Susan Page found home as a 14-year-old on a high-school orchestra trip to Europe. She wasn’t drawn to one place in particular. Rather, it was the feeling that, whether it be in London, Paris, or Amsterdam, she was meant to be an outsider. She would return overseas for her senior year of college, studying at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, before traveling to Italy during law school, and then on to Nepal for a postgraduate fellowship.
Eventually, she joined the U.S. State Department, representing her country around the world. Still, the feeling that struck her as a teenager on the other side of the Atlantic stayed with her: Only outside the United States did she—a Black woman, a diplomat—feel wholly American.
Page, who served in Kenya, Botswana, and Rwanda and became the first U.S. ambassador to South Sudan, had an experience familiar to many of her peers. Over the past year, I have spoken with several dozen female career diplomats while researching a book that will center these women’s experiences in modern American diplomacy. Some joined the Foreign Service during the civil-rights movement and the Cold War in the late 1960s, others began their careers just before 9/11, and a few are preparing for their first postings now. They have served in an array of places—from postwar countries such as Japan and France to conflict-wracked countries including Iraq and Yemen, as well as Russia, Guatemala, Micronesia, and elsewhere. For some Black diplomats, and in particular Black female diplomats I spoke with, traveling outside the U.S. and representing America to the rest of the world was the first time they felt they were treated like Americans.