were indeed black, so when you're visiting the typical hot spots in Cairo like Tahrir Square and the massive Egyptian Museum, think on that. Stop by Khan El Khalili, a massive souk (or street market), for artisan goods, plan a luxe day trip through the desert, or drive just a couple hours away to enjoy nearby 5-star hotels like the Oberoi Sahl Hasheesh.
Ethiopia was once named the world's best destination for tourists---with its beautiful Simien Mountains National Park, majestic Blue Nile Falls, and widely visited Ethnological Museum within Emperor Haile Selassie's former palace---and it has a few historical ties to black Americans. Mignon Lorraine Inniss was a Caribbean-American scholar and educator who traveled with a delegation of African-Americans to the East African country to help with development efforts in the 1920s. She founded the first private co-ed boarding school there. Her husband, Arnold Josia Ford, who founded a black synagogue in Harlem, also helmed the development of a community of African Americans who left the U.S. and the racial discrimination of the time to settle on 100 acres of land gifted to them by Selassie. The historic Abyssinia Baptist Church in Harlem also has links to Ethiopia: The church was founded in conjunction with Ethiopian seaman in 1808.
More African Americans would travel to Ethiopia to relocate, and the emperor was a popular figure during the Harlem Renaissance. He had ties to key black American figures including Duke Ellington, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and legendary pilots John Robinson, who served in the Imperial Ethiopian Airforce, and Hubert Julian.
A few more things to try on a trip here---to add to visits to the aforementioned tourist spots---is to stay at the luxury Kuriftu Resorts or enjoy a camel walk with a registered tour group.
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