The Roundup

Expanding Your Travel Bookshelf (and Mind)

by Team Fathom
Photo by Alfons Morales / Unsplash.

Travel literature, like other genres, has long been a white- and male-dominated arena, where people of color feature as footnotes or scenic backdrop, if they get mentioned at all. But there is a long history of African Americans writing while on the road — producing anthropological observations, essays, memoirs, and guidebooks (like the Green Book, published between 1936 and 1966, which listed black-friendly establishments across the U.S. along with stark advice for staying safe from hostile white people).

From a team of African Americans summiting the continent’s highest peak, to a single, sensational black woman traveling to outer space, the contributions of people of color to the travel canon are valuable and necessary. Their work should be continually affirmed and celebrated.

Where to start? How about with A Stranger in the Village: Two Centuries of African-American Travel Writing, a literary goldmine of voices reporting from the field, from Angela Davis to Langston Hughes. Essays include Booker T. Washington’s observations on Italian politics, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s descriptions of black and brown solidarity in India, and details from Audrey Lorde’s trip to Soviet Russia.

Notes: Some of our book links go to Amazon for ease of accessibility, but your local indie bookstore can also order these books for you. We'll continue to add as we read. Send your recommendations to higuys@fathomaway.com.

The Classics

Zora Neale Hurston
A Harlem Renaissance figure, powerhouse author, and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographic fieldwork had with a daredevil streak. She relayed stories of train-jumping and voodoo-researching, wrote about Caribbean folklore, and penned a Florida guidebook in 1939 — traveling the whole time in the face of Jim Crow laws. Pick up a copy of her bold and funny autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road.

James Baldwin
Many a would-be writer chased the coattails of the lauded novelist and social critic who lived and wrote freely in Paris in the mid-20th century after escaping overt American racism and homophobia. He arrived on a one-way ticket when he was 24, broke, and with no knowledge of the language. But he made a name for himself and carved out a romantic Parisian intellectual lifestyle, which he chronicled in his 1961 Esquire essay, “The New Lost Generation.”

Mae Jemison
Art meets science meets humanity the globe over for the multi-hyphenate Jemison, an engineer, physician, dancer, NASA astronaut, and first African-American woman to travel to space. Whip-smart, creative, determined, and imaginative, she stretches the limits of possibility at every turn (see: human interstellar space travel). Watch her Discovery Channel science series, World of Wonders, and her memoir for children, Find Where the Wind Goes.

Maya Angelou
The monumental figure in poetry and activism and the queen of quotations lived many lives, including that of a singer, dancer, actor, and journalist in Egypt and Ghana. Central themes to her work include identity, journey, and searching for home. Read her lyrical explorations of Africa and the diaspora in All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes.

Victor Hugo Green
From a New York-focused first edition travel guide published in 1936, Green, a mailman in NYC, expanded the work to cover much of North America, including most of the United States and parts of Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. It became known as the bible of black travel in the era of Jim Crow, The Negro Motorist Green Books have been digitized and are accessible from The New York Public Library's files.

Contemporary Non-Fiction

An African in Greenland, by Tété-Michel Kpomassie
The author is a teenager in Togo when he learns about the wild island of Greenland. He then spends ten years venturing through Africa and Europe before finally reaching the Arctic Circle and living among the Inuit. His observations are funny, enlightening, and surprising.

The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoorsby James E. Mills
Filled with history, adventure, and detailed writing about the great outdoors, the first all-African American team of climbers challenged themselves on North America’s highest point, the forbidding Denali, in Alaska.

Mandela, Mobutu, and Me: A Newswoman's African Journey, by Lynne Duke
From the end of Zaire to the rise of Mandela, the book offers one of the most riveting reports of southern Africa in the 1990s.

Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun, by Faith Adiele
A beautiful personal narratives about conflict — even for the most devout. Adiele travels from the U.S. to northern Thailand, residing in a temple forest to rising to the challenge of enduring single meals, nineteen-hour daily meditations, and days without speaking.