After two years of pandemic closures, and with an unusually favorable exchange rate between the dollar and the euro, more Americans are traveling overseas this summer—particularly to the 44 countries of Europe. And many of these American tourists’ first impressions of “the Continent” were shaped by the public television travelogue, Rick Steves’ Europe.
During the COVID shutdown, I became an avid watcher of the returns on WGBH— Boston’s PBS affiliate. While I enjoyed the binge-watch, I came to realize Rick Steves’ Europe falls prey to the familiar pitfalls of American travel writing with its omission of Black people and history in Europe.
Make no mistake, Rick Steves’ documentation of European places has made a positive contribution to television over 22 years. As a regular viewer, I have found it a leisurely escape, with the beautiful photography and the geeky charm of Steves as a guide. But it’s also an enabler of flawed history and demographics, and succumbs to the all-too-common practice of travelogues excluding Black experiences.
As the show rebounds from a pandemic hiatus, now’s as good a time as any for its producers to consider ways to tell stories that are more racially inclusive.
Exploring new avenues of storytelling wouldn’t detract from the older episodes, or the importance of Europe in world history, but it would enrich the learning of diverse audiences. And as someone who believes the show is capable of presenting difficult subjects in accessible ways—such as the episode on 1930s fascism—I’m sure it can address the controversies of Europe’s racial story, while maintaining its endearing entertainment values.
But as it stands, Rick Steves’ program has largely overlooked the people of color living, working, and touring in Europe. It has neglected the debates and controversies of Africa’s contributions to Europe, and ignored the role of slavery in the enrichment of European capitals. In short, the series has promoted an almost exclusively white scene which is contradicted by history.
With that in mind, I’d like to suggest five topics on European travel that Rick Steves’ Europe has yet to cover, but would make for a better show if it did.
The program should question the very idea of Europe as a continent.
According to National Geographic, a continent is any of the world’s main continuous expansions of land. Most continents are fairly simple to define—such as Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica, and Australia.
There is only one place that raises doubts—Europe. As a landmass, it is clearly the western end of the continent of Asia. However, Western geographers carved out an exception in a self-serving manner—based on race and culture interests—and anointed a “continent” to elevate its importance in world geography.
National Geographic explains: “The continents of Europe and Asia, for example, are actually part of a single, enormous piece of land called Eurasia. But linguistically and ethnically, the areas of Asia and Europe are distinct. Because of this, most geographers divide Eurasia into Europe and Asia. An imaginary line, running from the northern Ural Mountains in Russia south to the Caspian and Black Seas, separates Europe, to the west, from Asia, to the east.”
This is an opportunity for Rick Steves’ Europe to reflect on what it means to be a sub-continent and how it has shaped the identity of whiteness. Has the cultural isolation and distinct environment of Europe contributed to a heightened propensity for racial aggression, as argued by writer Michael Bradley in the disturbing study of European anthropology, The Iceman Inheritance: Prehistoric Sources of Western Man’s Racism, Sexism and Aggression”? It’s a question worth addressing.
Egypt and Europe
Rick Steves’ show has thus far neglected to explore the role of Ancient Egyptian history in the formation of a European consciousness. After all, the Nile River civilization of Egypt, Kush, and Ethiopia blossomed for 2,500 years before the rise of Western civilization. The legacy of political, scientific, economic, and cultural innovation captured the imagination of Greek and Roman intellectuals in later centuries. As the Roman author Pliny the Elder, who published the first encyclopedia in the West, famously described it, “Out of Africa, there is always something new.”
Steves might also delve into the controversial interpretations of Greek mythology over the origin of the Goddess Europa—the source of the name for Europe about 900 AD In the myth, Europa was a Phoenician princess abducted by Zeus. But was she based on a real Black woman from ancient Phenicia?
The story has origins in the Afro-Asiatic Mediterranean, during the time of Egyptian rule, roughly spanning 1200 to 600 BC Eurocentric scholars say that the Phoenicians of the time were an independent Semitic sea-faring people. Africa-centered scholars, however, note that the region was part of the expansive New Kingdom of Egypt.
Historian Martin Bernal, among others, has presented imagination evidence on the influence of Egyptian civilization on ancient Greece and Rome. The depiction of Black women on Greek artifacts may bear witness to the prospect of “Europa” being a Black woman of antiquity—not to mention why so many European churches worship Black women figurines as religious icons such as the “Black Madonnas.”
The program hasn’t addressed the debates between Western scholars and “correctionist” African and African-American scholars over the Black origins of the ancient Nile River civilizations and their influence on classical Greek and Roman culture.
Western Egyptology has tended to attribute the civilization to non-African sources in the racist belief that Africans were incapable of building the empire; or, they narrow the spotlight to when Egypt was colonized by Greece and Rome—notably, the obsession with Cleopatra. Historian Donald Reid examines the politics of race and nationality that has shaped the public portrayal of ancient Egypt in Whose Pharaohs?: Archeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War I.
There was a famous stand-off between the two sides of the Egyptology debate at a 1974 symposium of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The event took place in Cairo, Egypt, and was titled, “The Peopling of Ancient Egypt and the Deciphering of the Meroitic Script.”
The African scholars shifted the burden of proof with the presentation of compelling evidence of first cause: melanin tests, linguistic patterns, burial rituals, pyramid architecture, historical accounts, totem rituals, statues, and more.
Rick Steves’ Europe has produced episodes that tout the philosophy of Greece and the architecture of Rome, for example, but failed to broach the subject of external influences. (In one scene, Steves was silent on the issue even as he stood next to an obelisk plundered from Egypt and replanted in Rome!)
And it must be highlighted that the artifacts of Africa held in the museums of Europe capitals are of immense value to the heritage of the continent and the world. An estimated half-million objects were stolen over many centuries. Today, they define the special collections of museums in Paris and London—where the British Museum holds the largest collection of African culture in the world with over 200,000 objects. Certainly this subject is worthy of an episode to clarify what the museums are presenting to tourists.
Medieval Africa and education
The show hasn’t addressed medieval Africa’s contribution to medieval Europe’s education systems. What connects the two societies is the 700-year rule of the Moorish Empire in the Iberian Peninsula.
The show has made no attempt to illustrate how the Moorish Empire (centered in the Maghreb Peninsula in northwest Africa), extended south to the kingdom of Ghana (southern Mauritania), north to the Iberian Peninsula, and east to Egypt and Arabia. The term “Moors” was used as an umbrella identity for the Muslims of MandeBerber, Arab, and mixed ethnic backgrounds that participated in the social and cultural life of Iberia from about 700 to 1400 AD
“Whatever one may think of the historical controversies, is there a reason for the exclusion of Black workers, students, and tourists in depictions of city streets, markets, train stations, and neighborhoods?”
Historian John Jackson’s Introduction to African Civilizations describes the value placed on learning in the Muslim civilization. All over the empire a lively intellectual life flourished as cities established libraries and schools. For example, there was the University of Sankore in the Niger River kingdom of Mali founded about 1100 AD
And while Europe in the 11th century was an educational laggard, the Moorish scholars established 17 universities in Iberian cities such as Cordova, Seville, Granada, Malaga, Jaen, Valencia, Almeria, and Toledo. Moreover, the Moors’ education system inspired the establishment of Oxford University in 1096 AD and the University of Paris in 1150 AD
Rick Steves’ program made no mention of the debt Europe owes to this period, even in an episode that chronicled the history of British universities.
Wealth and poverty
Finally, Rick Steves’ Europe promotes the notion of travel as a way to broaden one’s horizon, yet it avoids the 800-pound gorilla in the room—Europe’s wealth and Africa’s poverty.
As Steves traipses through cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Bristol and London in England, Nantes in France, Lisbon in Portugal, and Seville in Spain, he rarely takes time to explain that they flourished in large part because of the subjugation of Black people. This includes their participation in the lucrative Atlantic slave trade and access to cheap cotton from the American South during the industrial revolution.
The topic would be of particular interest to African-American travelers, and to TV audiences curious about the growing divide between a prosperous Europe and an impoverished Africa beginning about the 1600s. The show’s researchers ought to consult Walter Rodney’s classic work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africafor ideas on how to tackle a subject that intersects with European travel, slavery, colonialism, and capitalism.
Whatever one may think of the historical controversies, is there a reason for the exclusion of Black workers, students, and tourists in depictions of city streets, markets, train stations, and neighborhoods?
I reached out to the documentary company that creates Rick Steves’ Europe to see what its producers might have to say about the issues I’ve raised, but haven’t yet received a response. And please don’t get me wrong—I admire Rick Steves’ Europe for providing American viewers with a window on European culture and a vicarious experience of travel to places that most people will never visit. That is no small accomplishment and must be acknowledged.
Still, I hope the team will consider a more inclusive vision of European history and culture. For all its merits, the show also has a responsibility to continue to adapt to changing research and audiences.
It would make for a richer, more inclusive, and more historically accurate travelogue—and a more informative guide for American audiences.