American Travels is a column documenting the travels of St. Louis American staff, contributors and readers. It was started by Executive Editor Donald Suggs and Contributing Editor Fred Sweets, and is designed to share our experiences traveling the globe and bringing The St. Louis American worldwide.

American Travels to Montreal

American Travels recently journeyed across the northern border to Montreal, Quebec, for the Canadian Grand Prix, the seventh stop on a grueling, 19-country tour for Formula One, the world’s premier auto racing series.

Even though known as the Paris of North America, Montreal has many excellent restaurants and lots of old world charm. But we were there for one reason: Lewis Hamilton.

Hamilton is the first driver of African heritage to win an F1 race, in 2007. In 2008, the young Brit became the World Driving champion at the tender age of 23, after missing the title by one point a year earlier. He is the Tiger Woods of auto racing, but without the back and other problems. Hamilton currently holds second place in the 2014 point standings.

After setting fastest laps in practice and best times in the first two rounds of qualifying for the Canadian Grand Prix, Hamilton lost the coveted pole position in the final round of qualifying to Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg by a fraction of a second.

Rumors of a rift between the dominant pair of Petronas AMG Mercedes drivers were dispelled during a pre-race interview with Hamilton and Rosberg. We saw Hamilton leaning on Rosberg’s shoulder as they answered questions together during the Parade of Drivers before the green light came on for the 70-lap race.

Ivor Bourne, who is responsible for logistics and driver support for both drivers, told American Travels that "Lewis and Nico are strong competitors who have tremendous mutual respect for each other. Both want Mercedes AMG PETRONAS to win the constructors championship."

Unfortunately, neither won the Canadian Grand Prix after running 1-2 for most of the race. Rosberg, the leader for most of the race, placed second after his brakes started to fail on the final two laps. Failing brakes also forced Hamilton’s early exit from the race after he had briefly overtaken Rosberg. Red Bull rookie Daniel Ricciardo of Australia was solid in winning his first F1 race.

“Montreal has been a good track for me so to come here and not finish is disappointing but there are plenty more races ahead of us this season so let’s hope for better fortune,” the 29-year-old Hamilton said in an apologetic post-race note on Twitter.

He won the Canadian GP in 2007, 2010 and 2012.

“There was nothing I could do about our issues really,” Hamilton continued in the note. “We were managing the loss of power but, as soon as I finally made the jump on Nico in the second pit stop, my brakes failed going into turn 10."

The only race in the United States takes place in Austin, TX on November 2, 2014 with practice on Friday and qualifying on Saturday. Three day general admission tickets start at $223.88. Hamilton won the Austin race last year.

If you have neither the time nor the money to travel to Paris, grab a flight from St. Louis for the smaller version. Montreal has beautiful parks, massive cathedrals, great museums, excellent restaurants, bicycling and running/walking trails, an efficient public transportation system, and the first language is French.

American Travels recommends the following:

For the trip to and from the airport, we don’t think anything beats the 747 bus for $10 dollars. It sped us to within a few blocks of our hotel in about a half hour. We finished the trip on foot.

For a place to stay, check in at Le Westin Montreal, in the historic district of Old Montreal. The hotel is located across the street from the Palais des Congres, the city’s largest convention facility. It boasts a spacious lobby with plenty of comfortable seating and complimentary flavored water, and inviting rooms with views of downtown Montreal. We filled up on the buffet breakfast, which was a little pricey but offered everything anyone could ever want for breakfast _ including delicious cold salmon. The hotel is also a short walk to the nearest subway stop, located inside the convention center. The underground trains quickly delivered us to Ile Notre-Dame where the race Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve is located. One transfer was required.

For seafood, we don’t think any restaurant in Montreal can beat Chez Delmo _ and we only ate at two places! On short notice, our concierge secured a table for us at this small but packed restaurant on Notre Dame Street in Old Montreal. Unlike many restaurants in America, without any loud background music we could actually enjoy a conversation without having to shout at each other to be heard. We started with perfectly made martinis, followed by bowls of a delicious tomato soup studded with garlic crisps and croutons. The restaurant proprietor, Benoit Dessureault, then sent over a complimentary plate of duck bruschetta, which we had never had but quickly devoured because it was so good. Our main courses of grilled Chilean sea bass and fillet of halibut melted in our mouths.

For a little after-dinner, sight-seeing, we walked through the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal, which overflowed with tourists like us. We looked up in amazement at the Gothic Revival architecture of the Notre-Dame Basilica, popped into a few of the many souvenir shops along the way, checked out the Port of Montreal, read restaurant menus posted on sidewalks and stumbled upon a street artist (named Mick) who plucked unsuspecting people from the crowd gathered around him and turned them into active participants in his way-too-long routine.

For air travel, American, Delta, United, and US Airways are all priced within dollars of each other with roundtrip one stop service from St. Louis (STL) to Montreal (YUL). A word of caution, Air Canada will charge a $200 change fee and a new fare if you fail to check in for your domestic flight prior to their 45 minute deadline before scheduled departure time. We were one minute late due to construction traffic and Air Canada wanted an additional $1,100 for a new ticket and a $200 change fee. When we protested, a manager reduced our pain to the $200 change fee per passenger. Our lesson learned was to check in either online or in person 45 minutes before departure.

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American Travels

Dubai: a true oasis in the desert

The United Arab Emirates is a diverse winter destination

Had it with the snow and ice? Are you ready to jet away to a warm getaway? Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, is calling your name – as it did mine.

Actually, Baroness Angela Van Wright Von Berger, a classmate of mine at Hampton University, is the one who called me to attend a fundraising gala she held there. The baroness is an advocate for the children of war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

It didn’t take a lot to convince me to go. I flew Air Canada from Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., through Toronto. It was a long 12-14 hour flight, but worth it.

Dubai is one of seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Its capital is Abu Dhabi.

Building on a history of human occupation for more than 125,000 years and sitting on the seventh-largest oil and natural gas reserves in the world, the UAE has one of the most diverse economies and populations in the region.

Everything about Dubai is orderly, hospitable and immaculate. The airport, taxis, hotels and public restrooms are all pristine.

Don’t even think about doing anything illegal. The judicial system is based on civil and Sharia law. Offenses can range from alcohol consumption outside of a licensed environment, mostly exclusive hotel restaurants and bars, to offending a person’s honor. Punishment can range from a lashing to stoning to worse. That is why Dubai is one of the safest, most hospitable cities.

Getting around the UAE is as easy as renting a car, hailing a cab or summoning an Uber, which I took to Abu Dhabi to meet a pair of long-time friends who flew in from St. Louis and from Washington. They came to watch Lewis Hamilton, the first and only black driver to race in Formula 1, participate in and win the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Hamilton has won five world championships in this popular, international motorsport.

While the official religion of Dubai is Islam and the official language Arabic, the UAE is a global hub with a diverse population connecting Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe. In a recent letter to the editor of The Washington Post, the UAE ambassador to the United States stated, “People of more than 200 nationalities live peacefully in the UAE. There are more than 40 Christian churches, and there are Hindu and Sikh temples. ... More than 80 universities in the UAE are challenging and inspiring young people. More than 20 million tourists visited the UAE last year.”

The next day, my friends Fred Sweets and Donald M. Suggs, both of The St. Louis American, and I took the hour-long drive back to Dubai, where we connected with Dianne Dickert of San Francisco and her goddaughter Brandy Stewart of New York to get ready for the gala.

Through the reach of Facebook, Dr. Donna Pratt, another Hampton graduate living in Abu Dhabi, learned of the gathering and joined the fun.

Prince Albert II of Monaco attended the gala to share his interest in climate change and environmental sustainability. Baroness Von Berger introduced the third edition of her book “In The Kitchen With Stars,” featuring the recipes of some of the world’s most renowned chefs.

More than 200 guests attended the book signing to raise funds and awareness for two organizations – the International Humanitarian City’s HELP Our Kids “One Humanity” and The Foundation of Prince Albert II of Monaco’s “Sustainable Energy Program.”

Put Dubai on your bucket list and plan to stay for more than a week to enjoy all the region has to offer. Plan your travel to Dubai for the cooler winter months from November to March, since summers are brutally hot, and restrict outdoor activities to late nights and early mornings.

Plan ahead by visiting https://www.visitdubai.com/en/travel-planning

American Travels: The art and soul of Michigan: A Detroit Renaissance

At the end of October, the Detroit Free Press announced that Lonely Planet – one of the largest travel book publishers in the world – was set to name Detroit the second-best city in the world to visit in 2018.

Eclipsed only by Seville, Spain, The Motor City immediately outranks Canberra, Australia and Hamburg, Germany – and has the distinction as the only destination in the continental United States to make the cut in the top ten of Lonely Planet’s coveted list.

It might be hard to fathom a city haunted by a reputation of blight and bankruptcy to emerge as a top tourist destination. But anyone who has been there recently – particularly within the past year – will describe a downtown area that defies assumptions of urban decay thanks to an emerging and bustling metropolis that is fresh, eclectic and splashed with creativity.

And by anyone, of course I mean me.

Before my visit to Detroit this past spring, my main frames of reference were the mayoral scandal of Kwame Kilpatrick, their historic 2013 bankruptcy filing, and most detrimentally that it was the city that produced my college boyfriend. I appreciated Detroit for the Motown legacy, the Isaiah Thomas era of the Pistons and for providing the set up for the storyline in “Beverly Hills Cop.” But that was about it.

However, a junket organized by Pure Michigan that promised a snapshot of the arts and culture scene left a lasting impression, to say the least. After my stay, I found myself singing the city’s praises for their work to restore the metropolis’ identity. Based on what I experienced, a new and improved Detroit has risen from its obstacles. The new development combined with the cultural staples will more than likely inspire a migration of tourists and transplants.  In two short, but jam-packed days of connecting with Detroit, I developed such an affinity that I still occasionally keep up with the Detroit’s progress as they continue to rebuild –  which is how I stumbled upon the news of their impressive (and well-deserved) Lonely Planet ranking.

Immediately after landing, we dove right in to soaking up the art scene. We enjoyed a quick lunch at Supino Pizzeria and headed over to 1xRun (one-time-run), which specializes in limited edition prints and original artwork from emerging contemporary artists and is the host of Detroit’s Inner State Gallery. We were given a behind the scenes tour of the start to finish process from creation to shipping and all the intricate multi-tasking of their operation required for them to keep up with the demand, and their unique niche of a daily release of limited edition runs.

The next stop was the Heidelberg Project. Originated by Tyree Guyton in the late 1980s, he created an outdoor urban arts experience from the personal belongings that he found while cleaning up the abandoned properties and vacant lots along Heidelberg Street. Vibrantly painted houses and remnants of a once vibrant neighborhood are repurposed through themed collections of items like shoes, discarded car parts and other items that typically signal abandonment. The pieces pay homage to the people and neighborhood that once spanned for blocks on end and gives the experience of a sculpture park within the community of the few residents who remain in the neighborhood. The Heidelberg project is reminiscent of a super-scaled version of the recent exhibitions of Pulitzer Arts Foundation’s Raumlaborberlin’s 4562 Enright and PXSTL combined with a striking likeness to The Griot’s ‘Eminent Domain/Displaced’.

Aloft Detroit at the David Whitney would be my home during the visit. The converted commerce building was a bit dark, but contemporary and elegant.

A short walk from the hotel was the soul food restaurant Savannah Blue (1431 Times Square – yes, there’s a Time’s Square in Downtown Detroit as well). Listen, if you are a foodie – particularly a “soul foodie” – make this eatery a top priority for your visit. Go hungry. As a matter of fact, go starving – because if you have so much as a rice cake before you sit down at Savannah Blue (https://savannahbluedetroit.com), EMT might have to carry you down the stairs and deliver you to your respective lodging. The fried chicken breasts were the size of a human face -and had the nerve to be juicy, flavorful and delicious. I’m almost moved to tears as I reflect on the tenderness of the massive oxtails and can still taste the cheddar risotto garnish. The collard greens would get any southern grandmother’s approval. The entrees and sides were so filling that I couldn’t bring myself to indulge in the desserts that included cobbler, bread pudding and sweet potato pie.

The next morning was spent at Detroit Institute of Arts. Rivera Court, from Mexican Mural Movement founding father Diego Rivera sets the tone for the world-class museum. The entire space is filled by Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” (1933) a mural that illustrates his interpretation of The Ford Motor Company and manages to weave in the social and political climate of the city where the auto manufacturer is based. The DIA has more than 100 galleries, covers 658,000 square feet and is regarded as among the top six museums in the United States with an encyclopedic collection. During my visit, I was able to see work from the 1400s to the present – including artists from Van Gogh to Kehinde Wiley. The DIA also gave a taste of how new technology can enhance the museum experience with an augmented reality, thanks to a partnership with Google. A Pokémon Go-like experience uses Android devices to guide visitors to designated areas within the museum and give 3-D bonus visuals to engage with the artwork further.

In addition to Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, there was also a visit to the Motown Museum. The guided tour was the most underwhelming of the trip – but walking through the walls that created the sound that changed the landscape of popular music gave an even greater appreciation of what Motown founder Berry Gordy was able to accomplish from such humble beginnings. It almost seems impossible to grasp that a pair of tiny houses linked together produced some of the biggest names in music – just like it might seem hard to wrap one’s head around the city’s ability to rise to become a leading travel destination.

But Motown and the city that birthed the music prove that both are possible.

 

For more information on Detroit as a tour destination, visit www.visitdetroit.com

Black art matters: Art Basel 2016 showcased the best of black culture

MIAMI – Art Basel is an oasis for the artistic – the traditional, new, and aspiring collector; the fashionista; the aficionado of exceptional songs and musicians; and lovers of culture at its finest.

Art Basel is the rare collision of many worlds and people from many places, in celebration of art. It is a critical moment when the unity of diversity is a mosaic itself, with the crashing of waves along the shore of Miami’s South Beach as the backdrop. The contrast of the colors, languages, art and styles perfectly complement each other.

Art Basel is an international art fair with three shows, including one hosted annually in Miami in early December with over 70,000 attendees. This year more than last year, black art and culture emerged as a distinguished piece of the Basel montage. It may be possible that the black experience has awakened us all, given the context and climate of America, but this heightened awareness enriched our journey at Art Basel. It challenged us to reflect upon the role of black art as an asset to our community – one of social and economic value.

Though traveling to the coasts are a frequent endeavor of ours, never have we experienced such a dynamic unity of so many worlds in a single setting. We kicked off the trip with a night on the sands of South Beach, enthralled by the live work of Shantell Martin, British-born mixed-race visual artist, as the backdrop of a live and intimate set performed by Kendrick Lamar. It was an opportunity to celebrate the creativity of those who we can identify with – in age, race and experiences – come to life right before our eyes.

“The location has an effect on my art,” Shantell Martin said. “The audience has an effect on my art. The space is as relevant to the art as the art is to the space.”

Lamar sang Martin’s praises: “Her art has layers and, when you break my music down, it has layers. So it’s a great hand-in hand experience.”  

The journey throughout Basel continued to unfold as we encountered and engaged with so many folks who looked like us, yet were distinguished by their individual creativity. We experienced black culture – men and women, sounds and visuals, food and clothes, dialogue and dance – that was brilliant, bold, and authentic. It was a reunion of sorts, one in which we stumbled across family whom we didn’t know existed, but were glad we met.

There are very few other places where you will you be able to support such a critical mass of black artists, both up and coming creatives and timeless icons. Our support of their work matters. Our presence, our celebration of, and our investment in their pieces as assets is necessary. Their works of art are an asset to us and them.

These artists – Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kehinde Wiley, Shantell Martin, Hebru Brantley, Tomashi Jackson and names who are not yet mainstream – capture the black experience with truth of our shared pain, hope and beauty. Support of such artists validates that their creativity matters and that our stories deserve to be told in color and on canvas, justifying the sustainability of a continued platform for artistic expression.

This year, Prizm, one of the more prominent fairs at Art Basel, focused on how Africa has a broader impact on global culture through music, visual art, and food.

“My goal when I started the art fair was to, in fact, encourage young people to (and particularly young, African-American and African-descent collectors) to really start to consider art as a means of personal wealth management building,” said Mikhaile Solomon, founder and Director of Prizm.

“But not to collect just for the sake of that – understanding that when you do purchase art you are also adding to your own legacy. Initiatives like Prizm definitely help.”

Our purchases of their works advances their ability to sustain as professional artists, and what we pay today may be well below what they will be worth 10-15 years from now.

We left inspired by who we are, we who we are becoming, the power of our individual and collective creative genius, and the impact that our diverse canvasses can have if we are unified towards a shared vision for building social, cultural, and economic wealth. There is no need for us to play small; we must be inspired by our innate artistic power and always let art remind us of who we are – bold, brilliant, honest, and beautiful. 

American Travels: NYC jaunt to Jacob Lawrence

An unexpected turnaround trip due to a personal matter blessed me with the opportunity to pay my first visit to New York’s famed Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). In the bustling museum, I felt a connection with the visual arts like never before thanks to their presentation of “One Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series.”

It was the first time in more than 20 years that the collection of 60 panels had been publicly presented in its entirety. The exhibit closed this past Monday, September 7. Half of the panels headed to the MoMA’s storage area, and the other 30 panels traveled back to The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.  Seeing them together at MoMA was more than likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

In 1940, Lawrence received a grant from the Rosenwald Foundation to create a series of images on the migration of African-Americans from the South. Soon after “The Migration Series” was completed in 1941, Lawrence becomes the first black artist to be represented by a New York Gallery when Edith Halpert featured the work. Less than a year later, “The Migration Series” became the first work by an African American purchased by MoMA.

For the 2015 exhibit, recreated the ambience of the original time period. This comprehensive multimedia presentation weaved together music, literature, poetry, history and technology, all framed around the 60 panels depicting the mass exodus of blacks from the South to the North.

Guests soaked in recordings of a live performance of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and Marian Anderson’s historic performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The work of Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Richard Wright and Aaron Douglas provided background imagery and context.

The panels themselves were smaller than expected, but no less impactful.

Like much of Lawrence’s work, “The Migration Series” is celebrated more for its historic significance than its aesthetic. However, as a granddaughter of the Great Migration, seeing an artistic study guide for family stories passed down for generations share a space in an institution like MoMa was validating and affirming.

Lawrence was sharing my family history from the very first panel.  He introduced the series with black figures flooding into three entryways, labeled “New York,” “Chicago” and “St. Louis.”  I imagined my grandmother squeezing through entry number three – leaving the comfort and familiarity of her roots in Clow, Arkansas for the city life of St. Louis at the tender age of 16.

Like millions of others, her willingness to risk it all for the promise of the unknown meant that through my father, I would be forever spoiled by the trappings of city life – and he would be spared the harshness of the Jim Crow South.

Lawrence captured the struggles and triumphs of the migrants. Particularly compelling were the panels that showed desperate attempts by white Southerners who made their life unbearable to keep them from fleeing plantations. Scenarios included white police officers detaining passengers so they would miss their trains or buses and the arrests of white recruiters who came to lure black laborers. Then many established Northern blacks were less than welcoming when they arrived in the North. 

As a body of work, “The Migration Series” serves as artistic Cliff Notes for the millions of African Americans who boldly fled towards the promise of a better life – and ultimately changed the landscape of America.

MoMA’s online companion for “One Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series is still available online. To view it, visit http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2015/onewayticket/.

Black girls travel too

I recently returned from a weeklong excursion to France and Italy.

My cousin is on her way to grad school and wanted to take one big trip before starting her new journey. Summer break, plus a travel fund made me the perfect candidate for last minute trips across the globe!

My cousin did most of the legwork in the beginning, deciding where she wanted to go and the route that should be taken. When I stepped in to assist, we began looking for places to stay through TripAdvisor (mainly for hotels) and Airbnb for residential homes.

This in itself was not an easy task because there are many things to consider:

• Is there Wi-Fi?

• If it is on the seventh floor, is there an elevator?

• Is it near any of the attractions that are worth seeing in the city?

• Is there air conditioning?

And trust me, that last one became very important as we were in a heat wave the entire time. Needless to say, the summer nights without air-conditioning were not the easiest.

We started our trip in Paris and hit the ground running.

We stayed in Paris, France for two days. Lots of site seeing and eating – that was the theme of the week. Neither of us had an interest in spending a lot of unnecessary money. Seeing as much of the city as we could was the goal.

We were able to travel their subway system everywhere we went and traveled between the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 16th, and 17th arrondissements. My Fitbit tracked us at over 20k steps a day!

Besides the Eiffel Tower, which I obviously loved a lot, we also enjoyed the following sites:

• Luxembourg Garden

• Petit Palais, an art museum that dates back to the early 1900s

• The Grand Palais des Champs-Élysées, a museum complex

• The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, also known as Sacré-Cœur Basilica (a Roman Catholic Church)

• The red light district and Moulin Rouge

• Love Locks

• Notre-Dame, a historic Catholic cathedral

Now on to Nice, France: I loved Nice. I’m pretty easy to please – and between the daily gelato and the beach, I was in heaven.

Not to mention our Airbnb abode had the absolute best view I’d seen in a while!

After Paris and Nice, my cousin and I traveled to Italy. We wanted to go straight to Venice, but that would’ve made for a long train ride, so we stopped for one day in Milan.

The colorful buildings and glass throughout the islands of Venice, Murano, and Burano were simply stunning.

The boat ride between the three and lack of cold water was slight torture, but it made me appreciate air conditioning just that much more.

We walked the streets of Venice from morning until evening.

I was sad to depart from my cousin as she traveled on to Rome, Greece and Santorini – which she says was the best part of her trip.

Tiffany’s travel tips

TIP #1 – Plan all your routes while you have the ability to use data at no cost or free Wi-Fi. Google maps will show you locations while off data and Wi-Fi but you have to load the maps before turning both options off. For example, if I knew which part of Paris we’d travel to, I’d go as far as to map the directions from our place to the location and screenshot the list as well as the map view. However, I was still able to open that portion of the map while roaming the streets. The blue dot will move with you, your directions just won’t be given to you step-by-step.

TIP # 2 – Keep your phone as charged as possible and eat at restaurants that have Wi-Fi so you can plan accordingly. This way you can feel safe while out all day long. Yes, charged phones add to my ability to feel safe. And you can check in at restaurants to help increase your Yelp cred – what, it’s just me who cares?

TIP # 3 – Invest in a great pair of noise-reducing headphones. The Bose around the ear blue tooth headphones, which can also be used with a wire when the battery dies, were great for canceling out the loud people on the trains.

TIP #4 – Pack light! I didn’t plan to buy much because as I said before, the goal was to view amazing architecture and eat all the food…but traveling from city to city with large bags just wouldn’t have cut it.

TIP #5 – Learn the most important words you think you’ll need before you are out and about without Google translator (which needs Wi-Fi or data to work). Words like restroom or your favorite foods – for me it was chicken and vegetables – and maybe even short phrases like “which direction is…” We were lucky in some restaurants because they either had English-speaking waitresses/waiters or they had American menus.

TIP #6 – Never be afraid to put your passport to use – even if it means traveling alone!

Visitor to Guantanamo

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, CUBA – Forget about Havana's haunting music, sexy night clubs, vintage cars and romantic walks through historic streets popularized in “The Godfather” and “The Buena Vista Social Club.”

This ain't it.

Just getting here has been a slog starting from a Texas airport, a drive to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, a three-hour charter flight, a ferry ride across Guantanamo Bay, a drive to the quarters where we'll sleep for the next week, and assignment to canvas tents reminiscent of the camp you're glad your parents never sent you to.

Although there are less barren parts of the base, Camp Justice, where we will live, covers a substantial expanse of khaki-colored terrain. The rest of the 45-square-mile area is inhabited by members of the U.S. Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy; civilians; contract workers; prisoners; iguanas, deer and banana rats. The base is generously punctuated by a dreary assortment of obsolete and abandoned buildings, some dating to the 1950s.

The base is home to what is arguably America's most notorious military prison. It is appropriately grim. It's not hard to understand the argument for closing this place that, up to now, has cost taxpayers an estimated $500 million in maintenance, salaries, utilities and housing.

Its most redeeming feature, from my point of view, is the number of high-ranking African Americans in charge of various aspects of the base, including Capt. Daryl K. Daniels, Joint Medical Group, a surgeon and commander with the Joint Task Force, who received a Master of Arts degree in Health Services Management from Webster University; my media liaison, Army Lt. Col. Myles B. Caggins III, the Pentagon’s spokesman for Guantanamo matters; and Navy Lt.. John Harrison, who oversees food service for three base cafeterias (and whose Yankee Pot Roast is sublime).

I had hoped to spend time with members of the Black History Organization, but was unable to remain for the two weeks originally planned. The hearing was recessed, yet again, and everyone involved had to leave the base.

In addition to a civilian workforce and contract employees, Guantanamo is also home to other detainees. The focus remains on the five men said to have orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. They are every bit as notorious as the prison that is their home: Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, 49; Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarek Bin 'Attash, 36; Ramzi Bin al Shibh, 52; Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, 37; and Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi. They aresaid to be the masterminds behind the September 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

I was among a group of reporters, legal observers and relatives of family members who lost their lives on 9/11. We all came to see legal proceedings involving men who will someday be called to account for the event that forever changed the way they see themselves and others. I was able to take advantage of a DOD opportunity for reporters to cover the hearings. After paying our way to Andrews Air Force Base, we then paid the $400 round-trip air fare to get here.

We're here to put faces to names we have read and heard about; to sit in on what could be the trial of the century, if there is ever a trial; to witness a slice of history; and to observe the mechanics of this protracted hearing. For almost a decade, a series of motions, pleadings, and wide-ranging digressions have slowed proceedings.

When President Bush declared his amorphous War on Terror in the wake of 9/11, he also broke new legal ground that is slowly moving toward adjudication. A bit of background: In 1950 Congress created the Uniform Code of Military Justice -- which replaced the Articles of War created by the Continental Congress in the 18th century. Designed to govern the conduct of the Continental Army, the military justice system continued to operate under the Articles of War until 1951, when the Uniform Code of Military Justice went into effect.

A series of substitution and amended articles ultimately resulted in a presidential post-9/11 authorization for trials by military tribunal for non-U.S. citizens who were identified as members of al Qaeda. That order essentially formalized guidelines for conducting military commissions -- a term used interchangeably with "tribunals." President Bush further decided not to trust the commissions to apply the principles of law and rules of evidence traditionally recognized when trying U.S. criminal cases in district courts. So he changed the rules.

The U.S. could now safely circumvent traditional judicial procedures through a series of instructions. They included a defendant's right to have a copy of the charges in English and in a language the accused understands, but not the presumption of innocence and other rights commonly afforded in courts-martial and civilian courts. Also included were controversial provisions, such as the potential use of evidence against a defendant that he hasn't seen, the potential admission of hearsay testimony, unsworn testimony, evidence obtained through coercion, and limited rights to appellate review.

The attorneys for the accused are all highly regarded lawyers considered experts in capital cases. The prosecutor, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, from all appearances is a highly principled officer. Only months shy of comfortably closing out his career, he was redirected to Guantanamo. His burden is almost as discomfiting as the defense team's: to bring this hearing to trial with as much transparency and dignity as possible. Since there has never been anything like this tribunal, tracking the detailed proceedings can get dense, with numbers and citations flying back and forth like out-of-control drones.

Martins must navigate a treacherous landscape. Seven military prosecutors have already come and gone – including one who resigned his commission after complaining that the system had been rigged against due process.

This hearing marks the first case since World War II in which a military tribunal has been convened to adjudicate capital war crimes involving a direct attack on the United States. These "high-value detainees" have been here for almost a decade under highly controversial conditions, and recent verified revelations about their torture have muddied already cloudy waters.

When the 400-page synopsis of the 6,400-page U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Study on CIA Detention and Interrogation (the so-called “Torture Report”) was released late last year, some unwritten rules came to light. We learned that "coercion" turned out to really mean "enhanced interrogation," which in fact meant torture. This flaunting of the post-war Geneva Conventions had long been suspected overseas, but it arrived on American soil when prisoners arrived on Guantanamo.

The existence of a so-called "black sites" (secret locations where prisoners were subjected to torture) also accounted for why al Hasawi, who was subjected to rectal feeding to counter a hunger strike, sits on a cushion during the hearings. Army Col. David Heath, who is the penal colony's latest Joint Detention Group commander, says all detainees receive necessary treatment, and forced feeding is administered in a medically approved, humane way.

Those who track torture would disagree. One is Juan Mendez, the current UN expert on what constitutes torture. He has said that even if it is intended to benefit detainees, feeding induced by threats, force or the use of physical restraints are tantamount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

Both Col. Heath and Gen. Martins are adamant about affirming their commitment to transparency and the discontinuation of torture.

Although reporters can see the courtroom through triple panes of bulletproof glass, there is a 40-second delay in sound transmission just in case some classified information slips out. We await the entry of the five men, who appear one, by one, in long, white robes. Within scant hours of opening statements, Ramzi Bin al Shibh announces that he recognizes a newly installed translator as a CIA translator from a previous black site where he and others were tortured.

The hearing comes to a halt. Everyone expresses shock.

The next day, we learned that the CIA operative, who had been identified by sight and by name the day before, is now classified information, a state secret. That and the next day are almost a wash. Finally, the judge recessed the hearing until April.

Our farewell dinner was Mongolian barbecue dinner at the Officer's Club. Next we were packing swimsuits we never wore and bidding farewell from the air to beaches we never saw.

I settled back in my seat and wondered if the five men in that courtroom were the only war criminals tied up in the War on Terror. I wondered whether a few more were still sleeping soundly at home – including George W. Bush in Texas, Dick Cheney in Wyoming and Donald Rumsfeld in Montana.

Ellen Sweets is an author and award-winning reporter who has written for The St. Louis American, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Dallas Morning News and The Denver Post.

American Travels: Selma-bound for history’s sake

"I missed it in 1965 but made it in 2015."

This tag line was on banners and T-shirts throughout the city of Selma. 

The feeling of history engulfed me as soon as I stepped into downtown Selma and again in Montgomery. To put it simply, I was overwhelmed by the experience.

Greeted with a parade on Saturday, March 7, the vibe in Selma was uplifting and the energy positive. The celebration happens yearly, but the 50th anniversary and the ever-growing activist mindset of millennial protestors brought people from hundreds of miles away. 

I was thankful to be able to grab a seat on the Amnesty International van. They were thoughtful in planning our outings and choosing activities for the group. 

We traveled into Montgomery after speeches by such greats as Congressman John Lewis and President Barack Obama. While there, I thoroughly enjoyed the knowledge of the docents in the Freedom Riders Museum in Montgomery's Historic Greyhound Bus Station. They had so much to share. There is always more to learn when it comes to history, and while this museum wasn't large in size, history lined the walls, inside and out. 

Our next stop was the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). We were welcomed with a quote from Lillian Hellman: "For every man who lives without freedom, the rest of us must share the guilt." I knew I was in for a great experience. (Not to mention Netta and DeRay already shared how awesome their experience was when they visited.)

If you're wondering why we went to a building of attorneys, the EJI is helping to change the injustice that occurs for those incarcerated (among other efforts). They helped to make it illegal to execute children in the United States. They also helped to abolish life without parole sentencing for children. 

We viewed a short film titled, “What in the World? USA” which highlights three people incarcerated for crimes they didn't commit. The EJI helped to release them. 

I've been reading books and articles, and watching videos and interviews involving one of my favorite historical figures, Rosa Parks. Nine months prior to Parks' arrest, a young woman named Claudette Colvin was the first person arrested for resisting bus segregation in Montgomery. She is a pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement. And I met her and was able to thank her for her courage while in Selma on Sunday, March 8 for the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. 

Then I met a man named Ophelius. He graciously let us park on his lot, just a couple blocks from the bridge. He shared with us that he was in the Selma to Montgomery march at the tender age of 10. Let's just say the police did not care that he was only 10 years old. Though just a young boy, he was brave enough to follow the people. This is a testament that our children want to follow us, so we must lead them in the right direction.

Just before departing Selma, the director of Amnesty International spoke with our group about the work being done and the work yet to be done. We ended by calling out one word we felt in that moment, in that space, at that time. 

“Grateful.”

“Renewed.”

“Empowered.”

“Committed.”

“Inspired.”

“Motivated.”

“Challenged.”

“Strong.”

“Hopeful.”

People clapped. Others chanted. Some cried. 

The celebration is in the work ahead. We are fighting for justice and human rights because black lives matter and should be valued. Selma and Montgomery offered a powerful space for a powerful moment and I am honored to say I WAS THERE. 

American Travels: Michael Brown-inspired protest art within German graffiti scene

Visiting Berlin, Germany, I met up with a friend and fellow Howard University alumus, James Shields. James, who goes by the name Creative Shields, is an artist from Oakland, California. His work, up until now, consisted of mainly painting on canvass and graphic design.

We first managed to link up during my trip back in Amsterdam. I served as muse for his first attempt at freestyling some raw street art. With a few spray cans he nabbed for cheap at an outdoor market, we went down to what artists call the Hall of Fame at FlevoPark.

A little after dawn, James completed his first piece – a beautifully figured black woman perched atop of clouds, her hair blowing in the wind. He explained that he felt compelled to create positive images of black women to counteract so many negative images prevalent in today's media. Therein lied James's mission, illuminating our true beauty.

Berlin, one of the world's most popular hubs for graffiti and street art, would go on to serve Creative Shields again as a natural canvass. There, he continued his quest to depict the black female form along the underpassings of local graffiti spots like Mauer Park and abandoned factory buildings.

However, as news spread of the riots in Ferguson due to the killing of unarmed Michael Brown, Shields insisted on a radical shift in his work. He started throwing up images of black kids adorned with crowns accompanied by a range of quotes like "America, stop killin black kids!" "Don't go, they'll shoot you too!" and "What do you want to be when you grow up? ALIVE," in efforts to raise awareness of what he sees as systematic terrorism targeting black males in America by police.

To get a little more background on the art and large-scale pieces throughout Berlin, I decided to go on a local arts tour given by Alternative Arts Berlin. Led by a fellow art enthusiast named Rob, we set out on a two-hour trek around the city to explore some of Berlin's most famous graffiti and street artists who have helped to give the city such world recognition. Splashed on the sides of everyday buildings, bridges, highway underpassings and train stations, we saw some of the greats, from the internationally famous 7UP crew, United-Kingdom based Banksy and Italian artists Blu and Alice Pasquini.

While street art is a fairly modern genre, it is an outgrowth of graffiti, an art form born from the economically disadvantage and oppressed youth in New York City during the 1970s, which came to fulfill the need to possess power and control over their environment. Street art embodies personal emotion and often draws awareness to social issues, as opposed to graffiti which takes on the sole purpose of obtaining fame by tagging of a name or street name.

Rob gives cred to 1980s New York superstar Jean Michel Basquiat as a pioneer for the art form. The African-American artist was famous for his inventive paintings that infused African art with modern forms and typically married text and abstract imagery on canvass.

Basquiat was, according to Rob, unfortunately lumped into the category of graffiti artists during the beginnings of his work. Yet, his contribution was larger than that; in actuality he helped to lay the groundwork for what we now refer to as street art.

The tour ended with a workshop in which everyone was able to create their own piece of street art in a studio using spray paint, canvass and stencils. We were asked to pick a stencil that personally inspired our creativity. Of the few black heroes and heroines sprinkled in the bunch of famous celebs, I decided upon the late Tupac Shakur. He was someone whose radically expressive music and persona was to me, similar to street art.

His music and idolatry still live on today through the hearts of children who were not even born at the time of his decease some eighteen years ago.

Shakur and his music represent the passionate cries from the frustrated and disenfranchised black youth today; a voice of social realism, an educator and some would even say-prophet.

I would never have imagined that I would come to Berlin and experience such rich education on the idea of African pride, Ancient Egyptian history, street art and a deeper appreciation for Tupac Shakur. There are some lessons I learned, that transcend borders. 

‘American Travels’: Dr. Denise on a mission to Malawi

I vividly recall my first trip to Africa. I was part of a 117-person mission group traveling to the nation of Zambia during Holy Week 2006.  Upon landing in the capital of Lusaka, women from the various local churches greeted us with the most beautiful singing I had ever heard in my life. 

I could not stop the tears from streaming down my cheeks. I felt as if they were saying: “Welcome home, my sister. It has been too long.”

This trip was different because it was much smaller, with only six participants: two doctors, a deacon, a pastor, a minister, and someone with HIV/AIDS experience.  Half of the group had been to Africa previously, and the other three were just as excited as we had been during our initial trip to Mother Africa. Instead of crying, a few people actually kissed the ground to show reverence to the land that bore our ancestors.

Each of us possessed different talents and experiences and brought unique contributions to the mission. We stayed in a modest hotel in  Blantyre, Malawi (in in southeastern Africa) and worked in a village outside of the city about 45 minutes away.

Our trip began a year ago when my local pastor asked for volunteers to accompany him to an impoverished country in Africa. He approached me because of my prior experience and encouraged me to seek other like-minded individuals. As the months passed, we began collecting needed items such as medical supplies, medicines and (believe it or not) reading glasses. During that first trip, I was amazed at the number of people who could not read fine print.

Upon arriving in Blantyre, I was greeted by cold weather, temperatures in the sixties. Although I had researched the weather, I still expected it to be fairly warm weather. I was freezing. I actually needed a sweatshirt in Africa!

We arrived to Malawi on a Tuesday, and on Wednesday we began our mission work. The drive to Chidradzula was on one of the most treacherous dirt roads that I have ever traveled. There were deep craters, it was narrow, and it always seemed like we were going to hit the numerous people walking on the sides of the roads.  The van in which we traveled graciously allowed us to experience each and every crater. My body became accustomed to being jostled up and down like popcorn!

Seeing pictures of African women in National Geographic magazines carrying baskets on their heads is nothing as compared to witnessing these graceful people accomplishing such tasks in person. Even when they were not supporting items on their heads, their posture remained upright, as if they were princesses walking through a ballroom. I don’t think they realized how in awe each of us were every time we passed them. 

The place where we worked was known as PIM, Providence Industrial Mission. Malawians take great pride in sharing the historical significance of PIM. Once a hiding place for slaves, it soon became known as the site where John Chilembwe, a local pastor, fought against the white colonials in 1915. He eventually was captured and no one has ever uncovered where he is buried. 

Because of his bravery, Chilembwe’s face adorns the 500 Kwacha, Malawi’s form of currency. Just as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. every January 15, Malawians commemorate Chilembwe on that day.

Within three and a half days, we saw over 200 patients. We treated chicken pox, enlarged thyroids, malaria, HIV and a host of other diseases in our makeshift waiting room. For some patients, I had a pill that could help. For others, we prayed and asked God to heal them. 

Because of prayer, one little mute boy started to speak. Mission complete. We at least made an impact on one life.

Visit www.sharinghopeim.org for future life-changing missions to Africa. 

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