Culture, Narratives, Travel

Notes of an African American Intern In Europe: Part 1

Imani Ballard is writer and sophomore undergraduate student at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.  On a month long internship at, in a series of essays she will reflect on her first ever visit to Europe, and her experiences as a young African American woman being exposed to the Afro-European diaspora.  

By Imani Ballard

As an African American growing up in both the deep South and far Northeast of the United States, I have habitually been faced with a complex message that the communities of which I am a part seem to exude: perseverance in the face of struggle and vehement opposition. I could see this endurance manifested even in my daily experiences. It was shown in the way my mama juggled raising four kids as a single mother. It reverberated off the voices and claps of the Sunday Gospel Choir in my one room church. It landed in my lap as I sat in the cafeteria, as my Atlanta Public School fed us breakfast of warm butter biscuits and fried chicken. It was a voiceless call that told me to always do what I had to do to ensure we thrived.

Growing up I was always taught the slave narrative of my people. I found it odd that our history was told in a way that began with victimization and oppression. It seemed to be a covert reminder, declared both by my curriculum and my educators, that the Afro American identity was established to be held as a dissimilar narrative in relation to the seemingly superior “White” demographic.

Although I do not believe our history began with enslavement, I am incredibly proud of what Afro Americans have cultivated in a world that strives to reinforce an arbitrarily categorized racial hierarchical system. Our music, language, dress, and even our very presence, is an act of direct retaliation against the widespread extolment of Whiteness that permeates the foundation of United States’ society.

As I begin this journey as intern with Afropean, I am not only seeking to better understand my own identity as a Black American, but also the ways in which communities throughout the African Diaspora engage with their historical experiences of colonialism and Whiteness. This past week, I was struck at the similarities between my home and the Afropean communities.

Near Bruxelles Du Midi Station, Brussels



At the recent Bozar conference in Brussels, there were extensive implicit references to the perseverance of the Congolese people in Belgium. I was told of the devastating rule of King Leopold II and the direct correlation of Belgium’s structural wealth to the exploitation and brutal genocide of the Congolese people. Amazingly, the Congolese people rose to build a flourishing community in the heart of Brussels called Matonge. During our visit to the neighborhood, I felt an overwhelming sense of familiarity. As we walked through one of the bustling marketplaces, storeowners would call out to us from a nearby barbershop or hair salon. Friends sat outside of storefronts, laughing and enjoying each other’s conversation and company. Young children, grinning excitedly, ran through the crowds, playing familiar games of tag. It was almost as if I were transported back to the streets of Atlanta. As we left, I could almost hear my  great-grandma in my ears telling me to mind my manners. It felt wrong that I didn’t invite them to Sunday dinner.

Mural by Congolese artist Cheri Samba, in Matonge, Brussels

Reflecting back on the few short days I spent in Brussels, I realized that we all have ways to remind the world that we are valid. White Supremacist society seeks to detach communities and focus on the dissimilarities between peoples. Matonge was another declaration of the importance of self-affirmation. Ultimately, through our cultures and continued presence, we are able to establish our own identity, separate from the assumptions made by colonialism and Whiteness. We create a shared global community, a place where we can seek the familiar.  At its core, these places exude that perseverance I felt growing up, yet manifests itself in a multitude of ways.

Imani Ballard

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