A London Voyage! by Robin M. Wilson

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

"I met a lot of people in Europe, I even encountered myself"---James Baldwin

The world is truly my oyster! To date, I have visited 18 states across the United States and six countries including France, Monaco, Spain, Netherlands, England, and Canada. With every travel experience, I aim to learn about the people and the history of each place. Also, I find that I become more self-aware through my travels abroad.

In February 2020, I traveled to London for one week to explore the local culture and to learn more about Black British history. Before arriving in London, I had started reading Brit{ish} On Race, Identity, and Belonging by Afua Hirsch. So, I was curious, what is it like to be Black in Britain?

Yes, of course, I wanted to see the places that you usually think of when you think about London like Buckingham Palace and The London Bridge; and I definitely saw those historical sites and more. However, I wanted to discover the diversity of the city and exhibits that were not promoted in the tour guides. To some degree, this made me feel less like a tourist. In order to find some of the best kept secrets in town, I did online research in advance and created an itinerary.

The Museum of London Docklands’ Sugar and Slavery exhibit and The National Gallery were on my agenda. Of course, my journey would not have been complete without a Caribbean cooking class at a locals’ house or a Mexican vegan dining experience at Wahaca Covent Garden in the West of London.

For me, my journey through the Sugar and Slavery exhibit was deeply personal. As a descendent of enslaved West Africans, I wanted to better understand Britain's role in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. So, I spent three hours reading historical records, listening to oral recordings, and observing historical artifacts. In reading, I learned that people of African descent arrived in Britain before the 1500’s. I knew that people of African descent were a part of Britain's early history. Still, my visit to The Museum of London Docklands gave me insights into how early they arrived.

My time at The National Gallery was equally enjoyable. I viewed a range of different art pieces from various time periods. As a nature enthusiast, I appreciated the floral paintings and nature scenes. There were also paintings by period artists that featured Black images. Some of the men were engaged in battle scenes while others were depicted in subservient roles.

In most cases, art reflects the reality of a time period and the Black images that were featured in the European artworks that were held at The National Gallery reflected the times and told a story. But in order to better understand the reality of some Black Brits today, I knew that I had to go beyond artwork.

As a teacher-writer, I often seek to make personal connections with the places that I venture to and I do this by finding interesting ways to connect with people. While the British are better known for being conservative when socializing with strangers, I was able to connect with some Brits who were able to give me a unique perspective on life in London.

With a large international community, my Airbnb host was originally from Nigeria but he had lived in the East of London for several years. He introduced me to his friend who was also born in Nigeria. They were hospitable and offered advice for safe travels during my stay. We also had in-depth conversations about cultural differences and similarities. There is actually a large Nigerian community in London.

During my stay, I attended a matinee production of the Nigerian adaptation of Three Sisters (originally a Russian stage production written by author and playwright Anton Chekhov) at The National Theatre, which followed the lives of three sisters during the 1960’s Biafran War in Nigeria. The production shed light on issues of social and political influences in Nigeria. It chronicled a difficult time in the country's history through the lives of three sisters.

Even as an American, there was a familiarity for me in the play narrative. I could especially relate to the sister who was a teacher and her desire to have a school curriculum that accurately conveyed her peoples’ history. Furthermore, I could relate to conversations about identity and belonging that were topics of discussion throughout the play.

When the play had concluded, I visited the eatery area in the theatre to get a bite to eat. Then, in came two members of the cast. They were there to dine with friends. I waited until it seemed like they were done eating to go over and make my request for a group photo. One of the actors asked me, “where are you from?” I replied, “I’m from the United States.” Then, he looked at me and asked, “yes, but where is your family from?” So, I replied, “they are also from the United States.”

He paused, pointed at me, and he said, “you look Igbo.” I told him that he was the second person to tell me that. I told him that it was quite possible. I explained that an ancestry DNA test revealed that I share nearly 30 percent of my African ancestry DNA with people in Nigeria. Then, he said, “I would be willing to bet that your people descended from the Igbo tribe.” After we finished talking, we took a picture together. They both were incredibly kind.

Ironically, on my last day in London, my Caribbean cooking class host, a native of London, whose parents were born in Jamaica, shared that her husband's parents were born in Nigeria. So, I mentioned the play to her. She had heard of the production and shared that she wanted to see it. We discussed the play over fried plantains, curry vegetables, red beans and rice, and coleslaw. Yes, it was as delicious as it sounds!

In the end, I walked away with delicious food, recipes, history, and diverse perspectives on life and culture in London. There are many hidden gems in the different zones that make up London. I was thankful that I had a chance to see a broad range of places within the city and hear the stories of some of the people that call London home.

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