When I Travel, Please Stop Treating Me Like a Spokesperson for Black Americans

Me being Black does matter and needn't be erased, but just like everyone else, I am a fellow human being.
Publish date:
July 21, 2016
racism, writing, black feminism

A few weeks ago, I boarded a flight to London from Boston. At the end of April, I'd been accepted into a weeklong creative writing workshop for Black writers at the University of Oxford. For months I've struggled with not feeling like my fullest creative self, and I looked forward to this writing oasis and some time away from life, the world, and everything not writing-related.

When I boarded that plane in Boston, my mind was filled with fantasies of talking about writerly things with fellow writers, making new connections, and blossoming even further in my writing journey. I wanted to truly be away. To press pause on everything happening within and around me.

No journey comes without baggage, without a heaviness you drag behind you. I knew this, and yet I wanted to forget. I wanted to forget the tragedies, the joylessness, the splattering of continuous reminders that Black lives matter very little at the hands of the police. I wanted to thrust myself full throttle into another world, another reality — one where the pain of seeing the loss of those who look like me was less present. Where I could attempt to forget how heartbreaking the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were.

Forgetting. I wanted to try to forget.

This is what I carried with me across the Atlantic. This is what I dragged silently behind, unbeknownst to all those I passed in London Gatwick airport, at the bus station where I boarded a coach to take me to central London, and while navigating my way through the throngs of people at a tube station. I felt they didn't know my pain: how joy, as a Black woman in America, was becoming increasingly harder to cling to and reach for.

It seemed they saw only my Black face and my Black body and heard my American accent before seizing on the opportunity to start unwanted discourse.

While I was waiting to board the coach, a man some years younger than me asked me what departure I was waiting for. When he discovered we'd be on the same bus, he used it as his opportunity to start talking about America. He began by clumsily chatting about Trump and our upcoming presidential election and weaved his way into a convo about how "dangerous" America is with "all the guns." He hinted indirectly at guns affecting Black people but seemed uncomfortable with making a blatant statement.

Then, of course, he turned to me for a comment. I shrugged it off with a coy smile and found a way to blithely change the subject. I didn't know how to explain to him that being Black in America and living in a country that is "dangerous" for those who look like me because of "all the guns" and, most specifically, at the hand of white supremacist police forces was a subject I couldn't freely or willingly discuss. Talking about it put me in touch with a melancholic sense of hopelessness that could take me under if I let it.

Later that evening, when the news of the shooting at a protest in Dallas was splashed all over the headlines, I fielded questions from my family about what it felt like to be in the midst of all the chaos as a Black American. Feeling particularly disheartened as the breaking updates murmured in the background, I went to bed and tried to read a book to distract my mind. I tossed and turned all night.

And as I went to Oxford the following day, where I spent a week writing and being away, the things I tried to escape and forge some distance from kept following me. One evening, near the midpoint of the week, after an intense workshop session preceded by writing until 3 a.m., I decided cooking spaghetti and meatballs at the Airbnb I was staying at would be a great form of self-nurturing and self-care. Grocery shopping is one of my favorite activities, and I gave myself ample time to wander the aisles and take in the different things sold in England versus back at home. But right in the middle of my shopping session, a security guard, a Black man, said hello, discovered I was American, and swooped in, telling me that it was "so sad what is going on there with the guns" and looked at me in a way that implied a deeper sentiment. It was if he was saying, "I see that the police are killing people who look like you and me, and it feels groundless."

I nodded soberly and continued shopping, my stride slowing, becoming more solemn and somber. As I went to the register to have my items rung up, my thoughts drifted to back home. I was feeling so many things at once — fury, rage, despair, sadness, apathy — but with nowhere to channel those emotions, I pushed them aside. And I continued to push them aside as they grew. As the drain and exhaustion continued to mount, I felt the burden on my shoulders and a tightness in my chest. I was away from home, thousands of miles away from home, but the reminders, shadows, and memories of Black lives being senselessly taken remained with me.

And it always will. Because I am Black. I am a Black American. And this simple fact cannot be erased, no matter where in the world I may go.

As a frequent traveler and travel writer, I think a lot about what it means to be Black not just within the confines of the U.S. because I have to. It's a means of survival. I've been traveling solo for the past seven years, and I'm now hyperaware of my Blackness. I've lived in Spain and dealt with unimaginable racism. Anti-Blackness is a global phenomenon that stands on the overarching backs of colonialism. I know this and accept this. Embedded in that knowing, however, is wanting my humanity seen and recognized.

Traveling as a Black woman, as a Black American woman, alone as I do, is a radical act. It is even a political one. The act of my daring to go to as many corners of the world is me shouting from the mountaintops that I too can explore, can have adventure and seek transformation from different experiences and meeting and connecting with new people. It's daring to be seen as Black, because me being Black does matter and needn't be erased, but just like everyone else, I am a fellow human being.

When I travel, I'm a mass of life experiences and yes, this includes being Black in America. This includes knowing far too intimately what it means to live in fear of police brutality and knowing being Black subjects me to criminality solely based on the color of my skin. But it also includes simply being a woman, a person — a person just like everyone else who wants a break sometimes. Who wants to focus on the mere act of experiencing life, being present, and not being a factoid machine, forced to field questions about life back at home, or expected to exist as a spokesperson or representative.

The fact that I am here, a living, breathing entity on this earth, does not mean I have to explain. It does not mean I have to acquiesce to demands to talk about police brutality and the American version of racism, prejudice, and bigotry toward Black people. It means I reserve the right to not engage. It means I reserve the right to be a traveler soaking up everything around me. And it means, no, I shouldn't be treated as anything less than that.