They say that travel transforms you, shifts your perspective and allows you to gain a greater appreciation for other cultures and ways of life.
If you’re lucky, travel may also bring you closer to yourself, to the core of who you uniquely are in this world. On my recent visit to Ghana, I was one of the lucky ones.
My trip to Ghana manifested over many years, but came together quite quickly after I interviewed the founder of Traveling Black for another research project last Spring. Currently, I am a tenure-track professor at San Diego State University researching issues related to diversity and inclusion in the travel sphere. More specifically – my work is focused on understanding the lived experiences of Black travelers around the world. When I learned about the influx of organizations catering towards travelers of color – I knew this was not only something I wanted to research, but also experience. With support from my department, and serendipitous timing, I was able to join a group trip Ghana with nine other African-Americans from around the United States in August, 2018. As all qualitative researchers know, a significant part of the research process is reflexivity and positionality. What follows are my musings of this experience as a researcher, and also a participant.
As I stepped off the plane onto African soil for the first time in many years, almost immediately, I felt a sense of home. The slightly humid morning winter air, Gospel music blaring from the airport speakers, colorful garments swaying in the wind, and a sea of Black faces rushing to help me with my bags; greeting us by saying “AKWAABA” which means “WELCOME” in their local language. The spirit of this nation was instantaneously evident as we were greeted by our local Ghanaian guide.
Unlike any other trip I had taken in the past, this was a group trip organized by an American company based in Oakland, California called ‘Traveling Black’ – an organization dedicated to connecting the African Diaspora one experience at a time. This particular trip was called ‘Experience Ghana - Journey to a Real Life Wakanda’. I joined the group as both a participant and as a researcher, with the goal of studying the experiences of African-Americans travelling ‘back’ to Africa, a phenomenon also known as Roots Tourism.
As a group, we journeyed through Accra, Cape Coast and Kumasi with the intent of experiencing as much of Ghana as we could in just two weeks. Our experience was nothing short of transformational – from pulling in fish with the locals in a small village near Cape Coast, to exploring the horrific enslaved dungeons where many of our ancestors were kept before being shipped across the Atlantic to begin what would be a horrific story of slavery and human injustice; a difficult, but humbling history is ever present on this Gold Coast.
Okay now, let’s back up a little bit… and please, bare with me.
Growing up in The Bahamas in my household with my White Canadian Mother, Black Bahamian Father and two older brothers – this was my normal, and for many others I knew, this was their normal too. Race was rarely, if ever a topic in our house, at school, or amongst my friends.
It wasn’t until I moved to the U.S., (Auburn, Alabama to be specific) at the age of 17 that I all of a sudden I became a ‘Black face’ in majority White spaces. I don’t think I consciously realized it then, but, as a person of color, mixed with half Black blood, living in the U.S., this automatically categorizes you as Black. Prior to this time, I’m not even sure I had ever consciously considered my racial identity before.
I was a Bahamian-Canadian girl, who loved the water and had much national pride for my home country, The Bahamas. That was it, that was me. Yes, like other places in the world, we colloquially used colors to describe people – ‘he’s dark skin and tall’, ‘she’s light skin with curly hair’ – but, it never felt like a big deal. People were who they were and that was that. This was the privilege of living in a majority Black nation that I did not yet realize I had.
Back to Ghana. Towards the end of the trip, we began to talk amongst each other about how this experience in Africa had impacted us all in different ways. Some spoke of feeling an even stronger connection to the continent, identifying now as African AND American, instead of African-American. Others felt a strengthened sense of responsibility to Black America, developing an even stronger sense of responsibility to Black lives.
In the middle of the trip, others in the group realized that I was not ‘full’ Black, but a half-breed. All of a sudden, I was being questioned “well how do you feel about XYZ since your Mom is White?”, does it bother you when we say “White people?”, “what has your experience been like because your Mom is White?”. It felt intrusive, but I understood the curiosity.
All of a sudden I felt like an imposter in this space, but at the same time, I felt like I didn’t fit anywhere else. While I thoroughly enjoyed myself and felt truly welcomed by the people there, I in fact, was not home, and I am not an African. I am not even African-American. I am a mixed race, White and Black, Bahamian and Canadian woman, living on the West Coast of the United States. There were moments where I questioned – “Should I even be here on this trip specifically targeted towards Black travelers? Do I fit the demographic?”
“Am I Black enough?”
It’s interesting, race in America, in some instances (like this one), a shining light is put on it questioning your Blackness, and in others, as in the case of figures like Barack Obama and Meghan Markle – their (half) blackness is celebrated and revered amongst the Black community.
I realize that this story is not a unique one, and will become more and more common as time moves on. However, since returning, I’ve been able to spend some time reflecting on my identity crisis of double consciousness brought on by my trip to Ghana.
To be honest, I have not arrived at any answers in particular, other than, I cannot change either of my genetic halves, and I do not wish to. I have also realized that genetics determine only part of who I am, the other part, has been largely determined by my environment. By virtue of my living in the United States for my entire adult life, (in the South for many of those years) – my identification with the Black American experience is real and the history of my Black ancestors lives through me.
What I am clear on is that my personal and professional passions are to bring justice and equity to the lived experiences of marginalized people, and I am fortunate to have an outlet to shine a light on these voices, including my own.
About the Author
Alana Dillette is an Assistant Professor at San Diego State University. Originally from the islands of The Bahamas, she is always trying to maintain her connection to home through research. Her research interests include issues around diversity and inclusion, more specifically looking at the intersection between tourism, race, gender & ethnicity. Currently, she is working on research to gain a better understanding of the African-American travel experience. Fun fact - she competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics for The Bahamas in swimming.
Contact Alana at firstname.lastname@example.org