Race in Transit: Nanjala Nyabola Unpacks the Complexities of Global Travel for Black People

Nyabola examines the intersection of race, identity, and geopolitics while compellingly analyzing the challenges and opportunities that Black travelers face.

As part of our efforts to support scholarly work in pursuit of racial justice, Choice regularly reviews important current titles that consider issues of race or racism, devoting additional space to these works through long-form reviews. Doing so, we hope to underscore the urgency of these issues and to highlight promising resources. Given the relevance of this to TIE‘s mission, we wish to share these reviews with TIE‘s readers in the hope that we can introduce useful new titles to our audience for their personal or institutional collections. The following review considers Travelling While Black (2021) by Nanjala Nyabola and also appears in the February 2024 issue of Choice and online.

By Zacharia Nchinda Nchinda

Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move, by Nanjala Nyabola. Hurst & Company, 2021. 264p, 9781787383821 pbk, $19.15; ISBN 9781787385238 ebook, contact publisher for price

book cover of "Travelling While Black," featuring a yellow line drawing of a young woman's face in profile against a dark blue background above the title "Travelling While Black" in white letters.

The Atlantic slave trade opened the door for the racialized subordination of Black people and ignited a global construction of race that imperialism, colonialism, neocolonialism, neoliberalism, and capitalism all co-opted and have allowed to endure to this day. Race remains a worldview that both rationalizes domination and privilege and fosters the dispossession of land, labor, wealth, and rights. Racism has become so complex that it is imposed from above and manifested from below like an old white lady calling the author a “‘n****r’ to [her] face on the subway” because she failed to give the woman alms (p. 221).

In addition to creating racialized spaces, race generates oppression and resistance from below. In Travelling While Black, Nanjala Nyabola captures these nuances of race as she documents her travels across seventy countries. Throughout, she stresses that despite centuries of institutional racism and exclusion, Black lives do,in fact, matter. As a feminist scholar, an activist, and a legal and community advocate Nyabola recounts what it means to travel as a woman, especially as a Black woman, through seventeen essays. An independent writer and researcher based in Nairobi, Kenya, she tells uncomfortable stories about African society, politics, technology, and international law.

Nyabola points out that European researchers, notably British, French, Belgian, and Portuguese, view Africa mostly through their own lenses, searching for something “alien or ‘wrong'” and propagating that image through their institutions for domestic and worldwide consumption (p. 144). Because European social sciences lack the “soft tools needed to make sense of the complexity and multifacetedness of African people,” their researchers focus on African slums and poverty, tensions and conflicts, and fail to see the human story behind these phenomena, thus stripping their work of actual value (p. 145).

For example, calling Nairobi “Africa for Beginners” (p. 143) diminishes the complicated and contradictory nature of the place “that will love you and hate you in equal measure, at the same time, with the same intensity” (p. 147). Nyabola highlights that European observers fail to realize and do not comprehend the fact that Black people are real people whose existence does not depend on whether white people see them or not. This white vision of Africa has been shaped by the fact that most images and guidebooks about Africa are portrayed and written by white men for white men with privilege and power who do not know how to see Africa and not for the African people they intend to visit. Unfortunately, their versions are uncritically consumed and acted upon.

European policies and actions fuel the movement from Africa to Europe, yet Europe is unwilling to accept African migrants.

Nyabola laments the new forms of racialization displayed through the plight of refugees and asylum seekers and the dilemma their presence poses for their host countries and the international community. She explains that “emigration doesn’t happen in a vacuum” because the racialized division of resources, wealth, and power pulls the have-nots to the haves and is full of contradictions (p. 71). For example, European policies and actions fuel the movement from Africa to Europe, yet Europe is unwilling to accept African migrants.

European volunteers stand ready to aid refugees and asylum seekers arriving by boat, yet European security services are ready to turn them back. City governments, such as those in Palermo, Paris, and Barcelona, hold views on refugees that diverge from those of their state governments, and in many cases today, poor countries host the majority of the asylum seekers while rich countries lead the way in eroding rights to asylum. This dilemma, Nyabola explains, is due to “a crisis of the European state” and the erosion of any semblance of empathy, human connections, and hospitality toward refugees (p. 65).

Furthermore, the dilemma of migration and refugees allows Nyabola to question the idea of home. Where and what is home? What does it mean to be home? She argues that home is incredibly fluid, a state of mind, not a place. Home is “in the ever-changing community or fellowship of people who see the world the way you do, and find the words to describe it” (p. 94). Embodied in that concept “is a notion of choice” (p. 132). 

Africa was partitioned and boundaries were erected  at the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 by and for the interest of colonial exploiters. These divisions were fashioned to serve European economic needs, and, unfortunately, independence in the 1950s–1960s changed little of this. The continent today remains flawed by the legacies of colonization. Africans who were not migrants or foreigners in Africa “are not at home everywhere in Africa” (p. 118). They find themselves as un-homed and othered on their continent of origin as anywhere else, impressing the urgent need to start building just and equitable societies.

Nyabola explains that the xenophobia in South Africa against other Africans and the daily systematic violence against Somalis in Kenya, for instance, point to African political policy failures to jettison the legacies of European rule.

Nyabola explains that the xenophobia in South Africa against other Africans and the daily systematic violence against Somalis in Kenya, for instance, point to African political policy failures to jettison the legacies of European rule. She calls for the remaking of the African state, “a shared belief in our humanity,” the rejection of accumulation by the few, and a review of Africa as a home in which society is consumed with addressing the needs of the most vulnerable (p. 133).

Nyabola challenges readers psychologically to look inward for ways to conquer their fears. Using her journey to Burkina-Faso as a lesson on “the nature of fear and the rewards of confronting it” (p. 32), she guides readers each time she pushes through a mental barrier, stressing that “fear is never a good reason not to do something” (p. 33). As she overcame each new challenge, she “started to experience the immense rewards of using fear as a catalyst for action, rather than a deterrent” (p. 33–34).

Having seen the ugly sides and impact of racism and poverty through her travels, Nyabola clearly and resoundingly exposes their harmful effects. She reiterates that Europeans created the concept of Blackness, deployed it politically to deny people access or privilege, and exploited it for specific global purposes, which eventually led the concept to mold itself into local and temporary realities.

In Europe and the United States, race created a “box” (p. 4) into which Black people were shoved and “scrutinised intently” to see whether they were “‘good’ immigrants” (p. 3). Because much “of what [B]lack communities learn of each other around the world is filtered through the hegemonic media with a distinct interest in preserving racial hierarchies,” anti-Black racism is a global problem that does not adhere to national distinctions; it is a product of decisions followed by actions, designed by Europeans to create an entire sub-class of people (p. 233).

Traveling while Black exposed Nyabola to the crude contradictions of race because it is “one of those elements of culture that travel affects profoundly” (p. 5). She points out the glaring racism and exploitation evident in the images of Africa portrayed by international humanitarian organizations; the lack of empathy displayed for Black bodies as opposed to white bodies; the unjust hierarchy of mourning carried out for Western victims of terror as opposed to Kenyan, Iraqi, Afghan, and Somali victims of terror; and the fact that in newspapers such as The New York Times, “[B]lack and brown people don’t get the full contemporary rites and rituals of mourning terror victims” (p. 213).

In the United States, racism follows Black people around more overtly, unabashedly, and unapologetically. In other parts of the world, racialism presents itself to Black people with more ambiguity.

Nyabola recounts that the United States is unique for having had the peculiar institution of chattel slavery and still maintains the peculiar institution of racism, under which Black bodies are “stomped on, shot at, spat at, beaten down, and degraded by white people” (p. 222). In the United States, racism follows Black people around more overtly, unabashedly, and unapologetically. In other parts of the world, racialism presents itself to Black people with more ambiguity.

For example, in Europe, instead of citing race as a reason to limit migration and refugees from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, opponents cite unbridgeable cultural differences between Europeans and migrants—a form of “racism without race” (p. 225). Nyabola explains that the meaning of race changes constantly as new forms of exclusion are exercised and capitalism incorporates elements of the racialized population into its neoliberal global exploitation.

Nyabola explains that because the tentacles of racism run so long and deep in everything, the onus is not on the victims of racism to prove they are worthy but on the privileged to open up a better way. Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to gut affirmative action as a criterion for admission into colleges and universities under the illusion that Americans are living in a post-racial society does not match reality.

Imagining that banning books, prohibiting discussion of systemic racism in schools, gutting DEI programs in public and private institutions, restricting immigration, banning critical race theory, and instituting anti-affirmative action policies to suit fragile white sensibilities will force Black people to disappear or prevent white people from interacting with Blacks is wishful thinking. Black people are part of the human family, and their experiences living in a white-dominated world are a real, tangible, and painful fact to be acknowledged and dealt with.

Nyabola does not relinquish the entire struggle for racial equality and the fight against economic exploitation to others. She sees the “value of individual choice in the grand milieu of making a difference” and calls for individual activism and “small acts of resistance, even if … no one else knows that we are doing them” (p. 178). By connecting personal choices to how the world works, people can stress to policymakers the moral obligations of reciprocity and symbols of deeper interconnectedness.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – History, Geography & Area Studies – Africa

Zacharia Nchinda, Ph.D., teaches History at Milwaukee Area Technical College. His work focuses on immigrant families.

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.