An Unanticipated Birthright Effect

In college, a Jewish friend told me her experiences during an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel. I was impressed when I learned about Taglit-Birthright Israel and its mission to ensure that Jewish young adults have the opportunity to visit and learn about Israel. Last year, as a graduate student, I traveled there with several Jewish classmates. I was moved by—and somewhat envious of—their strong sense of shared identity and how the trip nurtured it.

I couldn’t forget that feeling. The PBS series “Finding Your Roots,” in which Henry Louis Gates Jr. investigated the family history of well-known Americans, was another reminder to me of how powerful it can be to learn about the genetic and cultural ties that connect us all to stories and communities much bigger than us. 

This year, I finally organized a trip for a group of my black friends and classmates and me to explore our own heritage. On that trip I learned to cook jollof, a rice dish that is a staple of West African diets. I learned about investment opportunities in Nigeria, including cashew farms and start-ups. I had my hair braided. I visited castles where enslaved people were kept in dungeons before they exited through the door of no return. We discussed Nigerian history over dinner and learned about the political turmoil and wealth of the country… I reflected on what life would be like if I lived in a nation where I was part of the dominant racial group.

MERCEDES BENT, “The Trip I Hope All African-Americans Can Take,” The New York Times, May 4, 2019.