Travel to Learn, Grow and Cultivate Purpose: Honoring the experiences of Black lives

My first travel post isn’t necessarily about myself. I have something more important to say during this time. Thank you for learning with me!

Have you ever had experiences that are so momentous and almost impossible to articulate?  That’s what it means to travel.  Though I enjoy common touristy experiences, there’s something special about learning through travel. When I travel to learn, I find myself in moments of change, growth and personal connection. 

Last year, April 2019, I enjoyed my first solo trip to Chicago, Illinois and then visited a friend in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Of all the learning experiences, there’s two important experiences that I’ve found myself re-visiting in the past few weeks.  

I really hadn’t planned particular activities for my week-long endeavor.  Instead, I enjoyed exploring the city and letting the city speak to me.  Though I’m not much for history, something about these two experiences allowed me to feel a deep sense of purpose.  It was as if I’m meant to have those experiences during that time.

The Burge Victims Speak exhibit at the Chicago Public Library in Chicago, IL

#1: “Those guys took advantage of the situation at hand and they abused their position of authority.” Marvin Reeves, survivor 

Once I learned about its presence, I was eager to visit the Chicago Public Library.  The building is enormous and there are various activities or events being held at any given moment.  As I was browsing the schedule, one exhibit caught my eye, Burge Victims Speak.  Prior to this day, I had no prior knowledge of these cases or this story. I felt compelled to visit the exhibit and learn more.  I felt like this is not a story that most people know.  I downloaded the app and walked through the room listening as the man in each portrait explained his story.  Portrait after portrait, I listened intently to the disturbing pattern.  Black man, underprivileged, tortured, coerced, traumatized. Repeat. The last victim’s “portrait” was of a tree, his name was Jesse Winston and the Chicago PD claimed he hung himself after interrogation although skepticism is valid if you know the players involved.

At the time, I was brought to tears listening to these stories but I also felt a need to spend time in this place.  Within the two hours I spent at the library, I saw one other person in that exhibit.  They were the type to walk swiftly through unable to sit in the discomfort and sadness these stories bring.  I understand, but the discomfort represents a need for real conversations.  

Why didn’t I know this story!? I learned history, but I never learned this. I never learned the horrors that were inflicted upon these men.  No one wants to talk about it because of how horrific it is.  But THIS is America. THIS is our history. And THIS is how we transform into a more humane society. It is our collective responsibility to become educated in the struggles of others and do more to assure injustice is not tolerated. 

If those men were strong enough to endure the horrors, it is an ally’s duty to learn their stories.  Short on time? Brace yourself for the shorter, more blunt version in list form.  You can also download the app, and view the portraits/listen to the stories right now by searching Burge Victims Speak.

Photo taken at the And Still We Rise exhibit at the Charles H. Wright Museum of Chicago

#2: My second significant experience was with my good friend in Michigan.  We had an extensive experience viewing the And Still We Rise exhibit at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.  

Walking through the exhibit was quite realistic. Walking from room to room brought you through generations of the Black experience in a historically and culturally accurate way. Again, I found myself asking “Why didn’t I know this before?” The most resonating part was the slave ship. The slave’s quarters were located on the bottom part of the boat. When I said realistic, I meant REAL. As I walked down, I felt the uneasiness and isolation of such a dark, cramped space.  My friend and I felt a sense of comic relief when a man nudged us along and said, “Come on, sister. This is important”  That moment reminded us that, unlike millions of helpless African slaves, this was not actually real for us.  

However, I continued to feel an overwhelming sense of importance seeing the crying, praying and closeness of “slaves” in these quarters.  This simulation should be experienced  by EVERY SINGLE AMERICAN.  It’s uncomfortable but it’s the truth.  Why can’t we handle that? 

After exiting, my friend and I spent time discussing and reflecting with other visitors to the museum and exhibit.  Although jarring, it was refreshing to learn these important pieces of American history; the type of history that doesn’t sugarcoat and whitewash our nation’s past.  I feel a duty in sharing that you should visit this museum on your next trip to Detroit.

I attended two protests recently to show solidarity and was unsure if my sign was appropriate. However, the time has passed for silent indignation. And though the story of the Burge victims might be dated, I’m seeing so many arguments against the existence of systemic racism. So perhaps we need to revisit our truth. Did you know this story? If you know about it, I’m sure you’d find it hard to ignore.

If you didn’t know, it’s important to remember ignorance is not bliss for those in black communities that continue to be marginalized. 

Let’s have compassion for perspective. Let’s use privilege to learn, experience, grow and share.

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