Friday, March 4, 2011


I've lectured (or read my fiction) in cities across Germany, Czechoslovakia (in 1989 during their revolution), Portugal, France, England, the Netherlands, Indonesia, Japan, Spain, and in 1997 I spent two weeks in northern Thailand researching an article on "The Asian Sense of Beauty" for Microsoft's now-defunct on-line travel magazine, "Mungo Park." 

Generally, when I've traveled overseas it was for the U.S. Information Agency (now merged with the State Department) as part of their programs that enlisted artists and writers for purposes of international goodwill. In other words, all my journeys away from America have been working trips---lecturing on black American literature, multiculturalism, and my own writing. Away from home, I always saw myself as a guest in those countries, one who needed to be grateful to his hosts for the privilege of spending time in their world, a traveler whose behavior had to be impeccable and gracious because in a small way I was representing the United States. 

More than anything else, I felt the American traveler should avoid being like those boorish individuals described by W.E.B. Du Bois in his essay “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926). When visiting the lake in Scotland immortalized by Sir Walter Scott’s 1810 poem, “Lady of the Lake,” he witnessed people who “were mostly Americans, and they were loud and strident. They poured upon the little pleasure boat---men with their hats a little on one side and drooping cigars in the wet corners of their mouths; women who shared their conversation with the world. They all tried to get everywhere first. They pushed other people out of the way. They made all sorts of incoherent noises and gestures so that the quiet home folk and the visitors from other lands silently and half-wonderingly gave way to them. They struck a note not evil but wrong. They carried, perhaps, a sense of strength and accomplishment, but their hearts had no concept of the beauty which pervaded this holy place.”

In the non-English-speaking, non-Western countries I’ve been to, I always experienced a liberating and pleasantly humbling form of displacement. This was especially true in the East, where whites are in the minority and people I visited in a weaving village near the Laos border in Thailand had never seen a black person before. (I have read that only 17% of the world is white; the other 83% are people of color.) Not being fluent with the language or possessing any expertise on the everyday lives of people in Indonesia, Japan or Thailand, I realized I had to work to unkey the meaning of things.

Nothing could be taken for granted since I was unable to completely "read" the events and experiences taking place around me with any degree of nuance or subtlety. My confidence was happily shaken by the different culture now enveloping me, where even the simplest things---getting directions, finding a meal---required a good deal of mental effort: alertness and mindfulness. Moment by moment, I could assume nothing, because my assumptions and presuppositions had no purchase in those countries. 

In other words, the stance of the traveler away from the provincial, limited and Eurocentric Western fishbowl in which he (or she) normally lives on automatic pilot contains its own built-in phenomenological epoché (the familiar is “bracketed") and it favors the position of consciousness described by Edmund Husserl when he said, "Initially I am lost and forgotten in the world, lost in the things, lost in ideas, lost in the plants and animals..."
I strongly recommend this occasional shaking up of one’s weltanschauung or cultural world view for everyone.

1 comment:

  1. It happens in reading good fiction, too, and good philosophy. To approach the word with a full cup prevents one from receiving any of its wisdom. That's my sense of how so many Americans travel: with a cup overflowing with their own sense of self and (national) self-worth. Can't get any other tea into that. And so they return home no wiser than when they left their door. It's like reading a great novel but not letting it inside of you, keeping it at the skin level.