Books are transport ships to other worlds, the worlds of imagination, history, new ideas and great learning. But more literally, books are transport ships to other lands, especially when travel literature is being read. A good travel literature takes us on a grand ride as we experience the culture and land being explored. It educates us on the history and geography of the place, but it also causes us to come face to face with our own ideas and cultures and beliefs, to evaluate them and understand their and our place in this world.
One such book was written in the 1950’s by a foreigner discovering the United States, Manuel Zapata Olivella. Zapata Olivella was a black Colombian doctor and poet who also considered himself a vagabond. He spoke some English, and he finished a major world travel by crossing the United States during a difficult time in our history for a black man. Zapata Olivella entered the country with Mexican guest workers, invited farm hands that were sprayed for insects like cattle, and then trucked out to the farms to work. Zapata Olivella travelled on to California where he experienced American racism for the first time. Although he was a medical doctor, he wasn’t licensed to practice medicine in the United States, so he was hired as a janitor in a hospital, with all the other black men. One day, while sweeping the floor of one of the hospital rooms, a teaching doctor and several students entered and observed the patient. The doctor quizzed the students on the case of this particular patient, and when none of the students were able to answer the question, Zapata Olivella did. He had an interest in the patient, and he was naively expecting to be treated with the respect due a doctor that had studied and understood difficult cases.
The doctor was shocked. A black janitor had answered a difficult medical question, correctly, and in front of his students. The doctor complained, and Zapata Olivella ’s reward was the assignment of having to clean all the bathrooms on his floor of the hospital. The other black janitors were so proud of him, they gladly did all the cleaning, not even letting the young doctor help.
Later Zapata Olivella continued his travels, meeting black war veterans that couldn’t find work after fighting overseas. He met and befriended Langston Hughes, and these two men remained friends for life. The hardest experience for me to read was his’ bus travels through DC and Virginia. The bus was segregated. Zapata Olivella had to ride in the colored section, and he spends some time writing about the sign on the bus separating people based only on the color of their skin. He sat next to a wealthy black mother and her child. The bus stopped, as they do, at a rest area that offered restaurants and diners for the weary travelers. The child was hungry, but all the restaurants were white only, so even though the mother had plenty of money, she and her child had to continue their trip hungry. She had money, she cared for her child, but she was unable to provide a meal or even a snack, simply because of the policy of Jim Crow. How sad, and how humiliating for the mother, and how difficult for the child to not understand why his mother couldn’t take care of him.
Not all of Zapata Olivella’s experiences were bad ones. In many ways he enjoyed his travels and the friendships he collected while journeying through the United States. Unfortunately the racism left its mark, and he returned home.
I had studied Jim Crow laws, and I knew the history of our country, but how much more informative it was to experience these times from a visitors eyes.
Usually travel literature takes us to distant lands and gives us opportunity to experience the lives of other countrymen, but this book allowed me to see my country fresh from the perspective of one that is outside, not shaped and influenced by having grown up here.
The book he wrote is in Spanish, He Visto La Noche, or I Have Seen the Night. I am not sure if it has been translated into English, but if it ever is this book should be a classic.
Another book, written in English this time, and in a more modern era, is Steven Fry In America. Fry is a very dry British comic who comes to America and visits every state, all 50 of them. He made a video series of this trip which I thoroughly enjoyed, and can be viewed on Netflix, at least right now. The book is also excellent.
When a foreigner visits our country sometimes they see the way things really are, not clouded by our own stereotypes and beliefs. Perhaps we are too close to see the truth at times. Zapata Olivella wasn’t raised in our culture, so he saw our racism as an outsider, yet as a fellow sufferer. Fry was able to peer through our culture and grasp the strengths and weaknesses of it. In the introduction to his book, Fry says, by way of apology for not getting everything right about the USA and the individual states, “My eyes, those of an outsider looking in, are bound to miss and to misinterpret. As it happens, I enjoy reading impressions of Britain written by visitors to our shores; the mistakes and misreadings only add to the pleasure and often make me think about my country in new ways, so perhaps my sweeping inaccuracies and dumb failures to grasp the essentials can be taken in that light, as revealing rather than obscuring. Sometimes the spectator sees more of the game.”
My favorite inspiration recorded by Fry about my country came from Johnny Ive, a design guru for Microsoft that lives in Washington state. He was born in Britain and chose to work and create in the United States, because he felt that our country was the best place to nurture creativity. He said of the US, “There’s a conspicuous lack of cynicism and skepticism. Ideas are so fragile, aren’t they?” His fragile ideas included the ipod and the macbook.
Here he felt the environment was better for trying out ideas, taking creative risks, and just thinking. What a great commentary on us.