Photograph by Jessica Sample
Breaking Down Racial Barriers
Greg Gross has a dream. “Growing up, my life was split between two inner cities—New Orleans and Oakland—dreaming of becoming a writer and a traveler, surrounded by kids with no dreams at all,” says Gross. About ten years ago, he met a young woman in Natchez, Mississippi, who proudly told him she intended never to set foot beyond her city. “I suddenly realized how many black Americans felt as she did. Seeing the world was something for ‘other people,’ not them. It wasn’t just about a lack of money. It was a mind-set in which to be caught outside your cultural comfort zone was to be vulnerable, dangerously exposed. That was when I knew I had to write about travel—to take the mystery, and thus the fear, out of it all.”
Getting travelers from here to there is the task this retired journalist has taken on with his blog, I’m Black and I Travel!. From his desk in San Diego, he documents black travel experiences, highlights heritage destinations, profiles travelers, and tackles the fears of people heading out into the world. “I often hear from black Americans who wonder what kind of treatment they can expect in particular parts of the globe,” he says. He writes about his own journeys: 27 countries, five continents, 42 U.S. states, and counting.
—By George W. Stone
National Geographic Traveler: When did you first discover travel?
Greg Gross: My love of travel was born on the Sunset Limited train, when my mother took me from New Orleans to Los Angeles. I was five. (I wrote about this in an early entry on my blog.) Growing up, my life was split between two “inner cities,” New Orleans and Oakland, dreaming of becoming a writer and a traveler, surrounded by kids with no dreams at all. I partly have National Geographic to “blame” for my love of travel. In the eighth grade, I found myself at a Lutheran school in Oakland, California, which had a wall of National Geographic magazines, dating back to 1915. Can you imagine what that does to an eighth-grade mind? I thought I had died and gone to heaven. But as a teenager, I was oblivious to a lot of things until my senior year of high school in New Orleans. I think that’s when my “mission” really began. I just didn’t know it yet.
NGT: How did you find your personal travel mission?
GG: Fast-forward about 40 years. I’m a college graduate, married, with a career in mainstream journalism. But the passion for travel still burns. In Natchez, Mississippi, I meet a lovely young black woman who proudly informs me that she never intends to set foot outside the Natchez city limits as long as she lives … and she’s not kidding. I suddenly realize how many black Americans I had met over the years who felt more or less as she did, people for whom the very notion of travel was unthinkable.
NGT: Why was that the case?
GG: It wasn’t just about a lack of money. In the mind-set with which they had been raised, the unfamiliar was unsafe, threatening. To be caught outside your cultural comfort zone was to be vulnerable, dangerously exposed. Seeing the world was something for “other people,” not them.
NGT: What did you do?
GG: That was the moment when I knew I had to write about travel. Not just about destinations. I wanted to write about travel itself, the mechanics of it, the intellectual and spiritual sides of it. I wanted to take the mystery, and thus the fear, out of it all. So I began blogging about my mission.
NGT: How has your blog evolved?
GG: I started my blog with a black American audience in mind. So I was stunned the first time Google Analytics informed me that I had readers in nearly 120 countries and on every continent except Antarctica. And I’ve heard from readers in countries such as Chile, Venezuela, Angola, and Zambia that have not shown up in my Google Analytics research. It turns out that a lot of the information I was providing, and a lot of the fears I was addressing, had a more universal audience than I ever expected.
NGT: Who are your readers?
GG: Some of my readers have specific travel interests or questions about different aspects of travel. Often, I hear from black Americans who wonder what kind of treatment they can expect were they to visit some particular part of the world. But many just enjoy being engaged and regaled by a travel story that takes their minds and souls to places their bodies haven’t been … yet.
NGT: What have your travels taught you?
GG: The first thing travel taught me was that wherever you go in this world, there are things to learn and people to teach you, if you let them. And that no matter how culturally diverse and different we are, human dignity, kindness, and friendship can be found anywhere. Travel has taught me to appreciate the new, the different, the unfamiliar. It has taught me that the world, and the people in it, are not nearly as scary as they appear on the evening news.
NGT: What are your next steps?
GG: I've come to believe that travel is vital to our basic education, and I blog about this. I need to develop ways to help people travel, beyond my writing. I want to organize trips for people. I want to design programs that enable groups who otherwise might not be able to travel to see some of the world. I want to find ways to make it easier for travelers to connect with people in other corners of the global village. Ultimately, I want everyone to look at a map of the world, let their eyes settle on any random corner of it, and think, “I have friends there.”
NGT: Where do you see yourself headed?
GG: Physically, I’m in San Diego, my hometown. Where would I like to be? That would take a much longer answer. For me, life is a pause between trips.
2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest
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