A Travel Story by K. Sharon Wilson
Whenever I hear the words from Dr. Seuss’ beloved classic, “Oh, The Places You’ll Go,” it makes my heart smile. Especially so, after an emotionally fraught pandemic year, strict quarantine, and two canceled trips. But I’m not here to reminisce about children’s books. Instead, I want to share a story of how two generations of women in my family influenced my love of travel.
My grandmother Kitty migrated from Roanoke, VA to Brooklyn, NY in the early 1940s to escape the vice grip of Jim Crow. With a grade school education and limited job opportunities, she became a domestic for a wealthy NY family who traveled the world many times over.
But my grandmother wasn’t content receiving postcards from her boss’ vacations. She wanted to claim this dream for herself. While keeping house for a family that was not her own, my grandmother saved her nickels and dimes, and in her early 50s obtained her first passport. For Kitty, this passport was not merely an entrée to other countries. It represented a respite from a life of drudgery and access to experiences off-limits for most Black women of her generation. Over the years, there would be trips to Nova Scotia, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and a cruise of Western Europe, along with visits to St. Thomas, Honolulu, and Cancun. My globetrotting grandma, no doubt, planted the seeds of possibility within me.
But my grandmother wasn’t the only one with a lust for travel. My mother had a wandering spirit as well. After a brief marriage, she was left to parent two kids at the age of 20. We lived hand to mouth in a rough and tumble Brooklyn neighborhood. She held a series of clerical jobs while studying at night to become a teacher. Along the way, my mom came to believe that travel could also be a path to learning.
Like my grandma, my mother scrimped and saved, and was eventually able to join her friends on trips to Cape Cod, Mexico, and other jaunts far removed from her life in Brooklyn. At 40, she spent a summer abroad with fellow teachers, studying at London Polytechnic, while hopscotching around Europe.
I was acutely aware that my grandmother and mother’s travels were the exceptions. As a child, I lived in a poor Black community where few families could afford to travel beyond bus trips down South. There were no vacations to Disney World or summers at the shore. Folks made do with train rides to Coney Island, picnics in the park, and day trips to the beach.
But my mom aspired to live beyond racialized barriers. When I was 10, she cobbled together the money to send me to summer camp. Just 60 miles north of New York City, Girl Scout camp felt like a world away. At camp, I slept under a blanket of stars, pitched tents in the lush woods, and broke bread with girls from vastly different backgrounds.
At 17, I took my first trip abroad. It was a senior trip to Quebec where I mangled the French language, pondered the beauty of St. Anne’s Basilica, and marveled at a culture different than my own while roaming the cobbled stone streets of the Old City. Twenty-plus years would pass before I traveled abroad again. Instead at 18, I traveled sight unseen to attend the University of Wisconsin. Five years later I moved to Chicago for grad school, followed by a pit stop in D.C. Some years after that, I relocated to Greensboro, NC for work. In lieu of Westminster Abbey and the Eiffel Tower, I experienced bratwurst BBQs in Wisconsin, lakeshore strolls in Chicago, and HBCU homecomings in North Carolina. Exploring the Main Streets of America was no less transformative.
Fortunately, international travel was merely a dream deferred, and not a dream denied. In my early 40s, I obtained my first passport and began exploring my love of the African Diaspora. To my delight, I would experience the Masai in Kenya, Afro Colombians in Cartagena, and the Garifuna in Roatan, to name a few.
Whenever I hold my passport or look at a world map, I think of my mother and grandmother who are both long gone. I am filled with sadness over their loss and joy at our collective travel experiences. Because of them, ‘Oh, The Places You’ll Go’, is more than just a children’s book.
K. Sharon Wilson is a Brooklyn-born, Georgia-based writer/editorial researcher. Her work has appeared in publications and anthologies in New York, Chicago, and North Carolina. She is currently working on a debut novel.