In popular travel movies and shows, we don’t see people who look like us, fall in love in Paris, or backpack through the Italian Alps. It’s hard to imagine traveling anywhere when all you see is a sea of white faces. These places seem inaccessible, especially when black people are sometimes housed in their own backyards.
Although I’ve only consistently traveled abroad in the last decade, I’m tackling a bucket list and hoping to inspire other black people to step out of their comfort zones. Some people travel to escape. Others want to collect bragging rights. I travel for my own sense of adventure – and for my black loved ones.
Diversifying the face of travel, one TikTok at a time
I do my hikes with my family first. I’ve thought a lot about souvenirs; I don’t do tchotchkes at all.
I bring local treats that make family members feel like they’re there: Swiss chocolate from Geneva, wool gloves from Dublin, and a black and gold silk kaftan from Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
Before I go somewhere new, I text at least five people saying, “I’m traveling to — — — what should I get you?”
Always on the list: my aunts Kim and Denise, my mother, my godmother Myeshia and Kennedy, my 10 year old cousin. I will also buy a shirt for my 86 year old grandmother and a hat for my uncle Garry.
Kennedy is always the most creative. She asked for books from my recent trip to the French Alps. “Which type?” I ask. “Image? Chapter? Coloring?” Picture as she could not read most of the French text despite practicing the language since our trip to Quebec City almost a year ago.
On her 12th birthday I promised to take her to Paris, although my goal is to take her sooner. I’ve had her passport in my safe for a year, and her parents said “no rush” when I offered to drop it off. They hope that I feel compelled to take them to a new place.
I leave photos in the family group chat while I’m away. When I FaceTime Kennedy from a scenic destination, like a vantage point in Chamonix in the French Alps, she and her father or grandmother look over her shoulder and take in the scenery with me. I’ve made it a habit since I went to Seoul in 2015 to connect to patchy WiFi so my mom could see Gyeongbokgung Palace. It was my first stay abroad and I made it an experience for the whole family.
More of my family members are getting passports. My aunt is in her 60’s and was afraid to fly but went to Florida anyway. She even agreed to take a cruise with me one day.
I realize that many black people cannot leave the country, let alone see Asia and Australia. I have only visited these places via discounted rate alerts and hostels. At least in my family, my grandmother remembers a visit to Israel in the 80s with my grandfather. I still have the beautiful skirt that my Aunt Denise brought me from South Africa in the early 2000s.
As a married person in a two-income household with no children, I have the freedom to travel as much as I want. But the reality is that traveling abroad is a luxury most accessible to the childless, the wealthy and the retired.
Given the pervasive wealth gap, black adults will work until they are physically unable and children are expensive. In my experience, many black people can be overly cautious about leaving their children with anyone, even for an overnight stay.
My white friends, on the other hand, were taking friends on family trips from elementary school. In the summer my mother would take me and my brother to my grandparents’ house in Camden before work. This, plus weekend trips, was our break.
The show made my grandparents’ tiny one-bedroom apartment seem so much grander.
We were at the Ferry Station Apartments at 7:30am and I was trying to get back to sleep. But instead I turned on cartoons and watched The Busy World of Richard Scarry before my grandma started her stories. The eponymous animated cat showed me places I’d never heard of, like Austria and Hungary. The show made my grandparents’ tiny one-bedroom apartment seem so much grander.
As a child I only had two wishes: I would travel the world and become a journalist. Both came late, but both came true. It wasn’t until I spoke to a class of high school juniors at a charter school in Philadelphia earlier this year that I realized the impact my experiences had on people. I was talking about journalism, but somehow we got to the topic of travel.
“Where were you born?” asked a girl. “Camden,” I replied, watching her frown in confusion.
The news usually shows the worst of Camden, as well as West Philly, where the students live. I’m sure it was difficult for this girl to see outside of her surroundings. Hearing me tell my story might help her see what is possible in her life.
While I was born in Camden, all of my upbringing and schooling took place in the nearby suburbs. I lived in a single parent household. For my classmates, privilege meant that your family had a home on the waterfront—the mark of wealth, indeed, in Jersey. The rich kids returned to school with epic tans and stories for weeks in the fall.
Even when organized on a payment schedule, my household could not afford to take part in the trips my aunt and cousins put together. But when I was 16, I was invited on a trip with my boyfriend’s family and was allowed to go to Las Vegas. Seeing the strip version of the Eiffel Tower and Pyramids just confirmed I had more to explore.
With the time I have available, I plan to continue inspiring and saving my loved ones to show some of them more of the world.
Tonya Russell is a South Jersey-based writer specializing in health, wellness and travel. Follow her on Twitter @thetonyarussell.