“Some act as though ‘Black women’ and ‘happiness’
is an oxymoron.”
From Buddha to Socrates, many of the great thinkers have devoted their lives to the study of the pursuit of happiness. In the movie, “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Will Smith’s character journeyed to make a life for himself with less personal struggle and poverty. In the Declaration of Independence, the pursuit of happiness is stated as one of the rights of all Americans. One thing the great thinkers, Will Smith’s character, and the authors of the Declaration of Independence all have in common is the understanding that happiness is something that sometimes requires a journey, change, and shift in states of being to attain.
For travelers, happiness is often found when they arrive at point B; not necessarily the physical location, but the consequent benefits, such as connections with others, and the opportunities for self-exploration. Researcher Bianca Williams, found this to be especially true for African American women – a demographic habitually characterized as one or both of two extremes: angry and broken or strong and emotionless.
“Some act as though “Black women” and “happiness” is an oxymoron,” says Williams. An encounter with a group of African American women while on a trip to Jamaica took her research into another avenue, as she found that due to their travels, they had something that is not thought of as easy to come by in America, partly due to stereotypical constraints: the freedom to be women who can search for love, make friends, explore their sexuality while being both black and happy.
The women were traveling with a tourist group called Girlfriend Tours International, founded by Angelia Hairston and Marilyn Williams. The tours are created to provide incredible travel experiences for women who are also looking for a group of women to travel with. Some ranging between the ages of 40 and 60, these women as Williams describes them on their trip, were “living their best lives.” Her observation: “They exhibited all types of sexiness and sensuality; and they believed that they deserved leisure, pleasure, and happiness. They were having fun!” This led to evidence detailed in Williams’ book, The Pursuit of Happiness: Black Women, Diasporic Dreams, and the Politics of Emotional Transnationalism, that instead of an oxymoron, “happiness” can be synonymous to “Black women.”
When speaking towards the stereotypes of Black women and how that can hinder not only how they are perceived but how they exist, Williams references Melissa Harris-Perry’s book, Sister Citizen, which describes tropes such as the “strong black woman” or the “angry black woman” as a “crooked room,” or “distorted image-based reality that Black women are constantly aware of, and consistently trying to align themselves with and/or resist,” Williams adds. This lends to the argument in Williams’ book that “pursuing happiness is a political project for Black women.”
Through Williams’ studies, it was evident that as opposed to escaping their experiences as Black women, or denying the “structural barriers” that can inhibit their pursuit of happiness, they instead used their experiences of racism, sexism, and stereotypical labeling as fuel to seek out “moments where they could experience happiness and joy,” says Williams. “Traveling to Jamaica was about more than simply getting a groove–a la Stella—it was about troubling this binaristic understanding of Black womanhood and experiencing the dynamic lives that Black women can live,” she adds. Some of the happiness experienced by members of the tourist group also came from their insistence on engaging with Jamaican people out of kinship, and participating in the Jamaican economy by staying in Jamaican owned hotels, eating at local restaurants, and patronizing local establishments. As Williams puts it, “Because Jamaica is a predominately Black country, the tourists I studied felt a mental and emotional release from U.S.-based racism and saw Jamaicans as family in the African diaspora.”
William’s book is based on two years of research while making several trips to Jamaica with the tourist group, and four years of data collected from the online community, Jamaicans.com, created by Xavier Murphy. Jamaicans.com allowed Williams to study how fostering relationships online, or in essence virtual travel, also created a space for happiness. “The ability to connect with other Black people virtually and/or physically using these tools enables Black women to be visible, experience our racial identity in spaces where we may be the majority, and momentarily ease the burden of American racism,” says Williams.
Besides Jamaica where she has traveled for family and work, Williams has also visited Trinidad, Mexico, Antigua, Italy, Bermuda, Canada, and Spain. When discussing her own happiness abroad it comes down to what’s on her plate. Fond of Jamaican and Italian cuisine, Williams says that her happiness “lies somewhere on a plate of amazing pasta and the best meal of patty, coco bread, and bulla with kola champagne.” She loves the beaches of Jamaica and the cross between contemporary and historical moments in Italy. Toronto stands out because of its mix of Caribbean people coupled with the arts. Like the women in the tourist group, she also seeks out communities of color on her trips, taking in their narratives, and finding herself fascinated by “similarities and the divergent stories.”
In virtual spaces, she still enjoys Jamaicans.com because it provides the community of tourists and people of the Jamaican diaspora to engage in discussions on several subjects including race and culture. Following the traveling journeys of Black women such as Evita Robinson of Nomadness, Zim Ugochukwu of Travel Noire, and Oneika the Traveler also bring joy. These women have created “travel businesses and virtual spaces that make Black women feel empowered to travel and experience not only other cultures and ways of being in the world, but gain a deeper understanding of themselves through these encounters.”
Williams’ hopes that those who read her book can see themselves in the stories of the women she studied in the tourist group, and that they are inspired to seek happiness in their own lives regularly. She also hopes to give insight to Jamaicans about how tourism to their country is valued by African American travelers. “It is my wish that both groups will gain an enhanced understanding of how they experience Blackness similarly, and the important ways their experiences diverge and why that’s significant,” says Williams.
Through her research, Williams was able to note how travel and online relationships created opportunities for greater happiness but acknowledges that with anything that brings us joy, the effects are not permanent. However, these experiences can increase the moments of happiness in our lives. For the Black women in the tourist groups she studied, in particular, she notes that “they learn the important lesson that the experience, the process of connecting, or taking a moment for self, is where happiness lies; not in the concept of happiness as a destination.”
To find more works by Bianca Williams see her website, www.biancaphd.com or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.
The book is available from Duke University Press.