In popular travel movies and shows, we don’t see people who look like us falling in love in Paris or backpacking through the Italian Alps. It’s hard to imagine traveling somewhere when all you see is a sea of white faces. These places seem unreachable, especially when black people are sometimes others in their own backyards.
Although I’ve been traveling abroad constantly for the past decade, I’m tackling a small list and hoping to inspire other people of color to step outside of their comfort zones. Some people travel to escape. Others want to collect bragging rights. I travel for my sense of adventure – and for my Black loved ones.
Diversifying the face of travel, one TikTok at a time
I take my trips with my family at the forefront of my mind. I thought a lot about souvenirs; I don’t do anything at all.
I bring local goodies that will make family members feel like they were there: Swiss chocolate from Geneva, wool gloves from Dublin, and a black-and-gold silk caftan from the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.
Before I go to a new place, I will send a message to at least five people that says “I’m traveling to — — — what do you want me to bring you?”
Always on the list: my aunts Kim and Denise, my mom, my godmother Myeshia, and Kennedy, my 10-year-old cousin. I will also buy a shirt for my 86 year old grandmother and a cap for my uncle Garry.
Kennedy is always the most creative. From my recent trip to the French Alps, she asked for books. “What kind?” I ask. “Picture? Chapter? Coloring?” Photo, as she would not be able to read most of the text in French, even though she has been practicing the language since our trip to Quebec City almost a year ago.
For her 12th birthday, I have promised to take her to Paris, although my intention is to take her sooner. I have had her passport in my safe for a year and her parents said “take your time” when I offered to leave it. They hope I feel motivated to take it somewhere new.
While I’m away, I post pictures in the family group chat. When I FaceTime Kennedy from a scenic destination, like an overlook in Chamonix in the French Alps, she and her father or grandmother look over their shoulders, taking in the scenery with me. I’ve made this habit since I went to Seoul in 2015, connecting to sketchy WiFi so my mom could see Gyeongbokgung Palace. It was my first time abroad and I made it an experience for the whole family.
More of my family members are getting passports. My aunt is in her 60s and was afraid of flying, but she went to Florida anyway. She has even agreed to take a cruise with me one day.
I understand that many black people will not get to travel abroad, let alone see Asia and Australia. I have only visited these places through notices of discounted rates and hostels. In my family, at least, my grandmother remembers visiting Israel in the 80s with my grandfather. I still have the gorgeous skirt that my aunt Denise brought me from South Africa in the early 2000s.
As a married person in a two-income family with no children, I have the freedom to travel as much as I want. But the reality is that foreign travel is a luxury best afforded to the childless, the wealthy and the retired.
With the widespread wealth gap, black adults will work until they physically can’t, and children are precious. In my experience, many black people can be overly cautious about leaving their children with anyone, even for a sleepover.
My white friends, on the other hand, have been taking friends on family trips since elementary school. In the summer, my mother would drop me and my brother off at my grandparents’ house in Camden before work. That, plus weekend day trips, was what our vacation looked like.
The show made my grandparents’ tiny one-bedroom apartment feel so much grander.
We were at the Ferry Station Apartments by 7:30am and I was going to try to go back to sleep. But I would turn on the cartoons instead, watching The Busy World of Richard Scarry before my grandmother started her stories. The titular animated cat showed me places I’d never heard of, like Austria and Hungary. The show made my grandparents’ tiny one-bedroom apartment feel so much grander.
There were only two things I wanted as a child: I would travel the world and become a journalist. Both came late, but both were accomplished. It wasn’t until I spoke to a class of high school juniors at a Philadelphia charter school earlier this year that I realized the impact my experiences had on people. I was talking about journalism, but somehow we got into the topic of travel.
“Where you were born?” asked a girl. “Camden,” I replied and watched as she furrowed her brow in confusion.
The news usually shows the worst of Camden, as they do West Philly, where the students live. I’m sure it was hard for that girl to see outside of her surroundings. Hearing me tell my story may help her realize what is possible in her life.
While I was born in Camden, all my growing up and schooling was in the immediate suburbs. I lived in a single parent home. To my classmates, privilege meant that your family had a house on the shore—truly the mark of Jersey wealth. Rich kids went back to school in the fall with epic tans and stories for weeks.
Even when they were arranged on a payment plan, my family could not afford to join the trips my aunt and cousins took. But at the age of 16, I was invited on a trip with my friend’s family and I had to go to Las Vegas. Seeing the Strip version of the Eiffel Tower and the pyramids only confirmed that I had more to explore.
With the time I have available, I plan to continue to inspire my loved ones while saving up to show a few more of the world.
Tonya Russell is a South Jersey-based writer specializing in health, wellness and travel. Follow him on Twitter @thetonyarussel.