You may be familiar with pioneering Black women like Ida B. Wells, Josephine Baker, Mary McLeod Bethune, Harriet Tubman, but how about Juanita Harrison? I first learned about Juanita Harrison through a book (Babylon Girls by Jayna Brown) I was reading for a class on Stuart Hall and Black British Cultural Studies. I haven’t been able to get her out of my mind since.
Juanita Harrison is an awe inspiring Black American woman who, in the late 1920s, traveled to Europe, Africa, Asia, and so many other places around the world — all by herself. Imagine that, a Black woman from the Deep South (Mississippi) born into poverty, Jim Crow suffocation, and access to very limited educational and employment opportunities, who goes on to liberate herself in a profound way through unbridled travel to places that most Americans, let alone Blacks, could only imagine and dream about at the time, and possibly even today.
She visited, lived, and worked in 22 different countries from 1927 to about 1935. By moving around so frequently and widely, Harrison “undercuts a widely held perception of African American women as static, bound by race into immobility” (Cathryn Halverson, Maverick Autobiographies). After all those adventures, she decides to “settle,” if you could call it that because it was relatively short-lived, in Hawaii from 1935 to 1939. Her wanderlust struck again so she set out to travel for at least another ten years, this time throughout South America. Halverson notes that when Harrison applied for a new U.S. passport in 1950, she answered that she was “uncertain” as to when she “intend[ed] to return to the United States to reside permanently.”
One of things that draws me to Juanita Harrison is the ease with which she embraces the untethered, unrooted nature of her life – when she sailed off the shores of Hoboken, New Jersey for London and beyond on June 25, 1927, she wrote:
“And the money was flying like rice at a wedding then the Kissing and the goodbyes and the raining of tears. and I was happy that I had no one to cry for me.”
Halverson highlights how, “Recreating one after another after another, Harrison suggests that homes are temporary, fluid, and easily replaced.”
And most of all, I admire the joy she felt in being alone, completely and utterly alone with none other than herself to rely on. In navigating unfamiliar cities, countries, cultures all on her own, responsible for what happens to her, and with full ownership and authority over her next steps. That, to me, is the ultimate manifestation of freedom – moving about the world in full, uncompromised possession of one’s self and destiny, without people and institutions staking their claim. This is especially significant for a Black woman who was and is automatically and permanently marked as other, less, inferior, incapable by the color of her skin in a racist, patriarchal society. And that’s not to say that the places Harrison traveled to were not racist and/or patriarchal; they were not utopias of any sort.
But it’s in the way that Harrison weaved in and through the in-between spaces of diverse places to create nooks of belonging for herself. She crafted herself into “an African American woman unfixed by race, class, or place.” She refused and resisted the boundaries set in place for someone like her as she “claims the world and calls it beautiful.” She managed to connect with a sense of home in the different places she moved through. She partook in the local traditions, explored every nook and cranny of the cities and towns, relished the food and drink, socialized with the people, and managed to blend in while simultaneously standing out. She lived as someone who was perpetually betwixt and between.
Juanita Harrison, to me, cultivated a lifestyle and existence that demonstrates the fluid, complex, and ever changing nature of identity, belonging, and home. This approach worked for her as she lived a full and fulfilled life, so much so that she wrote:
“with so much kindness and beauty yet if I could die tomorrow and that would be the end of my soul I would be glad to go because I really have nothing else I wish to do in this world nor the next.”
How many of us can truly say that? I would love to come as close to that as possible in the span of my existence.