America is so invested in its exceptionalism that it sometimes seems to take any glance abroad as heresy. When even delving deep into America’s reality has become taboo for attention-grabbing politicians eager to whitewash the present and past, looking beyond our shores for both lessons and warnings is certainly a no-no. Me, I like to explore how other countries tell their stories and learn just what they think of ours.
That’s not to say I lean into criticism of my own country overseas. In fact, I seem to grow more defensive about America the farther I roam, sort of like when someone else talks trash about the family members you’re constantly feuding with and you reflexively jump in to sing their praises. I reserve the right to get cranky about America’s shortcomings — as a citizen who wants it to do better. But if anyone without skin in the game chimes in, I immediately start waving the Stars and Stripes.
It’s funny, though, how a recent trip to Portugal illuminated commonalities rather than differences in human nature when it comes to how countries build the stories they tell about themselves.
Looking for a relaxing vacation, I left a country embroiled in how history should be taught and memorialized, and traveled to one where similar debates are taking place.
Portugal is confronting how it represents the country’s involvement in the international slave trade, which spanned the 16th through 19th centuries, as well as 1960s and 1970s battles to retain control of colonies in Africa. How does any country decide which parts to highlight and which details it would rather gloss over or leave out altogether?
I visited castles and forts where conquerors and kings resided, opulent palaces, beautifully preserved. In Sintra, the brooding Castle of the Moors is a stalwart reminder of their rule over the region centuries ago. I stood next to the giant Monument to the Discoveries in Belem, a tribute to the country’s so-called Age of Discoveries, with Henry the Navigator at the prow and other names we learned in our own history books here — Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan.
It is an amazing and impressive structure, the backdrop for countless tourist photos, including mine.
But, of course, those discoveries that gathered wealth, so much from the trade in human beings, came at a cost. Are the enslaved and the free Black people who helped build the country just a footnote in the official story?
Beatriz Dias, founder of Djass, the Association of Afro-descendants, and someone who has been both activist and political leader, said in a 2020 interview: “In Portugal, school textbooks continue to disseminate a Eurocentric vision of knowledge, which is making diversity and the richness of African cultures invisible or paints them as stereotyped or subaltern.” Her words would fit right in the current American disagreements on how teachers navigate discussion of race in the classroom.
It’s an issue that has been tagged as fodder for 2024 political campaigns across our country, since it offers comfort for those who would rather pretend the past is just that — or was never that bad to begin with. But ticking through the list of familiar names on statues in a country an ocean away, I realized how consideration of the conquered as well as the conquerors was never the tale most countries, not just my own, have been eager to tell.
When, in that interview, Dias expressed the view that “the denial of racism and racial discrimination in Portugal is one of the main factors that makes it difficult to have an in-depth discussion about the causes of the structural and systemic racism,” well, it’s pretty certain she would never be invited to speak at any Florida universities.
To learn that she and others working toward the same goal of truth have been targeted with threats was a sad reminder that pushback by those invested in myth doesn’t stop at any border. Yet, it hasn’t stopped those leading tours that highlight facts you might miss reading glossy brochures.
But, it’s complicated, as were my conversations with the gentleman from Côte d’Ivoire who made so much run efficiently at the Art Deco haven to which I retreated each evening. The definition of the word “worldly,” this elegant and thoughtful soul had seen and heard it all in his work on cruise ships and hotels, and we talked about it over glasses of port, which should accompany any tough discussion.
He smoothly switched languages to accommodate guests from around the world, expatriates looking to escape to a country they perceived as a paradise. And though no place is, he had settled and was happy in Portugal, and was proud of the daughter raised there. He’s not going anywhere and, of course, neither am I.
On one of my last nights in Portugal, I listened to an evening program of Fado, the sometimes mournful, sometimes mysterious music of the country. And though I hardly understood a word, it touched my heart. One person I met there said Fado was “like singing and crying at same time.”
It was a perfect description and coda to a trip to a country whose history revealed beautiful and painful parallels to our own.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.