Review of The Pursuit of Happiness: Black Women, Diasporic Dreams, and the Politics of Emotional Transnationalism. Bianca C. Williams. Duke University Press, 2018.

Review of The Pursuit of Happiness: Black Women, Diasporic Dreams, and the Politics of Emotional Transnationalism. Bianca C. Williams. Duke University Press, 2018.

By Erica Lorraine Williams

I recently spent two weeks in Lisbon, Portugal. It was the end of an incredibly busy semester, and I had recently finished reading Bianca Williams’ breathtaking ethnography, The Pursuit of Happiness: Black Women, Diasporic Dreams, and the Politics of Emotional Transnationalism. I was reminded of how international travel offers an opportunity to fully immerse oneself in another environment. Despite being in Lisbon for work, I felt free and unencumbered. I was able to enjoy a temporary respite from the headlines of school shootings and police violence against unarmed black people that seem to occur every other day in the U.S. In this way, I was not unlike the self-proclaimed “Jamaicaholics” of Girlfriend Tours (GFT) Williams describes who travel to Jamaica to escape from the racism and sexism that they experience in the U.S.

This fascinating ethnography brings together studies of race and affect with literature on transnationalism, black feminism, and diaspora to explore the affective dimensions of African American women’s transnational pursuits of happiness. With engaging ethnographic storytelling, Williams illustrates how Girlfriends’ dreams of diasporic kinship and imagined communities are disrupted by cross-class tensions, respectability politics, and American privilege. This book makes an important and timely intervention by centering the often-overlooked experiences of happiness, pleasure, and leisure in the lives of middle-aged African American women.

The chapters in the book are interspersed with captivating interludes that provide personal insights about her interactions in Jamaica, and teachable moments about the nature of ethnographic research.

Written in an accessible and engaging way, this book can appeal to a broad and general audience of tourists, travelers, and globe-trotters, but particularly for black women and women of color from all walk of life who have particular racialized and gendered experiences while traveling. Moreover, this book is also well-suited for students and scholars of anthropology, African Diaspora Studies, and Women and Gender Studies.  There is a great deal that we can learn from this book about the practices and politics of ethnographic research. For 22 months between 2003 and 2007, she used methods of participant observation in group activities and interviews in Jamaica and the U.S. Rather than embed herself in one location, Williams embarked on a multi-sited project in which she immersed herself in the Girlfriend Tours community, following its members on their vacations in Negril and Ocho Rios to their hometowns in Atlanta, Washington, DC, Memphis, Ft. Lauderdale. She combined this with four years of virtual fieldwork on the site, paying close attention to the trip reports section of the tourist and travel discussion forums.

In the first two chapters, Williams makes two significant theoretical interventions in her discussion of “emotional transnationalism” and traveling with “diasporic heart.” Chapter 1 frames Girlfriends’ pursuits of happiness as acts of resistance and theorizes “emotional transnationalism” (Wolf 1997) as that which connects girlfriends’ emotional lives with their transnational mobility. Notably, in true #citeblackwomen fashion, Williams gives credit to Audre Lorde for her groundbreaking theorizations of shame and anger that predated the “affective turn” in scholarly literature. Chapter 2 describes how African American women tourists to Jamaica traveled with “diasporic heart” by engaging in strategic forms of “tourist consumption and spending practices” to maximize the impact their US dollars would have on Jamaican lives (69). Some of these strategies included opting to stay in locally owned hotels and patronizing locally-owned businesses. While Jamaicans often assumed they were wealthy, Girlfriends were actually lower middle-class women who made great sacrifices to be able to afford their trips.

In Chapter 2 Williams also builds upon Mary Louise Pratt’s concept of “contact zones” to describe “diasporic contact zones,” places like airports, hotels, restaurants, and the beach that “test the elasticity of shared notions of blackness” and interrogate “power differentials within African diasporic relationships” (65). There were lots of crossed signals between Jamaicans and African American women. While African American women traveled in search of diasporic kinship and belonging, they lamented their inability to connect with Jamaican women. They did not realize that Jamaican women of a similar age and class status rarely entered tourist sectors. Thus, Williams concludes that “sisterhood in tourist spaces and service relationships complicated diasporic belonging and the Girlfriends’ pursuit of happiness” (151).

Chapter 3 describes how African American women saw Jamaica as a black paradise that was close to the United States – familiar yet foreign. This chapter encourages scholars to apply theories of transnationalism to tourism, which is an under-studied subject in anthropology. Williams understands tourism as a “rich site for understanding how consumption practices and processes of identity formation (such as racialization) are being reshaped” (105).

Questions of sexual agency and autonomy are also central to this project, and they come to the fore in Chapter 4, which explores the emotional entanglements of romance tourism. Reflecting on the impact of the film, How Stella got her Groove Back, Williams describes how the “specter of sex and romance tourism haunts this text and their happiness pursuits” (16). While some GFT members had established long term, long-distance partnerships with Jamaican men, others went to Jamaica with the intention of having short-term liaisons. Interestingly, Williams notes that regardless of their intentions, almost all of the Girlfriends “hoped and desired to be the subject of a Jamaican man’s appreciative gaze and seductive lyrics, even if they did not take them up on the proposition” (129). Williams is to be commended for the nuanced way that she treats this topic – one that is often dealt with in a sensationalistic way. The Pursuit of Happiness makes a significant contribution to scholarship on the sexual and intimate economies of tourism.

Chapter 5 focuses on the “online diasporic contact zones” of the website, revealing how media allows people to create and maintain emotional connections that give them a sense of diasporic belonging and emotional satisfaction. Williams makes a significant contribution to the study of race and the Internet, as well as to theorizing virtual media and its role in the construction of racialized subjectivities.  She discusses how “boardites” constructed virtual selves through their engagement with the website, and often used the Internet to facilitate face to face connections in meetings IRL (“in real life”). Ultimately, Williams concluded that African American women experienced “a new sense of themselves during these virtual and travel interactions” (23).

In the Epilogue, Williams reflects on the lessons of fieldwork, which included the challenges of being seen as an insider-outsider, the importance of relationship-building, the emotional labor of ethnography, the complicated nature of extricating oneself from the field, particularly when it involves digital technologies, and what happens when participants return the ethnographic gaze. Interestingly, some Girlfriends were uncomfortable discussing their relationships with Williams because they saw her as a “daughter-figure” or “play niece” who was too young and innocent to be privy to this information.  Williams learned valuable lessons from the Girlfriends about black women’s agency and the importance of creating space for intergenerational conversations among black women. Ultimately, Williams’ finds that relationships are the key to black women’s collective survival (190), and that pursuing happiness is a political project for Black women –a way to privilege self-care and wellness in a country that “consistently fights to misrecognize or deny the fullness of their humanity” (32). Simply reading this book felt like an act of self-care for me – a breath of fresh air. I look forward to teaching it to Spelman College students in my first-year colloquium course, Going Global: From Travelogues to Black Travel Blogs.

Erica Lorraine Williams is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. She earned her Ph.D and M.A. in Cultural Anthropology from Stanford University, and her B.A. in Anthropology and Africana Studies from New York University. Her research has focused on the cultural and sexual politics of the transnational tourism industry, and Afro-Brazilian feminist activism in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. Her first book, Sex Tourism in Bahia: Ambiguous Entanglements (2013), won the National Women’s Studies Association/University of Illinois Press First Book Prize. She is also the co-editor of African American Pioneers in Anthropology: The Next Generation, 1950-1970, which will be published by the University of Illinois Press in November 2018.

2 Replies to “Review of The Pursuit of Happiness: Black Women, Diasporic Dreams, and the Politics of Emotional Transnationalism. Bianca C. Williams. Duke University Press, 2018.”

  1. Fascinating review. Literally. I feel myself drawn to reading this book. Would love to see someone compare it with Karen Kelsky, Women on the Verge: Japanese Women, Western Dreams (Asia-Pacific: Culture, Politics, and Society) Paperback – November 21, 2001.