Bay Area author Elaine Lee changed travel writing for good

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Bay Area author Elaine Lee traveled to 69 countries and curated a forum of ideas in her anthologies.

Courtesy of Elaine Lee

There has been a recent explosion of travel stories from hosts who push borders — ranging from “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” to “Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi” or Stephen Satterfield’s recent series “High on the Hog” — but no one else in the Bay Area shaped the world of travel writing quite like Elaine Lee. 

The long-time Berkeley resident expanded the horizons for Black women travel in 1997 with her seminal collection “Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Book of Travel and Adventure.” 

The anthology featured 52 stories from Black women visiting the corners of the planet — from Colombia to China to Australia — along with their reflections on the world and their place in it. 

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Contributors included Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks and Alice Walker, and the book was peppered with revelations of identity and space as a mirror to new travelers’ experiences. Angelou, for instance, excerpted her book “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes,” wherein the author attempts to distinguish her Black American identity while traveling. 

FILE: Maya Angelou speaks to a sold-out crowd at the Paramount Theater on April 25, 2009, in Austin, Texas.

FILE: Maya Angelou speaks to a sold-out crowd at the Paramount Theater on April 25, 2009, in Austin, Texas.

Gary Miller/FilmMagic

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Countless stories later, a second travel anthology, titled “Go Girl: Journeys Reimagined,” is slated for release in January 2024, Lee said. It’s an updated edition of the beloved travel anthology with 33 new travel tales, poems and photos.

The self-proclaimed “Wander Woman,” Lee has traveled to 69 countries while completing four solo trips around the globe. When she doesn’t have a suitcase in tow, she works in real estate law. 

Lee also created U Go Gurl, an online resource specifically for African American women travelers that was an early template for travel blogging. (One tip for solo travel is to try the “fake wedding band approach” to deflect unwanted attention.)

More than 25 years since the publication of the book that was her breakthrough, Lee decided to revisit the anthology for a modern update. 

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“Traveling has also become more recreational,” she said. “Most Black travel in my world was primarily utilitarian. You’re going to a funeral or you’re going to a wedding or to help somebody move or something like that. Black people are traveling in a lot different ways than they were 20 years ago.”

A follow-up travel anthology titled “Go Girl: Journeys Reimagined” is coming January 2024, Elaine Lee said.

A follow-up travel anthology titled “Go Girl: Journeys Reimagined” is coming January 2024, Elaine Lee said.

Courtesy of Elaine Lee

Lee wanted to help others who were unfamiliar with traveling for leisure because she had to learn it herself on her own. Although she traveled in her 20s for work or family obligations, it wasn’t until she was 38 working as a civil rights attorney that a friend suggested she take time off to rest. 

The entire travel industry has transitioned in ways that Lee couldn’t have anticipated when “Go Girl” was originally published, shifts such as high-speed trains, traveler’s checks and the increased use of credit cards, to name a few. Or for how people prepare and educate themselves before traveling.

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“The internet was not prominent when I did my first book, and now so many people are blogging” she said. “That’s like a whole new way of communicating travel information.”

However, in the face of so many adaptations, Lee noted how certain qualities about travel writing have remained the same. 

“One thing that is consistent is that there are so few places for the Black woman’s voice to be heard,” she said. “[The anthology] was published in 1997 and there’s not been another Black woman’s travel anthology published since then. And there’s a lot of new voices that need to be heard.” 

FILE: Daria McKnight kayaks outside Richmond in 2021 with Outdoor Afro, an organization created by Oakland’s Rue Mapp that aims to get more Black people to experience the outdoors.

FILE: Daria McKnight kayaks outside Richmond in 2021 with Outdoor Afro, an organization created by Oakland’s Rue Mapp that aims to get more Black people to experience the outdoors.

San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst N/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images

Some of those voices included in the revised and expanded anthology include the host of National Geographic show “Black Travel Across America” Martinique Lewis as well as Outdoor Afro creator Rue Mapp, both of whom are from Oakland. Mapp’s outdoor travel book “Nature Swagger” even includes a story from Lee as well. 

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Lee said that she created the anthology after noticing how there were no role models for her. There were not many Black women who traveled around the world and it seemed unsafe at the time. That left her ill at ease, so she picked up her pen and asked others to do the same. 

“I’m … grateful to be able to provide a forum for ideas that don’t have mainstream appeal,” Lee said.



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