I’VE BEEN CHATTING with travel writers, activists and personalities of color about their experiences navigating the media industry and the globe with an intersectional lens, while exploring themes like power, privilege, place, and identity, themes that are rarely touched on in the mainstream travel space. Read previous #Dispatches here.
Tell us about yourself. How would you describe your work?
I would describe my blog, Moving Black as the place where I record my adventures, conversations and thoughts on travel, identity, stories past and present and the interplay between them. I try and provide an alternative discourse on the places I visit, and describe my experiences as a black British woman in them.
For me, the most easily accessible travel writing seems to be by white people and for white people. I am not white. I have a bunch of white friends, but I also have a big black family and a bunch of black friends and when we travel, we experience the very same places differently. I try and reflect that in my writing. In addition, the places we and I choose to visit and the museums I choose to go to are not necessarily those which your average white person my age would select. I try to contribute information about those places that do exist and are of interest to people like me but which are difficult to find information about.
In South Africa, for example, I wanted to visit Ginsberg in the Eastern Cape province, because it’s the spiritual home of the Black Consciousness Movement and the physical place where Steve Biko grew up and did amazing work as part of the Black Community Programmes in spite of being ‘banned’ by the apartheid government. The Steve Biko Foundation has an amazing community centre there, with a Heritage Trail and a museum, library, bar and restaurant (not to mention snazzy conference facilities) but when I was looking for information about the place, all I found was backpackers saying, “Spend one night if you must – there’s nothing to do here.”
When I went to Haiti, same thing. I was reading a lot about how dangerous it was and how I’d be crazy to go out at night. But as a black woman, this was not my experience. I dress simply and blend in a black crowd and was perfectly safe out alone at night in Jacmel and Cap Haitien for the most part.
There are a lot of black people who don’t get to the historical sights when they visit the Caribbean, or get past the safaris of Africa for one reason or another. I’ve got nothing against beaches or animals, but I think the black adoption of traditionally white modes of travel is problematic. No holidaymaker should be engaging in Orientalism when they travel in 2014 or beyond. But ‘point and stare’ tourism is still the standard because ‘difference’ and ‘exotic’ remain unconnected with a full humanity. ‘They’ are not like ‘us.’ Rome is still marketed as the birthplace of ‘civilisation.’ Like, really. I hope my blog contributes to black people, particularly those keen on independent travel, thinking carefully about their holiday destination choices and the role they play in those destinations in maintaining power relations. It’s not sexy, but I try and make it light-hearted in my writing!
Oh – and you asked me about myself. When I was the only black person in our group of 15 British kids sent to teach English in Thailand at 18, I prepared myself mentally. I was British too, but I was not white from a semi-rural nor a privileged background. All the same, I was still flabbergasted when in our second group meeting after we’d been in in our respective schools a few months, a girl admitted that she was having difficulties settling in and with colleagues because “They all look the same!” Once it was said out loud, the group expressed their collective woes borne of differentiating between one Thai person and another. Seriously. This was at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
I grew up in a different world from those kids. A happy multicultural politically-progressive area in 90s London, whereas these guys were from small towns and villages where black people were spotted at bus stops and Portuguese people were dark-skinned and ‘foreign-looking’. And I realised, these were the people travel literature was written for: upper-upper-middle class white people on an adventure with more-than-colonial undertones. One of them even went on to study ‘South-East Asian studies’. I fell in love with backpacking that year, but I fell out of love with mass-produced nonconformity, and learned quickly that travel and travel writing are not progressive unless you consciously make it so.
How can travel media change to become less of a white boy’s club?
Short answer: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Chinua Achebe
LONG answer: Travel media can’t change unless the world changes. As long as travel media continues the tradition of denying people the opportunity to talk about their own hometowns, and instead pays foreigners to report back on someone else’s country, and no one sees anything wrong with that, it will continue to be a white boy’s club. Even if there are more people of colour in that club, travel writing will remain essentially an orientalist endeavour.
Stories about ‘them’ and ‘us’ and the essential insurmountable differences between humans and their collective groupings will abound. George W Bush’s cabinet had 2 people of colour in important positions – Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell. It was lauded as the most diverse cabinet in US history in some quarters if I remember correctly. But it was not a progressive cabinet in political terms because, to paraphrase Angela Davis, diversity which doesn’t produce change is meaningless and BECAUSE it looks progressive, can get away with being reactionary, i.e. backward!
The problem with travel media, for me, is really a more broad discourse. Who has the right to speak? Who has the power to be heard? Who sets the terms of the discussion? Who and what subjects are included? Who and what are excluded?
Travel writing has a troubled history. The tradition of travellers’ tales is deeply rooted in the period of imperial expansion in Europe, it is closely linked to colonialism and ‘scientific’ racism. Travel writing, like early anthropology, provided evidence of white superiority through its representation of the exotic as barbaric, or lascivious or simply ‘other’. It played a key role in creating a popular imagination in which people are sufficiently characterised as so different, their lifestyles and cultural practices so alien, that they’re not fully human, and thus, with their humanity diminished bit by bit, story by story, you arrive at a world where brutal barbaric invasions are romanticised as bringing civilisation! Cruel, inhumane exploitation is barely thought of as unfortunate because it also involved ‘modernity’ or ‘Christianisation’. There is a lot of blood on the hands of travel writing. Then and now.
I don’t think I’ll make any friends but here’s my two cents: Travel media can’t change to become less of a white boy’s club unless it, by some unusually effective process of reflection, looks at itself and asks how it became one in the first place.
White boys didn’t invent the movement of peoples or travel for pleasure. If necessity is the mother of invention we know that travel has historically been very closely linked to trade. Where some people go to trade, other people follow to travel. The link between the US ban on travel to Cuba for nationals following the trade embargo is one example. The place of Timbuktu in popular imagination is another. Our conceptions of geography itself are wedded to our political realities; how else do you explain that ‘everybody’ has heard of the Caribbean islands – Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas – but few people would place Cuba, Haiti or the Bermuda triangle in that same geographical region? How many people have heard of Martinique or Guadeloupe? Let alone place them firmly in the same archipelago as St. Lucia or Trinidad if you gave them a map?
How is it that lots of contemporary travel writing is still so keen to present a place of wonder, relaxation or exploration for the traveller or tourist, and not as someone else’s home? Filled with all the stresses and joys of life for the people who live there? What is it about the way we travel, that makes the realisation that the ‘unique’ transportation we’re taking in an ‘exotic’ destination is somebody else’s oh-so-mundane ride to work, a bit of a buzz kill? Why are we so determined to talk about Jamaican beaches and landscapes, with reference to Jamaican crime, and not Jamaica and the IMF? Why is an authentic African adventure one which features seeing African wildlife and not one which features meeting African people, on their turf, as equals, or better yet, with them as the experts?
If I throw the question back at you, do you want travel media to become less of a white boy’s club, or all media? Travel is not a white boy’s club and never has been. We can’t talk about who gets to travel and whose lands are turned into ‘destinations’ – and whose aren’t – without talking about history and power. Well, I can’t!