The Pursuit of Happiness: A New Book on Black Women’s Travels Abroad

This post is part of our blog series that announces the publication of selected new books in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. The Pursuit of Happiness: Black Women, Diasporic Dreams, and the Politics of Emotional Transnationalism was recently published by Duke University Press. 

***

The author of The Pursuit of Happiness is Bianca C. Williams. Williams is a Black feminist anthropologist who is currently an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the City University of New York. Williams’s research interests are most related to race, gender, and activism, including Black feminist leadership and pedagogy. She completed her B.A. (Honors & Distinction), M.A., and PhD in Cultural Anthropology from Duke University. Prior to her current appointment, Williams was an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado-Boulder where she received the 2016 American Anthropological Association and Oxford University Press Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching of Anthropology. Her new book, The Pursuit of Happiness: Black Women, Diasporic Dreams, and the Politics of Emotional Transnationalism (Duke University Press, 2018), traces the experiences of African American women as they travel to Jamaica on “girlfriend tours,” constructing notions of racial, sexual, and emotional belonging by forming relationships with Jamaican men and other “girlfriends.” Follow her on Twitter @biancaphd.


In The Pursuit of Happiness Bianca C. Williams traces the experiences of African American women as they travel to Jamaica, where they address the perils and disappointments of American racism by looking for intimacy, happiness, and a connection to their racial identities. Through their encounters with Jamaican online communities and their participation in trips organized by Girlfriend Tours International, the women construct notions of racial, sexual, and emotional belonging by forming relationships with Jamaican men and other “girlfriends.” These relationships allow the women to exercise agency and find happiness in ways that resist the damaging intersections of racism and patriarchy in the United States.
However, while the women require a spiritual and virtual connection to Jamaica in order to live happily in the United States, their notion of happiness relies on travel, which requires leveraging their national privilege as American citizens. Williams’s theorization of “emotional transnationalism” and the construction of affect across diasporic distance attends to the connections between race, gender, and affect while highlighting how affective relationships mark nationalized and gendered power differentials within the African diaspora.

“This is the book that I have been anxiously waiting for. The Pursuit of Happiness is about how electronic media enables a group of middle-class black American women to find peace, love, and friendship outside their geographical space. This novel and innovative ethnography pushes the boundaries of what anthropology can be considered in its broadest definition.” — A. Lynn Bolles, author of Sister Jamaica: A Study of Women, Work, and Households in Kingston


Keisha N. Blain: Please share with us the creation story of your book — those experiences, those factors, those revelations that caused you to research this specific area and produce this unique book. 

Bianca C. Williams: The Pursuit of Happiness is a book about Black women and happiness. During my first trip to Jamaica, my research began when I met members of Girlfriend Tours (GFT), a tourism group of mostly African American women in their late 40s through 60s. They looked like they were having the time of their lives, and I needed to know what was going on! In the U.S., Black women are so frequently stereotyped as Sapphires, Jezebels, Mammies, and Strong Black Women (as Melissa Harris-Perry, Patricia Hill Collins, and others have documented), that we are represented as leading one-dimensional lives focused on struggle and survival. While our fight is certainly part of our story, I wanted to know more about our happiness, pleasure, and leisure, and GFT seemed like the perfect group to teach me. Girlfriends traveled in groups, but also felt comfortable traveling to Jamaica solo; they threw dinners and partied; they exhibited sexiness and sensuality; and they believed that they deserved time to re-center themselves and lay their burdens down. They were having fun, while countering rigid notions people have about Black womanhood, especially that of older Black women.

The Pursuit of Happiness is about their complex, emotional journeys and participation in “emotional transnationalism.” In the end, I spent four years doing ethnographic research in a virtual community, and two years traveling to the U.S., Jamaica, and back repeatedly with GFT. The book details their happiness pursuits, their endeavor to connect with, and economically support, Jamaican people they view as diasporic kin (what I call traveling with “diasporic heart”), and for some, a desire to find love, intimacy, and sexual connection. In the club, on the beach, and on the Internet, American travelers and Jamaican residents connect with one another based on a shared narrative or aspect of Blackness, only to have the diasporic connectivity disrupted in the next moment. Questions about access to mobility, privilege, and money in the context of tourism, particularly romance tourism, complicate matters and make both groups aware of diasporic diversity. Subsequently, for GFT, traveling to Jamaica was about more than getting a groove. It was about escaping briefly American racism and sexism and connecting with Black peoples, while experiencing the multi-dimensional lives that Black women can live. Their stories suggest that pursuing happiness is a political project for Black women, especially if they unapologetically make self-care a priority.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain is a historian of the 20th century United States with broad interdisciplinary interests and specializations in African American History, the modern African Diaspora, and Women’s and Gender Studies. She is the author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018). Follow her on Twitter @KeishaBlain.