A few months ago, as I was scrolling through the ‘Explore’ page on Instagram, I came across the page of an up-and-coming Black travel group. As someone who is keen on snatching grant money and leaving the country for weeks, if not months at a time, in the name of research and scholarship (plus photo ops), I gobbled up all of the beautiful photos of young Black people getting their entire lives in places like Laos, Madrid, Rio, Capetown, and many more. Aside from the warmth of seeing myself represented in countries and experiences that I might not otherwise be, I share the point of view that to be Black and traveling out of one’s own volition is a radical act.
In a beautifully-penned essay, Teju Adisa-Farrar lays out the effects of colonialism and racism in restricting the free movement of Black people throughout the diaspora, and how the current trend of collecting as many passport stamps as possible seeks to overcome that.
But a few weeks after initially following the aforementioned travel page, I opened the app to find a post that seemed to be chastising people for spending money on seemingly material objects, rather than investing in a passport or visas. Though this sentiment certainly doesn’t speak for all the groups and individuals (like myself) who participate in the Black and traveling phenomenon, it is a recurring theme among many.
Initially benign to me, the more I encountered tweets, posts, and memes that bore the subtle mark of class admonishment, the more turned off I became.
I began asking myself:
How radical can this act of being Black and traveling actually be if it is mostly inaccessible and exclusionary to those who are situated at the heart of social marginalization?
How do we reconcile encouraging folks to overcome institutional barriers surrounding race, only to be ignorant to how they function alongside other institutional barriers regarding class?
Why can’t we shake the false notion that poor people are poor because of the choices they make?
The current emphasis on travel, typically asserted by those of us who have attained higher education, is not a new phenomenon by any means. Though much more difficult in the 20th century, artists, scholars and activists such as Paul Robeson, James Baldwin, and Ida B. Wells traveled throughout Western Europe and the continent of Africa to both consume and inform.
Where parallels between life in segregated America and life in other parts of the world were made, they mainly sought to elevate the plight of the Black individual—in all its nuanced forms and shapes. Similar to this current era, traveling while Black remained a remarkable privilege, and these icons knew it. Of course, leisure was to be had while abroad, but there was also important cultural work to do.
How disappointing that the amplification of leisure in the present day often occurs alongside the chiding of those who are too poor to front the $100 for a passport, let alone a plane ticket and hotel.
To some, that might be a weekend or two of bar tabs, or a month’s worth of Saturday brunch. To others, that’s a month of groceries, or child support, or even a car payment.
On top of navigating the upfront costs, there’s the reality among those who punch the clock that taking off work for any reason can quickly turn a 3-day vacation into a permanent one. Research has shown that Black workers receive more scrutiny from their employers, and with a job market that thrives on low-wage, expendable labor, it is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which taking time off for any reason—no matter how short—could lead to job insecurity.
The reality of the stratification of wealth within this country requires us to think outside of our own pocketbooks: what’s trivial in one person’s life may be crucial to another, and what seems like a luxury expense for someone living below the poverty level may actually be necessary to their survival. Poor Black people deserve to participate in the radical act of being Black and traveling without sacrificing a heat bill or even the opportunity to upgrade their smartphone.
They too deserve to engage with their kinfolk throughout the African diaspora. They too deserve to see the pyramids of Giza, breathe in the crisp, salty Capetown air on a Ferry to Robben Island, and witness the majesty of the Christ the Redeemer statue in the Rio sun—especially since the presence of Black skin in other areas of the world is rarely met with warmth and welcome. To truly decolonize travel, poor Black people must be centered within this movement—not pushed to the fringes.
Each time we proudly proclaim that we only “catch flights not feelings,” or joke that the only “stamps” we collect go in our passports, let it be a reminder of how far our community truly has come, and how much further we have to go.