U Go Gurl: Traveling As a Black Woman

by Guest Contributor Margari Aziza Hill, originally published at Just Another Angry Black Muslim Woman?

Most travel books don’t prepare Black Americans for the experiences they will have abroad. Ever since I first traveled abroad, I have been bemoaning the lack of resources for Black women who want to see the world. I receive frequent emails from Black women who are either planning to go abroad or are already abroad and looking for resources. Last year, I suggested that someone should compile our stories so that I could support other sisters who want to travel abroad. That’s why I was happy to find this web resource,
U Go Gurl and the book, Go Girl.

FINALLY A TRAVEL BOOK FOR AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN.

A rich collection of fifty-two stories covering the globe. Sister-to-sister advice on everything from destination selection, to traveling solo, to saving money on airfare. Exploration and discussion of issues of particular concern to black women; dealing with racism, overcoming fears, claiming entitlement, etc. The book also includes a planning guide and a resourceful guide.

Maya Angelou tells the story of arriving in Africa a stranger but leaving claimed as a member of the Bambara tribe. Evelyn C. White writes about finding new pride in being black after visiting Egypt. Opal Palmer Adisa evokes the sights, sound, and aromas of urban Ghana where she traveled to meet her lifelong pen pal. Lucinda Roy brings alive the year she spent teaching girls in Sierra Leone and talks how the villagers’ friendship overcame her loneliness for home.

Alice Walker offers a quite meditation on how the beauty of the country stirred her imagination. Audre Lorde captures her experience of being refused entry to the British Virgin Islands because of her dreadlocks. Gwendolyn Brooks recounts the camaraderie and tensions of a trip to Russia with a group of American writers. Gloria Wade-Gayles explores the complexities of being both an American and a woman of color as a paying guest in a Mexican home.

“Whether traveling for escape and relaxation (”Sailing My Fantasy”), on a spiritual quest (”Red Dirt on My Feet”), in search of a mind-expanding, life-changing experience (”The Kindness of Strangers”), as a “going home,” finding one’s roots (”Before I Was a Bajan”), to find relief from racism (”Why Paris?”), to celebrate black culture (”In Search of Black Peru: Christmas in El Carmen”), to honor black history (”Visiting Nannytown”), to reach for understanding across cultural barriers, (”Japan of My Dreams”), to help others (”Seeing Things in the Dark”), or to open up new possibilities in one’s own life (”Genesis of the Traveling Spirit”), the travel experiences chronicled in Go Girl! will delight, enlighten, and inspire.”

I’m very excited to read the articles, as well as make a contribution to the site.

This is especially true in light of my many awkward social encounters while abroad that have somehow involved race. I’ll try to outline some of them, as well as stories my friends have recounted.

When I went to Durham England to do research for a week, I really felt like things were going pretty well and I was not confronted by awkward racially charged moments. I was satisfied with my research experience, the staff at the library and archive were very nice. I had many quiet walks through the half empty town and along the river. Nobody really talked to me, except during breakfast at the dining hall. On my last day in Durham, I had a conversation with a British man who either worked at the library or in the dining hall at the castle/hostel where I was staying in. I commented on the city’s quaintness, the beauty of the campus, my pleasant stay in a castle, and of course the library and archive. I was also interested in the Sudan studies program and getting a PhD in the UK is much faster then the unbearably long, endurance test that passes itself off as a PhD in the US.

Light heartedly I said I might return to Durham as a student in in a PhD program. The man said, “well that might be hard for you being that you’re black and people aren’t used to seeing Blacks in these parts.” I felt like saying, “Thanks for reminding me that I’m Black, for maybe drawing attention to all those awkward exchanges in stores or in restaurants, the extra looks I receive, all the things I ignored just to make the trip more comfortable. Thanks for highlighting that I can never fit in or fully comfortable in your country.” But I didn’t. Instead I tried to be pleasant and we ended the conversation shortly after. I liked Durham a lot less.

Traveling while Black in many parts of the world can expose you to some amazing experiences that help you put America’s racial dichotomy in better perspective.

In the Aswan region and Nubia, the Nubian vendors would call out, “Nubian! My cousin!!” In Marrakesh, some vendors pumped their fists, shouting out, “My sista!” Little kids would come up to me and ask if I was Moroccan. If traveling with Egyptians, I can get Egyptian or Moroccan rates as long as I don’t open my mouth and say something. Traveling incognegro can be beneficial. Sometimes people are even nicer. Egyptians, for example, love Barack Obama. They will talk endlessly about him. Sometimes there is solidarity, and that can be nice. Most of my travels have been in the Middle East, so there is often a Muslim solidarity that helps bridge the racial and cultural divide. When I was flying from Alexandria, Egypt to Kuwait, my carry on was way over the weight and size limit. The clerk at first was going to charge me, then he said, “Okay, you go! I like American Black Muslim!”

At the same time, you will find that racism is a global phenomena and that you may get a different reception than your white, Asian or Latino/Hispanic/Chicano counterparts. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes not so subtle. My friend who traveled to Spain said she would get approached by men who assumed she was a prostitute. One young man who went to France said that the French treated him like he was stupid until they found out he was American and then they just treated him like #$@*. When I traveled to Sharm al Shaikh, I was constantly stopped asked what room I was staying in. My roommate who was a stunning brunette with bright blue eyes, on the other hand, was never stopped and asked. She was the one to notice pattern.

At airports and security checkpoints, guards take extra time examining my passport, in disbelief that I was really American. In fact, most people find it hard to believe that I am just plain ole Black. I often say in broken Arabic, no may family has been in American min zaman (for ages). Also traveling in the Middle East, you may get anti-African sentiment due to illegal immigration from Sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa. n Europe, people can think you’re illegal. This is why I hold on really tight to my passport. Try to get on a flight to Heathrow with all those stickers from the Gulf, Morocco, and look phenotypically North African or from some “Moozlem country. You may just get detained as they run some background check, miss a flight for r no particular reason except you look like a possible terrorist. Don’t travel to all the “hot spots,” as the British intelligence officer who interrogated me as I was running late for a flight, called them.

People can say racist things also, especially the brats that run the streets. I was in Kuwait in a Bedouin neighborhood with my friend and her daughter on my way to a Mawlid. And these Bedouin boys were staring at my friend’s daughter and she at them. They made faces at her, she made faces at them. And I heard them say withing like “….Abeed!” My friend seemed to ignore it, and my friend’s daughter said, “They’re rude!” I was pretty hot, but at that time, they were really tired of my anti-racism tirades. So, I just made a mental note that bedouin kids who live what basically amounts to Kuwaiti projects (even thought the projects are much fatter than you’d ever have in the states), are racist little #$*$!! In Egypt, depending on how you look, kids and ignorant people will say rude and racist things. A European student studying at AUC said her friend came to visit and people would make monkey sounds. My friend’s husband has a Black British friend who was always asked the time. The thing was they would get a kick out of him lifting his shirt and still being really dark. And they’d go and laugh and laugh. Also, in social circumstances, you could have some awkward conversations where people say things that wouldn’t fly in America. People may not pay any attention to you, while they fawn over your paler friends.

Further, Europeans and Americans can assume you are just part of the landscape. You’re that native that needs to move out their way as. One time I was traveling with my friend from Bahia. We look very similar and people often assumed we were Moroccan, maybe from somewhere in the South. On our way from Casa Blanca to Fes, we found some British people were sitting in our seats. So, we were looking at our tickets and them. Mariah said, “Umm, these are our seats.” I was trying to speak to them in my clear American diction. The young couple just looked at us blankly and the crusty old man blurted out, “Doo Youu Sbeakk Frrrench?!”

I said, “No, I speak English!”

What really pissed me off was that he didn’t hear us because we were brown. He assumed that our non-British accent meant that we weren’t fluent speakers. Our brown skin rendered our language incomprehensible, as well as our rights to the first class seats that we purchased with our hard earned money.

Like the Sharm experience and the train, people may assume you are a migrant worker, refugee, or just have less money than your paler counterparts. Or they may doubt that you belong. I find it troubling that sometimes I have to talk in extra loud English to get some attention. This works wel in Kuwait because they love Americans. While your friends may be able to get their American privilege, you have to assert yours. “You better respect me, my country rules the World!” sometimes to get some your needs met. One of my friend advised dressing to the nines all the time. She said she dresses almost like a princess and spends lots of money. Then people treat her well. I’m not saying that you want to flash your passport or a fat stack of local currency. But really, you have to keep in mind that how people see you in the lands that you are visiting can shape your experiences in that country.

I definitely have to follow this up with a traveling as a Muslim woman, that’s a whole different trip.