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#BlackVanLife Movement Highlights Issues Exacerbated By Pandemic

Marcella Zigbuo Canada and her camper.
Rebecca Martinez
Marcella Zigbuo Canada and her camper.

There's a big #BlackVanLife movement out there, especially among Black women, that touches on a lot of pressing social issues exacerbated by the pandemic.

You movie buffs will know that Nomadland has cleaned up this awards season, most recently netting three Oscars. Frances McDormand plays a woman who has fallen on hard times and decides to move into a van for a fresh start. That’s when she plugs into a community of people who are doing the same. The movie is based on real stories – and includes real people from America’s nomadic community.

There’s a romance inherent in the idea of paring down one’s earthly possessions and hitting the road, with only one’s imagination (and one’s vehicle) to limit oneself. Nomadland is pretty candid about the downsides of life on the road, but the nomadic lifestyle is attracting a cross-section of Americans.

I’ve been seeing a lot of young Black people disillusioned with an inaccessible housing market and the grind it takes to stay in it. I recently learned that one of my favorite local artists, Marcella Zibguo Camara, has decided to get in on the #BlackVanlife.

Marcella is a public health worker at the Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She's also a cultural organizer, artist, and the founding curator of young, gifted and broke, which is a BIPOC art exhibition.

She was born and raised in a house in Durham. After college, she moved to an apartment down the street. Her mom and stepdad still live in Marcella’s childhood home, but not for much longer. They’re planning to retire to Liberia, where Marcella’s mom is from. Marcella decided it’s time to pull up stakes as well, and move into a tiny home on wheels. It’s parked in her parents’ backyard.

That’s where I met her to ask about her next chapter. This conversation is edited for length and clarity.

Can I ask you to describe what we're in and what you're doing?

So right now we are in a 19-foot Avenger camper. There's many types of recreational vehicles and things you can live in on wheels. This specific thing is what you hitch to the back of a car. My dog and I will be in this space; there's a bed, there's a kitchenette, a fridge and a bathroom.

I was lucky enough to finally find a job in my field after like years of trying. But also, I knew that I would never be able to afford a home if I didn't downsize in a significant way. And I would never be able to afford to travel and see the world and actualize a lot of my non-career goals, which involve art, organizing, and seeing the world.

I'm wondering if this particular moment in history, like with regards to the pandemic and other things that are going on, does that play a role in your decision to do this now? Or is it just sort of you're at a point in life that it seems like a good idea?

Oh, absolutely. I think if I'm being honest with myself, I'm not sure how soon I would have been able to pull this together if not for the pandemic. And I think it also gave me courage. There was definitely a point like, last year as a person who like is neuro-divergent, I have ADD, which is like a totally this misunderstood nebulous thing and the ways that people look like it, especially when you're an adult, especially when you're a woman and a Black woman.

Also, I am prone to falling into the ether of depression. And I was like, you know, if not now when? I think I had this point last year where I was just feeling like the world can end in a moment. And it's like, I don't do the things that I want to do, when will I be able to do them.

You can find Marcella Zigbuo Camara's art exhibits at YoungGiftedAndBroke.Art

Rebecca Martinez produces podcasts at WUNC. She’s been at the station since 2013, when she produced Morning Edition and reported for newscasts and radio features. Rebecca also serves on WUNC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Committee.
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