When the huge civil right´s movement exploded this week, I was both happy and disappointed at the same time. I was happy to realize how we can all stand together with such strength for such an important cause (in the middle of a pandemic!), but disappointed that I felt so ignorant about the movement and its History. I knew that taking part was necessary in order to support the cause, but posting the black canvas everybody was sharing on Instagram felt so wrong for a person like me, that had never posted anything before about equal rights. I didn´t want to hide my inexperience behind a black canvas.
After a lot of thought, I realized it would indeed be very hypocritical of me to write something on social media that wasn´t backed up by real actions and change. So, the way I found to be part of this amazing campaign was to educate myself through what I know: family and travel. I come from a mixed family, so I decided to open up a dialogue with my cousin about racism and his life experiences, which was so enlightening. I also started to research a lot about Black Heritage destinations, and was so inspired by what I found, that my bucket list grew longer….
This is my educational journey, and I wanted to share it with you. I am, by no means, an expert in this subject, quite the opposite, actually. I´m just feeling so motivated to learn about Black Heritage through what I love to do the most – travel -, that I thought by sharing a bit about these cities I could inspire someone else´s next travels too. This is an invitation for you to start your own journey with me, if you feel like you also have a lot to catch up on to. It´s only the beginning.
1.New Orleans (USA)
New Orleans is the closest I ever got to studying deeply anything about Black History. No, I have never been there, though it´s one of my dreams. But this city appeals to me so much that I took a six-months course about it during my masters. There, I learned that everything that makes this place so amazing was pretty much influenced or created by the African-American community.
New Orleans was founded in 1718 under French colonial domain. The city changed hands a few times, but it was during Spanish rule that slaves were allowed to have a bit of rest per week from the work on plantations – which was crucial for the growth of West African practices. Today, for example, you can visit Congo Square, the space where slaves and free blacks would come together to trade, dance and sing on their free time.
The Black culture was reinforced there with the arrival of Haitians fleeing the slave revolution in the late 18th and early 19th century. They brought with them voodoo rituals that were performed on the same space. Tremé, the neighborhood where Congo Square is located, became the oldest African-American district in the US. This is also where some of the first jazz musicians began to play!
To learn a bit more about Black Heritage, which shaped New Orleans from the beginning, you can visit the African American Museum, Le Musée de FPC (devoted to the heritage of free people of color) and the Mckenna Museum, where you can learn a lot about African-American art. Pay a visit to the House of Dance and Feathers if you wanna meet the Mardi Gras Indians, a carnival tradition that started as a response to the banning from the official Mardi Gras, but also to honor a friendship between two Peoples. A life-changing experience would also be to visit the Whitney sugar plantation, a plantation museum totally dedicated to the lives of those that were forced to work there.
If you are not that much into museums, you can still experience Black Heritage in New Orleans without much of an effort. Hit some jazz clubs with live music like the legendary Preservation Hall or Prime Example. Another option is to delve into Creole and Cajun cuisine (a blend of the different cultures that formed New Orleans) by trying Jambalaya, gumbo, crawfish boil, Po´Boy sandwich, or the deliciously sweet beignets. You can also support black owned businesses, which thrive at Bayou Road.
2. Salvador (Brazil)
Part of my family lived in Salvador, Bahia, when I was around 10, so it wasn´t unusual for us to fly there for vacation. Though I was pretty young and nowadays I don´t remember the city so well as I used to, one thing never left my head: the Modelo Market (Mercado Modelo). I can remember as if it were yesterday: me standing on some high up stairs looking down at this cave-like market that seemed pretty dark and too “closed-up” to me. I refused to go further down. My mom had told me minutes before that some traders used to commercialize slaves on the basement of the market, and that was enough for me to see the place through dark lenses.
The truth is, this story is not well supported by Historians and is probably just a legend. Who knows. Nevertheless, Salvador was not only an important slave trade hub, but the biggest in the whole continent. Unfortunately, there, the trade prospered even after the transatlantic commercialization was made illegal. This resulted in Salvador being the cradle of African-Brazilian culture, and one of the richest cities in Brazil in terms of Black Heritage. Fortunately, what colonizers wanted to erase back then nowadays thrives in Salvador: everywhere you look there are African dances, rituals, instruments and food – the Black Culture here is so rich, you don´t have to look for it in order to experience it.
You can maybe turn a corner and see a circle of people practicing the mixture of acrobatic dance and martial arts called capoeira, which was developed by enslaved Africans in the 16th century. In many gift shops you will spot the beautiful berimbau, a musical cord instrument that is used to mark the tempo of the capoeira. Well, this is what it is used for nowadays at least, because its origins can be traced back to ancient tribes in Africa, where it was used in funeral marchs.
In the historical center of the city you will find the Pelourinho, a neighborhood which is a must for every tourist. The beautiful colorful colonial buildings even make you forget about the not-so-appealing name of the neighborhood, an allusion to the pole where slaves used to be tied to and punished. Yet, nowadays the Pelourinho celebrates the most amazing features of Afro-Brazilian culture: there are many restaurants where you can try the acarajé or the cuscuz, as well as many cultural hotspots like the Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos Church, constructed by one of the first black brotherhoods in Brazil. Every Tuesday a mass is celebrated there with the sounds of African instruments like the agogo and the atabaque.
Talking about music, it is also in this neighborhood that you can visit the Olodum house. This is an NGO focused on spreading the Black Movement and Culture, and also achieving equal rights. One of their branches is the Olodum school, where they teach percussion to kids and teenagers. They are the ones that participated in Michael Jackson´s music video “They don´t really care about us”. If you are lucky, you can even see them perform live.
3. Johannesburg (South Africa)
Also known as the city of gold for being situated near the world´s biggest gold deposit, this place is definitely a gold mine for Black History as well. Still, this doesn´t mean it is a happy story. Soweto, for example, a part of Johannesburg, was mostly populated by native Africans who worked at the gold mine industry and were segregated from the inner city. It was meant to be a black residential area by the Government´s racial segregation policy – the apartheid.
Nowadays you can – and should – visit Soweto, since, there, many important chapters of Black History unfolded. For example, it is there where Kliptown is located, one of the oldest neighborhoods of Soweto and also where thousands of people gathered to write the Freedom Charter – a statement that served as a base for the country´s liberal Constitution. You can also visit the Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial, a location dedicated not only to Pieterson, but to all the young people killed during the Soweto Uprising. This was a pacific rebellion led by students who protested against the Governamental act that made Afrikaans alongside English the obligatory languages in schools in the 70´s.
With the History of Apartheid so present (and recent!) in South Africa, it´s unavoidable that you will find sad places like these to visit. But just like Kliptown, I would say that there are many more inspiring locations to see than mournful ones. For example, in Soweto you can also visit the Mandela House, a small residence dedicated to the legacy of Nelson Mandela.
Talking about inspiring, Soweto is a great place to try traditional South African food, like bunny chow (curry served in bread), kota (a sandwich with diverse fillings), and malva pudding (a baked dessert). The traditional food in South Africa is basically a mix of different ethnic groups like Zulu, Cape Malay and Xhosa. Many restaurants are buffet style, so if that´s not your thing, I recommend doing extensive research on Trip Advisor before choosing one.
Outside Soweto you can visit the famous Apartheid Museum and the Constitutional Hill, the former prison of Nelson Mandela and Ghandi , which offers guided tours every hour. There are also interesting modern institutions like the Museum of African Design, focusing more on giving voice to African designers through expositions, art markets and cultural exchanges. It is a great reminder that we not only need to support History, but also development in different areas concerning vulnerable groups.
4. Saint Croix, Virgin Islands (USA)
There´s more to Saint Croix than just rum. I mean, a visit to Captain Morgan´s center and distillery sounds actually pretty cool, but you can also learn a lot between one sip and another. This island, which had been under the control of seven countries (and is now an American territory), has a very mixed culture. What surprised me the most after seeing a tv show focused on tourism on the island is that I could barely find information online about the Black part of the island´s History. This is extremely unfortunate, since very rich and unique traces of Black Culture thrives in Saint Croix.
There you can, for example, witness a Moko Jumbies´ presentation – stilt walkers who, as if it wasn´t enough to balance on thin wooden stilts, also dance! This is believed to be a tradition from West Africa that dates back to the 13th-14th centuries, brought to the Caribbean by the slaves. The Moko Jumbies are considered the protectors from evil spirits, being tall enough to reach them, drive them away, and ensure the safety of the people. They are normally completely covered in beautiful colorful clothes, including hats, masks and gloves. You can watch a performance during parades and festivals at the island, where they are “needed” to drive the bad spirits away. They also welcome cruise ship passengers at the pier.
One of the most interesting features of the island when it comes to Black Heritage is that the role of women in the fight for freedom was extremely powerful and impactful. When islands around started to free their slaves, the ones in Saint Croix demanded the same. In 1848, about eight thousand men marched to Fort Frederik, setting properties and plantations on fire along the way. They ended up conquering their liberty. The emancipation was signed right there at Fort Frederik, where you can visit the museum and even see records of slave sale.
Unfortunately, this didn´t lead to better life quality. In response, three women – Mary Thomas, Mathilda McBean and Agnes Salomon – led a revolt in 1878, burning the city down. They are heroines in the Virgin Islands and called “queens” to this day. Though the beautiful statues erected in their honor are located in another island, Saint Thomas, you can live a bit of History by passing by one of Saint Croix´s main roads – Queen Mary Highway.
Since 2018, Queen Mary is also immortalized in Copenhagen, Denmark, the country that ruled Saint Croix at the time of the rebellion. Her monument is the first public memorial of a black woman there. She is placed in front of the city´s West Indian Warehouse, where sugar from the Caribbean´s plantations and rum was stored.
By the way, the plantations and sugar mills in Saint Croix can also be visited! You might wonder why most of them haven´t been restored, but this is actually on purpose. The ruins of these establishments remind the people of the Queens and what they have accomplished. I happen to believe this fits the island perfectly, because even though St Croix is U.S. territory nowadays, it remains pretty much Caribbean in its History, culture and mentality. One estate that was, though, restored, is the Estate Whim Museum, where you can see the great house, the sugar mill and some other typical plantation buildings.
5. Paris (France)
I bet Paris was one of the least countries you expected to see on this list. Well, I like to surprise people! Paris actually has a very rich Black Culture History, and my favorite period was the one following World War I, when many African American artists went to the fun city searching for a welcoming market to their craft. Many of these had actually experienced Paris as soldiers during the war, and decided to try life there once the economy had recovered. The truth is that the enlightened country accepted African- American Culture better than the U.S. did.
These artists later on joined the so called Harlem Renaissance, an artistic, social and intellectual Black Movement in the 1920´s. Though it was centered in Harlem, N.Y.., the wave reached many other places in the U.S., also influencing black artists who lived in Paris. Josephine Baker, for example, was a performer who grew even more famous at this time, becoming a trendsetter during the Renaissance when black clothing changed dramatically. You can visit the square named after her in Montparnasse, the neighborhood considered the artists´corner in Paris.
Not very far from there, you find Little Africa. Located in the 18th arrondissement, Goutte D´Or is the place where you want to go for African design, fabrics, food and spices. Life there is just as vibrant as in Africa, with many colors, street markets and even games like the Kharbaga – an African kind of checkers. You can also go on a food tasting journey, finding traditional dishes from different countries like Algeria and Morocco. It´s basically a whole continent fitted into a (very) small neighborhood.
For a take on African art, you can visit the Musée du Quai Branly. They usually have a rich and unique collection of African artifacts exposed. Right now, for example, they are showing a private collection from Helena Rubinstein with more than 400 pieces. To support contemporary African art, visit the Paris Africa Gallery, a place dedicated to promote African artists and general artists influenced by the African continent.
But not everywhere in Paris will African Heritage present itself so clearly like in Little Africa or in dedicated art galleries. Quite the opposite: most of the time, it will be right in front of you without you even realizing it. For example, have you paid attention to the monument placed at the Luxembourg gardens that celebrates the abolition of slavery in the French colonies? Or to the paintings of black people hanging on the Louvre and how they were portrayed by Europeans?
Unfortunately, part of the Black Heritage in Paris is not made very visible. For example, when I lived there, I passed by Café Tournon uncountable times, and I never knew that was the place where important black artists like Chester Himes and James Baldwin used to gather to discuss ideas and co-create. In order to avoid this, you can book a dedicated tour with a company which will make sure you won´t miss anything, like Walking the Spirit Tours and Ricki Stevenson´s Black Paris Tours.