International Travel as a Window to the Diaspora

We all know the benefits of traveling: exposure, vacation, yadda yadda yadda… but what about the inherent history lesson that sometimes plays out before you? When I was in Amsterdam a few weeks ago I was reminded of a little known (at least to me) piece of history – that Suriname is a Dutch colony.  Now, I’m sure I learned that in high school at some point, but reading a textbook and looking at a map showing arrows connecting all of the colonial empires just didn’t last long in the “long-term memory” of my brain.

Former Dutch Colonies

Most of the Black people I met in Amsterdam were Surinamese, which really caught me off guard because that is not a country you hear about often. (By the way, Suriname is a very small country on the NE coast of South America.)  The 2nd largest group of black people that I ran into were Moroccans.  And the varying levels or racism that exist among these groups is another story for another day.  Being in Amsterdam at that moment and learning about some of the modern-day effects of colonialism has a much more lasting effect than anything I could read in a textbook.  Meeting a young Surinamese man who rarely goes back home and who would be punished for using his local Surinamese language in Suriname instead of Dutch, learning about how the Dutch mine Suriname for promising football (soccer) stars, witnessing the tension between Surinamese-born blacks and other Dutch blacks – all things I could easily wrap my head around now that I’m seeing a history book come to life.

When I was in Milan, I met a lot of Senegalese black people who were actually from Paris and all spoke French.  And the effects of the colonialism were all the same.  The black country was made to believe they were inferior, stripped of their native tongues, convinced that their schooling had to come from the colonizing country, and brainwashed to believe that their native traditions and native customs weren’t important.  The younger generations especially were very disconnected from their home country – sound familiar?

I’m by no means a history professor or an expert on colonialism – I just think its amazing that colonialism is still alive and well today in so many forms (both subtle and overt).  I’m only sharing what I’ve learned through my international travels and reflecting on one of the many little thought-about benefits of jet-setting around the world.  More than anything it makes me think about my own country and how the effects of colonialism are still manifesting themselves on a daily basis through our media, our education systems, language, and so much more.  I also think it’s quite interesting that many of us living in places like Harlem, not realizing that NY itself was a Dutch colony.  Not until you visit Haarlem in Holland will many of us make that connection.  So travel, if not for the beaches, the statues, and the museums, for the history and to learn a little more about yourself and the place where you live.

And just a sidenote: My favorite part of all this is meeting Black people who are fluent in 3 or more languages – English, their native language, and their colonizer’s language – while I’m still struggling with my 2nd! Just lets me know I have to do better.

What other ways does living history manifest itself in International Travel?


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