THE INTERVIEW SERIES I’ve got going on over at Everywhere All The Time might be a mouthful — “Dispatches: Conversations with Writers of Color on Race, Place & Adventure” — but what it lacks in brevity, it makes up for in rare, enlightening content. I’ve been chatting with travel writers of color about their experiences navigating the media industry as well as the globe, exploring topics that are rarely touched on in mainstream discourses.
Recently, I got to chat with educator, writer, and historian Abena Clarke of the blog Moving Black in an exchange that took place over email, over two weeks, across time zones, and in Accra, California, Ecuador, New York, Kenya, and London. All quirks aside, we managed to have a really straight-up discussion on travel writing’s ‘bloody’ relationship with people of color, and how we might be able to approach a future together. Read on and get schooled!
MsMovingBlack (aka Abena Clarke) is a Caribbean-based London-born teacher, writer, historian, and armchair activist. She currently lives in Martinique, but of all the places she’s visited, she’s most at home in the center of a dance floor.
BA: Tell us about yourself. How would you describe your work?
AC: I would describe my blog, Moving Black, as the place where I record my adventures and thoughts on travel, identity, stories past and present, and the interplay between them. I try to provide an alternative discourse on the places I visit, and describe my experiences as a black British woman in them.
For me, the most easily accessible travel writing seems to be by white people and for white people. I am not white. I have a bunch of white friends, but I also have a big black family and a bunch of black friends and when we travel, we experience the very same places differently. I try and reflect that in my writing. In addition, the places I choose to visit and the museums I choose to go to are not necessarily those which your average white person my age would select. I try to contribute information about those places that do exist and are of interest to people like me but which are difficult to find information about.
In South Africa, for example, I wanted to visit Ginsberg in the Eastern Cape province, because it’s the spiritual home of the Black Consciousness Movement and the physical place where Steve Biko grew up and did amazing work as part of the Black Community Programmes in spite of being ‘banned’ by the apartheid government. The Steve Biko Foundation has an amazing community center there with a Heritage Trail and a museum, library, bar, and restaurant (not to mention snazzy conference facilities), but when I was looking for information about the place, all I found was backpackers saying, “Spend one night if you must — there’s nothing to do here.”
When I went to Haiti, same thing. I was reading a lot about how dangerous it was and how I’d be crazy to go out at night. But as a black woman, this was not my experience. I dress simply and blend in a black crowd and was perfectly safe out alone at night in Jacmel and Cap Haitien for the most part.
There are a lot of black people who don’t get to the historical sights when they visit the Caribbean, or get past the safaris of Africa for one reason or another. I’ve got nothing against beaches or animals, but I think the black adoption of traditionally white modes of travel is problematic. No holidaymaker should be engaging in Orientalism when they travel in 2014 or beyond. But ‘point and stare’ tourism is still the standard because ‘difference’ and ‘exotic’ remain unconnected with a full humanity. ‘They’ are not like ‘us.’ Rome is still marketed as the “birthplace of civilization.” Really?
I hope my blog contributes to black people, particularly those keen on independent travel, thinking carefully about their holiday destination choices and the role they play in those destinations in maintaining power relations. It’s not sexy, but I try and make it light-hearted in my writing!
Oh — and you asked me about myself. When I was the only black person in our group of 15 British kids sent to teach English in Thailand at 18, I prepared myself mentally. I was British too, but I was not white from a semi-rural nor a privileged background. All the same, I was still flabbergasted when in our second group meeting after we’d been in our respective schools a few months, a girl admitted that she was having difficulties settling in and with colleagues because “They all look the same!” Once it was said out loud, the group expressed their collective woes borne of differentiating between one Thai person and another. Seriously. This was at the beginning of the 21st century.
I grew up in a different world from those kids. A happy multicultural politically progressive area in ’90s London, whereas these guys were from small towns and villages where black people were spotted at bus stops and Portuguese people were dark-skinned and ‘foreign-looking’. And I realized, these were the people travel literature was written for: upper-middle-class white people on an adventure with more-than-colonial undertones. One of them even went on to study Southeast Asian studies. I fell in love with backpacking that year, but I fell out of love with mass-produced nonconformity, and learned quickly that travel and travel writing are not progressive unless you consciously make it so.
How can travel media change to become less of a white boys’ club?
Short answer: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” – Chinua Achebe
Long answer: Travel media can’t change unless the world changes. As long as travel media continues the tradition of denying people the opportunity to talk about their own hometowns, and instead pays foreigners to report back on someone else’s country, and no one sees anything wrong with that, it will continue to be a white boys’ club. Even if there are more people of color in that club, travel writing will remain essentially an Orientalist endeavor.
Stories about ‘them’ and ‘us’ and the essential insurmountable differences between humans and their collective groupings will abound. George W Bush’s cabinet had two people of color in important positions — Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. In some quarters it was lauded as the most diverse cabinet in US history, if I remember correctly. But it was not a progressive cabinet in political terms because, to paraphrase Angela Davis, diversity which doesn’t produce change is meaningless and because it looks progressive, can get away with being reactionary, i.e. backward!
The problem with travel media, for me, is really a broader discourse. Who has the right to speak? Who has the power to be heard? Who sets the terms of the discussion? Who and what subjects are included? Who and what are excluded?
Travel writing has a troubled history. The tradition of travelers’ tales is deeply rooted in the period of imperial expansion in Europe. It is closely linked to colonialism and ‘scientific’ racism. Travel writing, like early anthropology, provided evidence of white superiority through its representation of the exotic as barbaric, or lascivious, or simply ‘other’. It played a key role in creating a popular imagination in which people are sufficiently characterized as so different, their lifestyles and cultural practices so alien, that they’re not fully human, and thus, with their humanity diminished bit by bit, story by story, you arrive at a world where brutal barbaric invasions are romanticized as bringing civilization! Cruel, inhumane exploitation is barely thought of as unfortunate because it also involved ‘modernity’ or ‘Christianization’. There is a lot of blood on the hands of travel writing. Then and now.
I don’t think I’ll make any friends but here’s my two cents: Travel media can’t change to become less of a white boys’ club unless it, by some unusually effective process of reflection, looks at itself and asks how it became one in the first place.
White boys didn’t invent the movement of peoples or travel for pleasure. If necessity is the mother of invention, we know that travel has historically been very closely linked to trade. Where some people go to trade, other people follow to travel. The link between the US ban on travel to Cuba for nationals following the trade embargo is one example. The place of Timbuktu in popular imagination is another. Our conceptions of geography itself are wedded to our political realities. How else do you explain that ‘everybody’ has heard of the Caribbean islands — Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas — but few people would place Cuba, Haiti, or the Bermuda Triangle in that same geographical region? How many people have heard of Martinique or Guadeloupe, let alone can place them firmly in the same archipelago as St. Lucia or Trinidad if given a map?
How is it that lots of contemporary travel writing is still so keen to present a place of wonder, relaxation, or exploration for the traveler or tourist, and not as someone else’s home? Filled with all the stresses and joys of life for the people who live there? What is it about the way we travel that makes the realization that the ‘unique’ transportation we’re taking in an ‘exotic’ destination is somebody else’s oh-so-mundane ride to work, a bit of a buzzkill? Why are we so determined to talk about Jamaican beaches and landscapes, with reference to Jamaican crime, and not Jamaica and the IMF? Why is an authentic African adventure one which features seeing African wildlife and not one which features meeting African people, on their turf, as equals, or better yet, with them as the experts?
If I throw the question back at you, do you want travel media to become less of a white boys’ club, or all media? Travel is not a white boys’ club and never has been. We can’t talk about who gets to travel and whose lands are turned into ‘destinations’ — and whose aren’t — without talking about history and power. Well, I can’t!
This interview originally appeared at Everywhere All The Time and is republished here with permission.