This week, Lale chats with actor Gabrielle Union about her new docuseries, Gabrielle Union: My Journey to 50, a two-part special on BET+. Listen in as Gabrielle shares how she traveled with her family—and many friends—to Zanzibar, Ghana, Namibia, and South Africa in honor of her 50th birthday, reflecting on the beauty of Namibia's spectacular desert, the emotional experience of visiting sites like the Assin Manso River and the Memorial Wall of Return in Ghana, and much more.
Lale Arikoglu: Hi, I'm Lale Arikoglu and welcome to a new episode of Women Who Travel. My guest today is none other than Gabrielle Union, an actor who's been gracing our screens since the '90s. Starring in movies like Bring It On, 10 Things I Hate About You, Love and Basketball, The Inspection and so much more. Now, she's celebrating a milestone birthday with a new docuseries, Gabrielle Union: My Journey to 50, a two-part special on BET+.
Gabrielle Union: It was like nothing I've ever experienced and beyond what I had hoped to experience for my birthday.
GU: It feels like being welcomed home after being forced away. It is a part of our resilience and our survival as a people. You know, Africans who are now across the diaspora. It's that feeling of home, of being seen truly and being understood truly, that is priceless.
LA: Gabrielle traveled with her almost four year old daughter, Kaavia, mom, Theresa, and her husband, former NBA star, Dwyane Wade, as well as a revolving group of extended family and friends.
GU: I assumed no one would be able to take off work, no one would be able to use their vacation days. It's expensive. It's an ... You know, it's an expensive trip. Even if you plan it, you know, a year in advance it's still, you know, expensive. Um, but I liked how scrappy my friends are. Like, we will find a deal, we will use our points and miles. And like, my husband's points and miles. It allowed us to extend this trip to other people who might otherwise not be able to afford it. So, um, but yeah, I just wanted as many people to experience the joys and the peace that- that I experience whenever I'm on the continent.
LA: Okay. So, I want to get all into how on earth you managed to wrangle all your family and friends to come with you on that trip, because that is no small feat. I mean, it sounded like everyone was game, right?
GU: Oh, yeah.
LA: No one really needed any persuading.
GU: No, not at all. Like, anyone who would need persuading is probably not my friend.
LA: How many of you were there?
GU: Um, the most that it was was in Tanzania. And then as we hit different countries, the number shrank, basically. Each country we would lose a couple people. Which is what I had anticipated.
LA: From what I understand, you'd already been many times before, right? You knew the continent of Africa somewhat, um, and had done some traveling around it.
GU: Yes, yes. I had been to, uh, South Africa a few times, I'd been to Ghana before, Egypt. Uh, Tanzania before. Um, and I was just trying to recreate the peace that I had felt in those countries before. And also just, I wanted to explore and I knew that the more I learned about the continent, the more I would be learning about myself. You know, I consider Africa the birthplace of civilization, which I believe is backed up by science. And, you know, facts and stuff. So, the more you learn about Africa, the more you are really learning about yourself.
And if you are lucky enough to know the specifics of where you are from, which many African-Americans and- and Black folks across the diaspora do not, due to the horrors of- of slavery, coming back, we just ... A lot of us say, "Oh, we just want to go back to Africa." But we don't know specifically where. You know, a- a lot of us don't know that Africa is a continent, not a country. And that, you know, to explore the continent, you have to embrace, you know, the different countries and the different peoples. So, it was, it was really important for me to- to visit new countries that I had never been before and then also be part tour guide and be able to host my family and friends in countries I have been to before.
LA: Did you just have a map and start dropping pins on it? Like, how- how did you, how did you figure it out?
GU: I was open, you know? So, I turned to social media [laughs]. I turned to, you know, my friends and I started asking questions and I just started paying attention to different, um, travel sites. Like, Black Girls Travel [Too], you know, looking at different, you know, TikToks, and Instagrams, and just seeing what, you know, other possibilities were. And was it even feasible with as many people as I had? So, I knew I wanted to take my mom and daughter to South Africa, my husband to South Africa. My husband had not traveled as extensively throughout Africa as I had. So, I knew I wanted to have a couple things that I'd been to before, but a couple things that we were all going to be, you know, equally astonished by. My friend, Lewis Hamilton, last year took a trip similar to mine throughout different countries in Africa in the search of self. And one of those stops was Namibia.
LA: Gabrielle is referring to the British Formula One driver, Lewis Hamilton. And he wasn't exaggerating about the impact Namibia's spectacular landscape can have on visitors.
GU: When he had reached the Red Dunes of Namibia, I had hit him. I was like, "Yo, where are you? Is this like one of the Seven Wonders of the World?" And he was like, "No, but it should be." Um, he's like, "You have to come. I promise, you will leave different." And- and I knew Lewis had been on a different quest for self and he had emerged different and- and more profound and more at peace. And I- I wanted some of that. We are absolutely lied to in our country, um, about history that is any kind of Brown person's history. The people who decide what we learn have never decided that African history or Asian history or, um, Middle Eastern history, none of that has, they've ever deemed important enough for Americans to learn.
So, when we travel to these countries, we are woefully ignorant. We have been sold the bill of goods and none of it is accurate. And so, it's important to sit at the feet of those teachers. Um, and that's what you see us doing throughout. So, the learning, collectively, was important. But also, as we ... As you're learning about each country, you're picking up pieces of yourself.
LA When you talk about the erase history and the lack of education that takes place in America, did it feel important as a mother to be taking your daughter there and, you know, she's so young to- to actually start to tell her about her history and her heritage now?
GU: Absolutely. It's never too young to be educated. Um, it's never too young to- to look out and see seas of people that look like you. That- that education has to start from the cradle all the way through the grave. And that's exactly what my mom did. And so, her education was always sort of budding up against what I was learning in school. And then she was like, "You, you know, you should learn how to do this research on your own." And I had to learn how to use Encyclopedias, and this is before, you know ... Back when we had the Dewey Decimal system. Um, I had to learn, you know, how to use the library resources and, um, how to sit at the feet of our elders and to listen and to ask, you know, questions that lead to more conversation. My mom, she's never given up that thirst. So, watching her transform throughout the course of, you know, the two episodes is just as powerful.
LA: You decided to film it all and document this journey. What did you set out to accomplish? Was it just that finding a sense of peace, or was there another form of transformation, or was it just family bonding and togetherness and learning about this history together as a unit?
GU: Well, it's all of the above, right? For me personally, I had had a year and a half of artistic turmoil in a sense, that where I had to go to bring certain characters to life, uh, in The Inspection, and Truth Be Told. It sent me sort of spiraling into kind of my own personal hell. And it kind of turned me to dust. I ... There weren't even pieces to kind of put back together.
LA: In The Inspection, a movie which came out in November last year, Gabrielle plays the estranged mother of a gay Marine. And in Truth Be Told, an Apple TV series, she's a school principal helping investigate cases surrounding Black girls who are assaulted or missing. She spoke of how filming triggered memories of her own assault.
GU: It was probably the lowest I have ever felt in life. And it coincided with the 30th anniversary of my rape at 19. So, coming through that, by the time my birthday rolled around, I needed a lifeline. I needed my friends, I needed my family, I needed my man, I needed my children to help, to help. Um, I don't need people necessarily to put me back together, but, uh, lead me to the water, you know what I mean? Or at least understand that I'm not okay right now. And I knew that when that plane landed in Tanzania, that I would feel like I was home. And once you feel like you're home, everything is on the table and my peace was starting to be restored.
LA: After the break, Gabrielle takes us to Ghana, where she and her family visit the Assin Manso River, the site of the Salaga Slave Market, and the Memorial Wall of Return. You speak so candidly about your own trauma, but, you know, a large part of ... Especially when you were in Ghana and in West Africa, is visiting sites of great collective trauma. There's some amazing scenes where you're all at the Assin Manso River site, which has such a dark history as a place where African people passed through before they were sold into slavery. Tell me a little bit about that day and that portion of the trip. Because even just to watch it was really ... I mean, it really floored me.
GU: So much had been lost on the march, so much had been lost in that river. The walk to the river, that was equivalent to New York to- to Miami, by foot, chained together. They shoved leaves, and flora, and fauna, and dirt into the mouths of mothers to stop them from crying and screaming out for their children. So, by the time they were taken to the river to get cleaned up for auction, many didn't make it out of the river. Many children didn't make it out of the river. And when you see us in- in the river praying to, paying homage to ... Asking for guidance from the ancestors, and you see each person receive it, that alone is powerful.
Out of clear blue sky, a downpour. It was confirmation to me [inaudible 00:12:07] is a very powerful god. When the rains came down, I was like, "I hear you. Okay. No more hedging my bets. No more half-assing it, even in prayer." And I just got the biggest smile and the most peace I've ever had in my life. Dwyane's experience in the river, what I saw was a man taking in the enormity of our collective history as African peoples and how closely it related to his experience. This man is very proud of who he is and where he came from and he is changed in the most beautiful way.
Watching my husband emerge from that river, when he screams and has his arms outstretched, and then the skies open up. I was like, "Okay. All right. I don't need anymore signs." [laughs].
LA: You're like, the weather ... bit on the nose [laughs].
GU: Yep, I got it, I got it, I got it. But yeah, we- we were saying that, when we left that river, that was our superhero origin story. And we had taken the power out of our own hands by allowing other people to take the power out of our own hands. And we just reclaimed it. And then, going from the river to the slave dungeons and going into the different dungeons and hearing about what was happening, you can feel it. You can absolutely feel it. You can feel the terror, you can feel the confusion, you can feel the rage, you can feel the plans of survival. It was ... Yeah, that part of the trip ... If one day my story is told, that's where it began again. And I- I hope, I hope more people experience it and allow themselves to be taken by it, to be led to who you really are.
LA: There's something that your guide says, I think when you're at the river, where he, uh, you know, warns you not to try and process it all at once. Did you find yourself processing it as an individual or were you processing it together as a family?
GA: Individually, because I think just physically we were kind of spread out on a- around the rocks and Dee was like physically like in the river. So, we were a bit spread out. And Kaav-, and Kaavia didn't go, uh, to, on that part. And it's interesting, because like it wasn't until I could see the edit, because there were different cameras around with different people, that I could see what it looked like for different people. Just the physical transformation. And then square that with, you know, the conversations on the bus ride between the river and the slave dungeon. And then the three hour ride back home. It all just happened so organically, which is why I think it's so powerful, because you can't force that. Like, it would look forced. It would look insane. But it was so beautiful. It was so beautiful.
LA: All of you, I think, received your Ghanaian names while you were there. What did that mean to you and what did that mean to Dwyane? That must've been an incredible experience.
GU: Yeah. Like, to get my name, you know, Akosua Safo, and to hear what it meant. You know, Sunday born, and the key. And, uh, Dee's name, um, Kwesi Safo. He got his tattooed on him, um, when we were in South Africa. It's just like claiming your fullness. I walk different. Like, I'm- I'm more open to love than I've ever been. Like, I'm one of those people that, uh, I can sniff out the BS. Like, I- I live to sniff it out. But being in that state at all times just doesn't leave a lot of room for anything else. So, that shift, we're still feeling the- the reverberations from that shift of just receiving our names. To be given that connection, that real connection to this place that, you know, West Africa.
Speaker 4: So, as my first official act, Gabrielle, I'll start with you, [foreign language 00:16:51].
GU: [Foreign language 00:16:53].
Speaker 4: So, Gabrielle, we'd like to adorn you with some traditional fabrics as well. So, [foreign language 00:16:59] is connected to the root word [foreign language 00:17:02], which is key. It's the person that opens up things for everybody else.
GU: The second he said that, I just became so emotional. Because in my family, I have had to be a literal key to unlock education, housing, protection, justice, to unlock the world.
Speaker 5: Open doors, darling, open doors, open doors.
Gabrielle Union: Woo, as the key.
Speaker 5: Open doors. Yes. Here is our queen.
GU: It just feels like, this is my first and best birthday, you know, as a fully formed human being. And somebody sees all of me and this group of people is celebrating my fullness. Unreal.
LA: When you have these milestone birthdays, you do hope to, I don't know, like figure out who you are. Like, you're supposed to ... You're always supposed to know who you are when you hit these milestones and it sounds like this trip and this birthday really did take you to a new place in terms of your own relation to yourself. You say that ... You describe Ghana as the first bridge that we cross as African-Americans into West Africa. What did it feel like to arrive on that soil and, um, start to travel around there with your family?
GU: Mm, Sankofa, it is the return. I don't exactly know how to describe the- the expansive nature of- of your heart, that transformation. Like, it just fills up your whole chest to be welcomed in and not forced to- to, uh, think that African-American culture is somehow less than or whatever. That is priceless. It's like if- if someone said, "You can never go home again. You'll never see your parents. You can never see ... " Like, your language, that's gone. Food ... Like, n- your la- ... Nothing. But then you return defiantly and you are met with family and you are met with home. You are met with language. You are met with culture. You are met ... And it just feels like you're a full human being. I mean, I know who I was. I absolutely knew who I was. But I had no idea who I could be. Is this what life can be like for the next 50 or 60 years? You know, like, hell yeah. This is amazing. This is absolutely amazing. And I watched it happen over, and over, and over with everyone who was on that trip.
LA: Coming up, Gabrielle's future plans for seeing even more of Africa. And what it meant to experience parts of this trip without a film crew, simply documenting the groups' experiences on her phone.
GU: We're coming back from a safari, right? In- in Namibia. We're driving in, you know, back to, you know, our lodge. And we are met, literally on the road, by a member of, you know, a- a Himba community. And they just invited us over, like the neighbors that we were, to come hang out and meet everyone. And- and we didn't have, you know, the big camera crew. It's like, whatever you see is just what we had on our phones or, uh, someone had on their fancy camera. But, um, we didn't have like a crew or anybody. No one was mic'ed. Um, it was, it was just a random experience that we were open to. And then after that, we were like, "Well, shit. Let's- let's meet our other neighbors. Who else is [inaudible 00:20:43]? Let's, you know, let's be open to all of the experiences and the, these amazing conversations that we probably would've never had, A, if we had a camera crew going through everywhere." Because then it becomes something else. So, having an organic, real exchange, ha- ... It was just, it was beautiful.
LA: So, it's very interesting that you say that, because you suddenly become a different type of traveler if you have a camera crew around you.
LA: How much was that present during the travels, or really was a lot of it more lo-fi, you as a group capturing stuff on your phones or on the fancy camera that someone remembered to bring?
GU: Yeah. Well, I mean, in a sense, I felt open to saying yes to things that I might've said no to, because I know that I'm representing more than myself. I'm about to go on an experience that a lot of people are going to see and maybe get out of my own way, lady, and be open to something that might've scared you. Because as things were revealed to you, they're also going to be revealed to the audience. And there was something really beautiful about that, but then there's something that's kind of intrusive about like, you know, showing up with this whole movement [laughs], you know, of- of people. And Namibia and parts of South Africa was- was just really us and our phones and, uh, one of our friends who is a- a professional photographer, not exactly a videographer, but he became one, you know? [laughs]. You know, for those more intimate experiences.
Um, and not everything that we shot is meant to be shared with everybody. So, there are plenty of memories that are just for us and maybe one day we will share those. It allowed us kind of the best of both worlds, especially as we were moving through spaces where there was a lot of education taking place, so like Ghana. It allowed us to be able to hear better. Sometimes when you show up with a camera crew, people tend to quiet down. And so, I ... We were able to hear probably more and get the full message than had we just been on a tour and everybody's sort of talking at once. So, there were pros and cons to it, but I definitely probably am more in the future, more of a smaller just camera phone. It feels more intimate. It feels more, um, personal, you know? And it doesn't put everyone off around you.
LA: How do you think that the trip helped you get to know yourself better and I guess gave you a new sense of purpose? As you look ahead into this new decade, what is the purpose of the next 10 years for you?
GU: Oh, I'm, like I'm looking the next 50 or 60. My great grandmother lived to be 110. Um, she was actually on, uh, Donahue back in the day on a show about centenarians. Um, so, I know what it is to live a long time and to live well. Um, that is what I'm- I'm looking for. I know the next 50 or 60 is just even more a self exploration and openness to- to evolve constantly. I don't want to reach a destination of personal fulfillment or growth. I want to constantly be evolving and changing and I want to embrace every pivot. I don't want to be nervous about pivots, I want to embrace every pivot, like dive in.
Because the most beautiful and amazing things happen when we dive into the pivot instead of fighting against it. Um, but it also, like we did African ancestry before we went and, um, you know, so I am [inaudible 00:24:12] and Fulani, the largest percentages of my African ancestry. And, um, my husband also has, uh, the bulk of majority Nigerian ancestry. So, it's just inspired us to want to go back, um, and go to Nigeria and meet our people, probably without a camera crew. But [laughs] [inaudible 00:24:34]-
LA: You know, you don't need it every time, right? [laughs].
GU: I- I am not a reality girl. Not, that is not my ministry. But I cannot wait to meet my people. I can't wait to find more specificity in terms of home. Like, we knew it was West
Africa and now I want to be even more specific. Everyone's like, "Oh, you're going to go back for your 51st?" But we were just in Egypt last month. Like, you cannot keep us away. Like, we're- we're addicted now. And, um, yeah, the more, the more we learn, the more we want to return and we want to bring even more people. So, that's the goal is bring everybody along.
LA: That sounds like a pretty good map to living well, as you put it. Gabrielle, thank you so much for chatting with me about your travels through the continent of Africa and how the docuseries came to be. It is a true joy to watch and I hope it inspires lots of people to start planning their own trips to Africa and traveling around the continent. And to look into their own heritage as well.
GU: A lot of the trauma that I have accumulated over my life. I had gotten divorced, I was raped at gunpoint, and I was struggling with my fertility. And I had been disassociating. That was all weighing heavily on my spirit. I knew I couldn't sustain living in that way. So, I've always looked to the continent of Africa as the source of all things, including joy, including light, including levity. And I thought that the closer I got to self, I knew my joy and my peace couldn't be far behind.
LA: We didn't have time to talk about Kaavia's fascination with the lion she spotted on safari, their nights out in Cape Town, or Gabrielle's actual birthday dinner in Tanzania. But you can see it all in Gabrielle Union: My Journey to 50, which premiered on BET+ on June 15th. Thank you to BET for the clips.
Next week, we consider what makes a national dish. The answers may surprise you. We talk to James Beard, award winner for food writing, Anya von Bremzen, who visited France, Italy, Japan, Spain, Mexico, and Turkey for her new book, National Dish: Around the World In Search of Food, History and The Meaning of Home. See you then.
I'm Lale Arikoglu and you can find me on Instagram @lalehannah. Our engineers are Jake Lummus and Gabe Quiroga. The show's mixed by Amar Lal. Jude Kampfner from Corporation for Independent Media is our producer.