As I walked through the Forbidden City, the majestic imperial palace at the center of Beijing, with a friend and her teenager, I scanned the crowd. In the maze of shrines and courtyards, there was no one quite like us: I am an African-American with long dreadlocks, and my friend, Maria, a Mexican-American, had her half-Dominican son in tow.
And yet, we were nearly invisible — at least to the guards checking the bags of Chinese tourists, possibly for materials that could be used in protests at this landmark, which adjoins Tiananmen Square. We passed through checkpoint after checkpoint unhindered, while Chinese people were stopped and their bags searched. Sure, we got a couple of stares from people. But no one touched our hair, pointed or acted hostile — which has happened to me as a tourist even in the United States. Once again, my travels had taken me to a place — not just a physical but a mental place — where the rules as I knew them had changed.
That is partly what drives my wanderlust. And I am part of a sizable fellowship of African-Americans on a mission to see the world. Seventeen percent of African-Americans take one or more international trips a year, and we spend $48 billion on travel in the United States alone, according to the Mandala Research firm. That amount may be smaller than spending by other (not mutually exclusive) niche groups like LGBT travelers ($70 billion). But, according to analysts at MMGY Global, a marketing firm, black travel has rebounded since 2008, which is notable considering that the great recession doubled the gap between black and white wealth. When you look at per capita income, our travel spending is significant.
Yet for all of that buying power, major hospitality companies and tour operators often steer clear of targeting African-Americans. After all, it’s complicated. Hoteliers are promoting women-only floors, but that idea would be anathema to black travelers, who are concerned about getting equal and respectful treatment from staff members. Similarly, tour operators pushing gay-friendly getaways would not be wise to advertise trips as “black-friendly.”
We are a niche that it seems shouldn’t exist in a country that aspires to be postracial. As a result, minority travelers are mainly paving our own path, guided by ourselves, our social and professional networks and by bloggers. We are a largely untapped market, exploring the world without being aggressively sold an itinerary on how to do it. That means there are few guidebooks or tour operators to prepare me for the moment of surprise that I experienced in the Forbidden City. And it is one of the reasons that travel right now feels more freeing than ever.
For African-Americans, domestic and international exploration used to be filled with significant roadblocks. From the late 19th century until the civil rights era, the lack of parity in pay left African-Americans with little to spend on leisure (a disparity that continues to this day); segregation meant substandard seats and service on public transportation; and finding lodging on the road if you were black, in particular, was a challenge, especially in the South. “The Negro Traveler’s Green Book” was published from 1936 until 1964 to give black travelers a list of places where it was safe to stay and to stop. Published by a postal worker named Victor H. Green, the book was used by thousands of African-Americans as they crisscrossed the United States by car. Green optimistically wrote in one edition: “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States.”
As part of the generation that came after Green’s last edition, I was raised to believe that the world was mine by my Zimbabwean father and my African-American mother, a Baltimore native who headed off to Morocco to serve in the Peace Corps. When I was 5, I traveled with my mother and younger sister to visit my father’s family in what was then apartheid-like Rhodesia. I remember meeting my grandparents and scores of cousins, many of whom did not speak English, and sitting with the family at sunset, eating chewy maize roasted over the fire.
Elaine Lee is one such kindred spirit. She runs the site Ugogurl.com, which features a picture of Ms. Lee hefting an ice ax at the top of a New Zealand glacier. A lawyer by trade, she’s also the editor of the anthology “Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Book of Travel and Adventure.”
“Travel is the music of my soul,” Ms. Lee said. “The biggest surprise about traveling internationally was to discover that in many parts of the world, it is an asset to be a black woman, unlike in North America, where it is often a liability. Travel to Africa is among the most healing of all. You go there and get part of your soul back.”
The idea that travel is a soul-stirring experience was echoed by Greg Gross, who got a taste for traveling when, as a child, he went from New Orleans to Los Angeles on the Sunset Limited. A former newspaper journalist, Mr. Gross started the blog ImBlackNITravel.com (I’m Black and I Travel) six years ago after coming across a black woman in Natchez, Miss., who proudly said she never intended to set foot outside the limits of her native city. Though he’s traveled the world, he says his most emotionally resonant moment happened in the United States, in the nation’s capital: “I walked over to the Lincoln Memorial. I wanted to stand on the exact step where Martin Luther King Jr. had stood to give his famed ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, to see the view that he saw that day. And I found it. To be in that place, to look out over that same vista, was a moment more powerful than I can explain. I couldn’t talk. I could barely breathe. I was not the same when I came down off those steps.”
There are other, more practical benefits particular to black travelers, like the ability to blend in. Brian Keith Jackson, a novelist who sometimes contributes text and film to the work of the artist Kehinde Wiley, has lived in Beijing, far from his northern Louisiana roots. “In many places, because most of the Western world has been white and has projected their images as white, black skin means Africa, not America,” he said. “Although I’m an American, people don’t view me as an American.” Mr. Jackson, who has short-cropped hair, believes that his pecan skin tone, and the perceptions around it, “helped me in my travels, because everyone thinks I’m from there, certainly in Sri Lanka.”
Brown skin that’s often perceived as “otherness” in parts of America is not seen that way in much of the world. After traveling to more than 25 countries (and 48 of the states), I call being brown in a region of brown-skinned people “masking.” I experienced it in southern India, where many people were similar shades of brown as me or darker. I was not mistaken for being a local, but I could circulate less conspicuously than fair-skinned visitors. I took advantage of my skin color (and some common-sense cultural and street smarts, like dressing modestly, showing no valuables and staying alert) to go solo and explore low-income areas of Mumbai that the guards at my luxury hotel had warned me against visiting. My reward: I was invited to lunch at the home of a family, where an older couple and their son and daughter-in-law shared a two-room house.
That isn’t to say that the experience of traveling while black is one high note after the other. There are bias attacks on blacks in the United States and abroad. Last year, for example, the United States State Department issued an advisory, still in effect, about Greece warning that “there has been a rise in unprovoked harassment and violent attacks against persons who, because of their complexion, are perceived to be foreign migrants. U.S. citizens most at risk are those of African, Asian, Hispanic, or Middle Eastern descent.” And there are high-profile but low-danger incidents, as when Oprah Winfrey was denied a look at a $38,000 purse in Switzerland — “too expensive,” the billionaire said a sales assistant told her. (Of course, not many of us, black or white, are in that league.)
That may be why travel patterns are still very much shaped by race. According to Mandala, African-Americans are most likely to visit Florida and Georgia. African-Americans and Latinos are more likely than the general American population to seek our historic attractions; three-quarters of African-American leisure travelers say it’s a critical factor in their choices. Group travel is twice as popular among African-Americans than whites, according to Charlie Presley, the founder of the African-American Travel Conference, perhaps pointing to a sense of security in numbers as well as the proliferation of black interest clubs and professional groups.
These clubs help drive black tourism, exposing us to new destinations. Ms. Lee, for example, said that when she made a rare trip to Utah (which is less than 2 percent African-American) with the National Black Ski Association (a.k.a. National Brotherhood of Skiers), “I was pleasantly surprised by the Utahans’ friendly reception of our color-full group. The N.B.S. members typically boost local economies to the tune of $3 million during their weeklong summits.”
And bloggers are also pushing black Americans to get out and see our country in all its natural glory. Barry and Cindy Rock, originally from Boston and now living in Georgia, run the site Camping in Color (campingincolor.blogspot.com), which addresses the specific fears about what it’s like to camp — a fear that can encompass both nature and other campers. “I think most folks need to just relax a little bit because everywhere you go in this country you’ll come across somebody who doesn’t like you,” Mr. Rock said. “They may give you a dirty look, but that’s not something that’s going to stop us from enjoying our country.” He continued: “We [black Americans] are as much a part of this country, maybe even more, than a lot of people who are here now so we have the right, and we’re going to take the right, to go anywhere we want to go.”
The couple blogs about African-American culture and community throughout the country as well as the pleasures of being outdoors. They’ve since taken scores of friends and family members into the woods, and created a wide circle of explorers via their own trips and their blog.
Plenty rely on advice from bloggers like the Rocks, Ms. Lee and Mr. Gross. But often, the circle of explorers on the road grows organically, without any digital intervention, the way it always has. Beandrea July, an artist based in Washington, found that as she traveled in Kauai in 2008, the road opened before her. “I forced my introvert self to go to the farmers’ market around the corner and chat with some people. In so doing I scored an invitation and a ride that night to a barbecue on a fruit farm.” She met another black American on a bus, and the two women traveled throughout the Hawaiian island. “While eating dinner one day, this black guy walked by, and we all looked at each other,” she said. “About an hour later he was taking us out in his kayaks for a tour. This trip was all about abundance, and asking and receiving.”
For those of us blacks who travel — domestically or internationally, with financial ease or by saving for years — the world can be our playground, our teacher, our beloved. We just have to remember one thing I was lucky enough to learn as a child, and one that I was reminded of in Beijing that fall day. This world can be our place, too.