Story at a glance
- Rates of global tourism continue to climb, reaching all-time highs.
- Travelers are looking for authentic experiences that teach them about the culture of their destination.
- Nneka M. Okona is one of the few journalists taking tough subjects head on that we tend to shy away from when it comes to travel writing, such as the troubled pasts of Southern travel destinations.
Nneka M. Okona is a Nigerian American freelance writer from and based in Atlanta. Her work focuses on food and travel and how race, culture and history intersect with those two themes. During her journalistic career, Okona hasn’t shied away from investigating the darker, not-so-pretty parts of travel and tourism that many tend to turn a blind eye to. She’s written about destinations like Montgomery, Ala., a Southern city whose history is fraught with racism and the enslavement of African Americans, and was once the capital of the domestic slave trade in the state by the year 1860. In her piece for Conde Nast Traveler, Okona poses the important question of how travelers are to deal with the city’s troubled history as they enjoy what it now has to offer visitors.
As rates of tourism hit all-time highs and travelers are seeking increasingly authentic experiences, journalists like Okona are showing readers why it’s important to look to the past before booking trips in the future. With that in mind, we got the chance to pick her brain on the world of travel journalism, who and what is currently inspiring her, and her hopes for 2020.
What was your inspiration for entering the world of journalism, and what are your ultimate goals?
Being a journalist was never the plan for me. I started off college a biology major on the pre-med track and quickly learned it was not the right life path for me. I found myself in a story meeting for my student newspaper around the beginning of my sophomore year and started showing up for meetings weekly and being assigned stories. I wasn’t great at reporting initially, as I knew absolutely nothing and had a lot to learn. But I showed up, week after week, determined to master it. And that I did. At the end of my second year of college, I changed my major to journalism. That was almost 15 years ago. I’ve worked in media — starting off in newspapers and since then switching to digital — since then.
My goals for myself continually change. I’m really proud of the work I have been doing within the past year especially. It has deepened in a beautiful way. In the future, I’d love to be a professor at a J-school but I’m not quite ready for that yet. I need to do some more living, writing and growing.
Why is it so important to keep quality journalism alive in our current world?
I write a lot about travel, food, history, Black people and culture in general. My goal with the pieces I write is two-fold: to illuminate things that may not be widely known and also to reimagine what it means to write about those subjects. For example, travel pieces don’t have to solely be about a list of things to see and do. They can be — as I wrote about in a piece for The Washington Post a few years ago — about how most beaches in our country were segregated as a reminder when folks prepared to set off on their summer beach vacations. Or a piece on how all African-American families have been impacted by the Great Migration featuring a Black woman chef from Bayview for the San Francisco Chronicle that I recently penned.
It is important that journalists like me take up space and flourish in our industry because our current world needs more diverse and inclusive perspectives writing for publications. Look at the statistics for newsrooms across our country. They are mostly white, male and privileged.
Throughout history that has been the case, and throughout history media has been complicit in perpetuating racism, prejudice and bigotry for hordes of marginalized people. This is yet another reason why the journalists writing for magazines and newspapers should be reflective of the audiences reading them in communities across our country.
What accomplishment are you most proud of from 2019 so far?
Back in September, I wrote a piece for Vox about heritage travel for African Americans. One of the editors came to me convinced I could pull off the piece due to my commitment to writing about travel prioritizing the history and perspectives of Black people. The legacy of slavery impacts so much and most of us either can’t connect those dots or are unwilling to. I was and still feel honored to have written that piece. I worked on the story for months and interviewed close to 10 people. It took a lot out of me for understandable reasons but it was a fervent reminder of why I do the work I do.
What is the most important cause to you right now that you believe more people should be informed on?
The mass incarceration of Black and brown children, women and men. This year I’ve visited the Legacy Museum in Montgomery twice, and it beautifully illustrates in wide strokes how the enslavement of Africans led to the era of mass incarceration that we are living in now. It is really stunning to me that although we only make up a small percentage of the overall world population that we incarcerate the highest percentage in the world. In 2017, African Americans represented 12 percent of the U.S. adult population but 33 percent of the sentenced prison population, according to Pew Research Center.
Learning those statistics through my time in Montgomery was jarring for me, and since then I’ve been reading as much as possible about it to become more informed. As a result of all my research and reading, I’ve arrived to the conclusion that no human should be put in a cage and condemned to live any period of time within one. We are all more than the worst thing we have ever done.
Speaking of causes that are important to you, who do you think is the biggest Agent of Change in your field and why?
There are many. I think it’s important to amplify marginalized voices within journalism, especially those who are Black and other women of color. Some names of folks who I believe consistently create impact work and/or have powerful voices — Evette Dionne, Cynthia Greenlee, Britni Danielle, Marissa Evans, Nichole Perkins, Rosalind Bentley and so many more.
What movie, book or song inspired you this year, and why?
Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy” was such a moving read. Stevenson founded the criminal justice nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative that provides legal counsel to Black and brown women, men and children. It’s part memoir of the humble beginnings of his legal career and peppered with statistics for providing crucial context for mass incarceration. Stevenson is such a vivid storyteller that although at times it’s a heavy read, I ended reading his book with so much appreciation and respect for the hard work that he, and his organization, does each and every day.
What do you hope to do in 2020?
I’m working on getting a book deal and having my first book published. It’s an essay collection. It’s still new and fresh, so I’m keeping the details of it to a mum for now. I’m hopeful that’ll happen (a book deal) in the first half of 2020.
If you could wave your magic wand, what one thing would you change for 2020?
Abolishing all prisons and ICE.
Follow Nneka on Twitter.