Jamaica’s Lure for Black Women and Why it Matters in our #MeToo Age

What can tourism teach us about racial identity? A surprising amount, according to Professor Bianca Williams (GC, Anthropology), author of The Pursuit of Happiness: Black Women, Diasporic Dreams and the Politics of Emotional Transnationalism, (Duke University Press, 2018).

From 2003 to 2007, Williams traveled with mostly middle-aged, lower-middle-class African American women on their repeated vacations to Jamaica. She also observed the connections they made to each other and Jamaican culture in the online communities they created. In this transnational ethnographic study, Williams reveals the ways in which her travel companions “temporarily replace their experiences of hardship and invisibility in the United States with fantasies of happiness, intimacy, community, and connectivity in Jamaica.”

Williams traces the lure of Jamaican travel for African American women to How Stella Got Her Groove Back — the bestselling novel by Terry McMillan and the ensuing movie. Both tell the story of a successful, divorced fortysomething businesswoman who vacations in Jamaica and finds love with a Jamaican man half her age. Williams observes that “Stella’s narrative of finding love, girlfriendship, and an agentive sense of self” inspired the women with whom she traveled on the Girlfriend Tours International “and gave them the courage and permission to go out and pursue different aspects of it for themselves.”

Williams found, however, that the African American women’s Jamaican excursions go far beyond getting one’s groove back.

She explains that the women she studied feel their access to happiness in the United States is limited due to racism, sexism, and ageism in our society, whereas in Jamaica, a country that is predominantly black, they find themselves among people who look like them, in a culture that sees “women over 40 as beautiful, wise, and desirable.”

The Jamaica trips also allow the women to escape demands from family and community and prioritize leisure and self-care, something they find difficult to give themselves permission to do at home.

According to Williams, these African American, self-professed Jamaicaholics feel a “deep, affective connection to Stella and to Jamaica as a place.” But the spiritually connected community the women seek in Jamaica is an imagined one, she says, adding, “Jamaicans recognize their shared history of slavery but also the privilege and access to mobility these African American tourist women have, and feel that ‘you’re not diasporic kin the way you imagine yourselves to be.’ I think those moments of disconnect were really tough for the African Americans to take in, and that’s when the fantasy breaks.”

Williams hopes her book spurs discussions about how the pursuit of happiness is not something Americans have equal access to due to differences in economic, political, and social resources. She also sees how her research applies to the current BlackLivesMatter, MeToo, and BlackJoy movements, encouraging us all to address the importance of mental and emotional wellness for black women as they contend with such issues as sexual violence and police brutality.

“Being able to enjoy yourself is a political act; happiness is a political project for black women,” she says. “I think we’re getting there. It will be a great day when black people feel like they can live in the U.S. and be well emotionally and not feel like they have to take trips somewhere else just to connect with themselves.”
 
 

Submitted on: MAY 26, 2018

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