It’s likely that all black American women who travel have, at some point, felt that exploring the world is more difficult than it is for other demographics. We are stopped at airports because of our hair, both fetishized and ostracized because of our African features, and there is no lack of stories of other forms of outright racism. And that’s just for being black. As women, our safety is always somewhat compromised, and when we’re navigating the world solo we have to take every precaution when simply calling an Uber, let alone when we face a clash of cultures. It can sometimes feel that travel as a black woman is anything but leisurely. It’s hard to think about how life must have been for a black American woman attempting travel 200 years ago, or even 50 years ago.
So, imagine the significance it would hold to be the first of us to visit every country on the planet. This is what 55-year-old Woni Spotts is claiming to be — the first black woman to travel to every country in the world.
However, to understand Woni Spotts’ story one must gain context of her significance by knowing another black female traveler named Jessica Nabongo or — most notably — @thecatchmeifyoucan on Instagram.
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Nabongo is a travel influencer who has gained a level of fame by popularizing her pursuit to become the first black woman to visit every country. She has almost personally crafted the narrative of this achievement and rallied public support. Her journey has been so skillfully publicized that many may feel that she already possesses the title as they travel on her journey with her via her many social media platforms, blog posts, podcast interviews, and public appearances. She told publications such as Bloomberg, CNN, and Forbes that she did her research before publicly announcing her endeavor and hadn’t come across any other black woman claiming this title.
That was until Nabongo received a tweet from a barely two-week-old Twitter account, belonging to a woman named Woni Spotts. Spotts stated she had completed her 195th country in September of 2018, making her the first black woman to visit every country. Many people were confused at first — no social media posts, photos, or press coverage was found on Spotts’ journey. And if found true, her story would unquestionably shake the black travel community’s table. As a fellow solo black traveler and influencer, I took it upon myself to help shed light on Woni Spotts.
Unshrouding the mystery: connecting with Spotts
After a bit of frustrating Googling that resulted only in self-published articles by this mysterious person and a vague IMDb biography from 1989, it was obvious that Woni Spotts had virtually zero online presence.
Her only active online presence seemed to be on Twitter so I went there to ask her for a short phone interview. To my surprise, I soon received a call from a California area code and I answered the phone to hear a woman reply to my tentative greeting. She relayed that I was the first person to ask her for an interview and I began to understand the magnitude of her story. If true, Woni had accomplished a historical feat in almost complete obscurity. For 45 minutes she began to unfurl decades of travel, and her storyline became clear.
The interview: What did she say?
In summary, she shared that she had visited nearly 165 countries while still a teenager. Her family had roots in Los Angeles and a friend of her father cast her to star in a travel-themed TV show called Passing Through — this clarified the 30-year-old IMDb listing I’d come across previously. Passing Through’s shot footage in every country in the world. She explained that after a few years of traveling practically non-stop with the production crew the momentum eventually fizzled out. With some pressure from her family, she attempted to settle down and resume a normal life. She went to college, started a business, and traveled domestically.
However, Spotts eventually found herself feeling unfilled in her otherwise successful life. She felt a perpetual restlessness, an itch. In early March of 2013, she finally committed to visiting the remaining 30 countries of the journey she began 20 years prior.
Spotts claims she officially completed her journey almost eight months ago on September 28, 2018. In April 2019, the Traveler’s Century Club — an organization that verifies people who travel to 100-plus countries — confirmed her attainment of Gold Status for visiting over 200 countries and territories. She also affirmed that she had virtually zero social media presence for most of her life, including during all of her travels.
Why has she not had an online presence?
In 2019 it seems almost impossible to not have an online footprint. So why didn’t Spotts, and why did she not seem to care about sharing her travels with the public?
Though it may seem like the new normal to share every sunset and selfie on social media, it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Some simply enjoy the peace of anonymity, some see technology as more of a burden than a tool, and some simply don’t prioritize documenting memories when they could be making them. In the interview, Spotts herself said, “Cars get old, laptops have to be replaced, phones become outdated, relationships fail. But traveling never goes away — it’s with you forever. So I value it more.”
Without photographic proof, how can we know this is legit?
The YouTube video she created was intended for family and friends but can provide insight into her storyline. It displays scanned official documents, including a certificate of crossing the Drake Passage and visiting Antarctica in 2014; a certificate of crossing of the Equator in Ecuador; a certificate of crossing the International Date Line in 2014; a small plaque saying she flew by private jet from Orlando, Florida, to Siem Reap, Cambodia, on a month-long trip in 2014; and finally, her certificate of Gold Status for visiting over 200 countries and territories from the Traveler’s Century Club.
The video also shows photos of passport stamps detailing travels from 2005 to 2018, to countries including Jordan, Australia, Tanzania, Cambodia, Samoa, Antarctica, Morocco, Peru, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, India, and more. These stamps aligned with her timeline that she gave me firsthand of her life and travels. She directly sent me photos of her passport with stamps in them, wet signature copies of her certificate visiting Antarctica, and email correspondence with the Traveler’s Century Club.
As of July 2019, Woni is working with three black historical archivists for encyclopedia and Wiki submissions and says that they have verified her authenticity, thought the publications are not finalized yet. To date, Woni says she’s presented more than 400 pieces of supporting evidence including passport stamps, photos, letters, receipts, plane tickets, and tour guide company contacts as proof of her claims.
Like most, I was skeptical about Woni’s claims at first. A complete lack of an online presence for 40+ years, her very unusual story, and seemingly random emergence raised red flags of a publicity stunt or fame-seeker.
However, after hearing her story and talking to her directly, what I’ve pieced together online, character testimonials shared on social media from her close friends, and the travel documentation she’s shared, she has a very strong case at being the first black woman to visit every country in the world. One can only anxiously await the official publications to be made public.
Could there be others like her?
The media is rallying behind the excitement of Nabongo’s pursuit to be the first black woman to visit every country for two key reasons: first, confirmation bias. Nabongo was the first to assert her claim and so she has primed the public’s opinion. Second is the illusory truth effect — when something is repeated enough times it becomes that much easier to believe. And with two years and over 20 written pieces insinuating or flat out stating that she is the first black woman to accomplish it, she certainly has cognitive bias on her side.
However, these internal biases held by the public make Spotts’ narrative all the more powerful. The idea that it’s possible for a black woman in 2019 to visit every country in social silence disrupts our assumptions in a fascinating way.
Spotts and Nabongo are at opposite ends of the conceptual spectrum — a woman racing toward a finish line in full press lighting, and a woman who didn’t even know she was running a race until she was crossing the finish line.
While Spotts has a strong claim to be the first confirmed black woman to visit every country, she is, at the least, a wake-up call to “pics or it didn’t happen” culture.
What does this mean for Jessica Nabongo?
Prominent black travel Facebook groups have had discussions on the likelihood that Nabongo will decide to rebrand her business title as the first black woman to visit every country. Many publications, investors, businesses, and fans have invested in her pursuit of this title for more than a year. Considering this fact and Nabongo’s continued media promotions of herself as the first black woman to visit every country, a rebrand seems an unlikely business strategy for her at this time.
Regardless of who holds the official title, one thing is clear — the black travel community needs to stick together. Two powerful, black female role models touching all corners of the globe is a win for all of us and that’s the message we should trumpet.
Why does this title matter so much?
The concept of a black woman visiting every country in the world should hold weight for every person of color when shown in historical context.
The existence of the Negro Motorist Green Book is a paragon example of how regulated black bodies were in the United States even after the abolition of slavery in 1865. The Green Book was an annual black travel guide for African-Americans during the Jim Crow era, with travel tips and recommendations for lodging and business that were black-friendly. This book offered black men and women a path of least resistance when leaving their town — but back then the smoothest path for black travelers could still result in injury or death. Black travelers faced unlawful arrest, threats of physical violence, and forcible expulsion from sundown towns. While traveling, black families would often be denied repairs to their vehicles and refused food and accommodation from white-owned establishments. It was common practice for black folk to keep buckets in their trunks to relieve themselves in because service stations restrooms were usually barred to them.
In fact, black people attempting to enjoy leisure travel is what ultimately resulted in Jim Crow laws themselves.
In the early 1890s, affluent blacks from New Orleans had taken to forming group trips and visiting resort areas along the Gulf Coast by rail. These people were well-dressed, opulent, and — most irritatingly for whites at the time — enjoying themselves. According to Mark Foster in his article “In the Face of ‘Jim Crow’: Prosperous Blacks and Vacations, Travel and Outdoor Leisure, 1890-1945,” this ostentatious display of freedom by increasing numbers of black folks offended some whites who then pressured railways to uphold state segregation laws. In 1892, Homer Plessy, a black man, refused to sit in a blacks-only train car and argued that his constitutional rights were being violated. The Supreme Court rejected his claims and upheld the right to “legally distinguish” between blacks and whites. In 1896, the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson ruling was made and Jim Crow laws became the new normal for the black traveler.
A 20-year-old Ida B. Wells had a similar plight as Plessy and actually preceded him in 1883 when she was kicked out of a first-class train cabin for being black. She sued the rail station, though she ultimately lost. Wells continued to fight for black Americans rights and in 1918, she was even invited to be a delegate to the peace conference at Versailles following World War I — however, the US government denied her a passport due to her reputation as a “known race agitator.” These restrictive tactics weren’t reserved solely for civil rights advocates but were used against all blacks to justify unlawful arrest, forcible expulsion of blacks from sundown towns, and physical violence.
All this to say that leisure travel and bodily autonomy is a freedom that black people have fought to have for centuries.
Thus, the notion that Woni Spotts could not only go far beyond our soil but be the first of us to touch every country currently on this planet — and a few territories just for fun — is not just a literal but an emotional and symbolic expression of how far we have come as a people.
And so, another inspiring story can be added to the annals of black history: Woni Spotts has traveled over a 40-year period and now stakes her claim as the first known black woman to visit all recognized 195 countries and 22 territories. But of course, it is still possible someone yet unknown did it even before her.