RaceSex & Gender

the double consciousness of black travel

November 29, 2018
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It was the beatnik writers like Jack Kerouac that compelled me to travel. He once wrote, “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live.” When I was 19, I went against my mother’s wishes by crossing the country for the first time to work a summer job in Yellowstone National Park.

“Just be careful. You think you know what’s out there, but you don’t,” my mother said on the phone to me during a layover.

My mother emigrated to the United States from Jamaica in the 1980’s at the age of 14, during the height of desegregation busing. She faced her own challenges as a Black body in this country trying to build a life. Her words had chilled me, but I knew I had to satisfy my curiosity. That summer culminated in a panic attack before I entered a courtroom with my white friends whom I’d been caught drinking with — we were underage. I kept thinking, “These friends will never understand what it means for a Black person to do this.”

Despite the chaos of that summer, the travel bug had bitten. After graduating university, I traveled extensively in the United States and abroad: sleeping outside of abandoned gas stations during road trips, attending riots in Paris during Nuit Debout in 2016, and riding on the back of motorcycles to beaches in the Philippines. It is easy to list those experiences, but often difficult to unravel the double consciousness that they contain.

While working in Big Sky, Montana, I dealt with a manager that regularly made racist jokes in my presence, and was kicked out of a bar on my 21st birthday after throwing my drink at a man that called me a “faggot.” I severed ties with most of my friends in Montana after one of them said the n-word during a rap song at a party. The political world and my travel world continued to mingle. Months later, after organizing a memorial for Tyre King, a Black teenager shot by police in Columbus, Ohio in 2016, I had a near breakdown. I dreamt that my brother was killed by police while I was on my way to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock.

During my three-month trip in the Philippines, teenage boys followed me for blocks in awe, children yanked at my locs in public, and a police officer asked me how large my dick was. On many drunken nights in South Korea, I’d club hop at night and exchange selfies with excited Koreans for strong drinks. During a visit to the Aetas villages, home of the indigenous people of the Philippines, the dark-skinned children circled around me, pointed and laughed as they shouted, “Negrito! Negrito!” I was overwhelmed by the weight of being a Black American in a country ravaged by the “War on Drugs,” a similar beast to what had jailed my own people in the United States, and the anger I felt at being an anomaly anytime that I walked outside.

In Between The World And Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “I felt that I had missed part of the experience because of my eyes, because my eyes were made in Baltimore, because my eyes were blindfolded by fear.”

This line is true, but it does not interrogate what Black travelers see staring back at them in many of the places that they go — a world bent on our capture, surveillance or utter silence. If we cannot articulate what is staring back at us, how can we move through it and achieve a state of mind that allows us to cross borders while carefree and Black?

Anthony Bourdain once said about travel, “it hurts, it even breaks your heart.” This fact is even truer for Black people. I believe each breaking point can lead to moments of tenderness if we are open enough. Even with the pain, I have learned that we cannot reduce ourselves to what white supremacy has done to us. Our ancestors did not, and nor should we. Instead, we must go into the world boldly and face the reality, manifesting the magic of our Blackness along the way.

Prince Shakur is a queer, Jamaican American millennial that writes about social justice, prison abolition, travel and queer culture. His work has been featured in Teen Vogue, Into, Mask Magazine, Vice, and earned him the 2017 Rising Stars Award from G.L.A.A.D. His activism has led him to Ferguson, on the frontlines of Standing Rock, Nuit Debout in Paris, and beyond.