The importance of being black and going abroad

By Zenab Bakayoko '19 on March 3, 2019

TU student Zenab Bakayoko studied abroad in Paris and advocates for other students of color to do the same

Zenab Bakayoko
Zenab Bakayoko at the Palace of Versailles

This post originally appeared on the CEA Study Abroad and TU Study Abroad blogs.

Since 1976, February has been celebrated as Black History Month, during which many different prominent African-Americans are celebrated for their contributions to society.

In honor of Black History Month, I want to share some of my experiences of being an African-American abroad while also emphasizing why it is important for people of color to go abroad.

When looking back at history, we are reminded of how Africans were dispersed all around the world through the slave trade, which had lasting effects on their overall geographical placement and opportunities. Because of this, the experience for people of color to travel abroad can be unbelievably rewarding.

Recently, I attended a seminar at my school welcoming the creators of Black & Abroad, a brand started by entrepreneurs Eric Martin and Kent Johnson. They were inspired by their own experience traveling and noticing that most flyers and advertisements directed toward travel did not include African-Americans. Their research showed African-Americans spend about $63 billion in travel per year yet figure little in advertising representation.

Black & Abroad sponsors trips and encourages people of color to go abroad and share their experiences. Their T-shirts are worn by people of color all around the world, and the company gained a lot of popularity by people posting pictures with the hashtag “#BlackandAbroad.”

While listening to Eric and Kent speak from a business perspective, I distilled a personal meaning behind the overall message and movement: As people of color, our history instills in us a duty to educate ourselves about the world.

My experience abroad was a special one. I was the only African-American in my program. While it was not a situation I anticipated, but it was one I grew to embrace. It was nice being able to connect with the people of color in all five countries I had the chance to visit while I was overseas.

While studying in Paris, I was shocked to see that in certain arrondissements, the African population was much more dominant. In these parts of the city, you would find quite a few products unique to African culture, ranging from specific hair products, to foods, restaurants, clothes and more.

There’s no question that Africans and people of color are major contributors to the culture of any community. From music, fashion, and hairstyles — our contribution can be seen as universal. Think about how popular Reggae and African music is worldwide.

Here are some quick international facts about black history that many people don’t know:

  • Haiti was the world’s first black republic to gain its independence. In 1791, a slave revolt erupted on the French colony, and Toussaint-Louverture, a former slave, took control of the rebels. It took 13 years of fighting with the French before the new Haitian government declared independence on January 1, 1804.

  • An African slave named Onesimus is credited as the first person to introduce innoculation in the US. Originally a gift to Puritan minister Cotton Mather, Onesimus introduced the idea of vaccination to Mather while talking about old African traditions. When a small smallpox epidemic broke out in Boston, Mather shared the tradition with Doctor Zabdiel Boylston, who adopted the tradition despite public condemnation. 

  • Josephine Baker was a spy for the French during World War II. Baker smuggled military information to the French by pinning them inside her dress and hiding them in her music sheets.

  • The House of Slaves and its Door of No Return on Gorée Island, Senegal, is believed to be one of the the final exit points for many slaves from Africa being brought to the Americas.

With Black History Month past, I want to urge people of color to learn more about black pioneers and revolutionaries from countries outside the US. You will be shocked to find that everywhere in the world, people of color always pushed through to create a difference.

This story is one of several related to President Kim Schatzel’s priorities for Towson University: Diverse and Inclusive Campus.

It is part of a series of stories marking TU's Week of Black Excellence.