Wandering the World as a Female Traveller of Colour

Wandering the World as a Female Traveller of Colour

As the black travel movement gains momentum, we explore the relationship between women of colour and the cities they visit.

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This article appears in Volume 28: The Cities

to cities was never the plan. As a child, I didn’t
dream of voyaging from London in search of an alternative
concrete jungle. Growing up, neither of my parents had ever left
Europe. As a family, we travelled to the sprawling greenery of
southern France and the
snow-capped mountains of Austria because, my father said, we should
holiday somewhere different. However, as I got older, I yearned to
take trips where I could get lost in the arms of huge, noisy urban

I left London for a life abroad and alone at 22 years old. In
the searing heat, I roamed through the hearts of cities saturated
in samba music and selling street food that sated both my appetite
and my soul. I wandered around ancient metropolises built on
archaic customs, before losing days and nights in fleeting romantic
encounters divided by language, but united by desire. Free from the
constraints of a normal job, I whiled away time in the world’s most
famous urban centres. In other words, I became a flâneuse.

Inspired by the poetry of Charles Baudelaire and coined by the
philosopher Walter Benjamin, the word flâneur means “stroller” or
“saunterer” in French. The term came to typify the travels of
white, privileged, male wanderers in mainly urban areas in
19th-century literature. Flâneuse is the feminine form and also
serves as the title of Lauren Elkin’s 2016 memoir and cultural
critique, in which Elkin reclaims the act of flânerie through her
own travels, tracing the relationship between women and city

There’s even less written about the experiences of women of
colour travelling through cities for leisure. Yet that’s changing –
slowly – with the emergence of the black travel movement. Since
2015 there’s been a social media-led discourse around greater
visibility and representation for adventurers who don’t fit the
traditional mould. In an industry comprised of agents and brands
who routinely stereotype or ignore travellers of colour, this
Instagram-led conversation has redefined the black travel story
with the help of a long list of female bloggers, influencers and

Brands such as Tastemakers Africa, Nomadness Travel Tribe and Travel
have grown exponentially in recent years and now cater to
black travellers, offering content, advice and custom-built trips.
The recent boom in consumer DNA testing is also encouraging a huge
rise in heritage tourism, with DNA sites partnering up with travel
companies to offer experiences to Africa and beyond. There are
female wanderers such as Oneika the Traveller and Hey
, who have racked up hundreds of thousands of followers
and a whole host of brand partnerships by documenting their travels
around the world. And while I didn’t know it back then, adding my
own stories to this growing discourse also helped to shape this

Like Elkin, I began my journey in New York City. I had lost my
incredible father to cancer a year prior and in my grief, my own
city had become a confusing matrix of what once was, a
phantasmagorical parody of the place I used to call home. I left
London to wander without intention. I needed new cities to soak up
my sadness and distract me from myself. I was already lost, but I
hoped that the streets of somewhere new could structure my
imperfect journey.

New York is a city that knows it’s hot. Like many others before
me, I fell for its seduction. The place hums the same late-night
lullaby for everyone – sirens and shouting, bachata and rap – but
above the din I was certain it was conducting a special symphony
just for me. I lived in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn,
the old haunt of rapper Biggie Smalls, spending weekends dancing at

rooftop parties
or heading to history museums.

My Englishness was more of a novelty in New York than I thought
it would be. When I spoke, necks craned on subways and ears pricked
up in bars – my voice was an invitation to conversation. Yet I
still noticed how much more racially polarised the city is than
London: entire streets and neighbourhoods seemed to be segregated
by race in a way I’d never seen. My blackness connected me to other
African Americans easily, though. They place less emphasis on dual
heritage than we tend to in the UK.

When I was by myself, I enjoyed people-watching – especially in
Central Park. If New York City is the centre of the universe, then
Central Park is surely the nucleus that fizzes and whirs with the
eclectic energy of those conducting their lives within its walls. I
walked past all sorts of things: fighting, flirting, eating,
busking. That part of the city never stopped moving. After a while
though, it became lonely. New York is frenetic and brash, and if
you can’t keep up, it will leave you behind.

I departed New York for Latin America after six months, where my
race and gender acted as both an invitation and a repellant in the
cities I occupied. I am one of the moving pieces of a fragmented
African diaspora and in
, Santo Domingo,
Rio De Janeiro
, my skin colour broke down barriers and granted
me a smoother entrance into local communities.

When walking around a supermarket in Santo Domingo, desperate
for hair products, I received advice from a fellow curly-haired
girl who quickly became a close friend. During a homestay in Havana
over Christmas, befriending the owners resulted in an invitation to
celebrate New Year’s Eve Cuban-style. And haggling over prices –
and knowing when to stop – in Cartagena simply seemed to come
easier when I was doing it with someone who looked like a close

Of course, an unaccompanied woman of colour wandering the
streets in black-majority countries can still be misjudged, treated
with suspicion and told she doesn’t belong. Among the pastel-
coloured apartment blocks of Havana at dusk and the hot and heaving
streets of Santo Domingo at night, I was sometimes mistaken for a
prostitute and barred entry into fancy bars and clubs until I
protested loudly in English. Being read as a tourist was often
vital for privilege and protection.

When I headed to Morocco, my last stop, I was instantly
enamoured by the arts and crafts created in the historic former
imperial capital of
. Yet I quickly realised that America had followed me there.
The hyper-visibility of African-Americans in the diaspora meant
that many Moroccans assumed I was an American traveller. While I
loved being lost in the labyrinth of Marrakech’s
medina, the old part of the city, I didn’t enjoy the whistles and
comments that came with my solo jaunts. A complete assault on the
senses, a trip to the medina was a dizzying circus where the old
unapologetically merged with the new.

There were colourful souks selling rice and prayer mats beside
towering tables of electronics. I glided around motorbikes piled
high with bread and dodged donkeys and carts in the winding red
alleys, but strange cries of “Beyoncé!” and “Michelle Obama!” often
followed me around the dusty, meandering roads. Being a flâneuse in
this part of Africa, with my brown skin and curly hair, I found
myself othered.

Occupying cities on my own freed me from the tyranny of my
grief. It reminded me that I will always be a citizen of a global,
fragmented community of colour. I have lived in sprawling urban
settings, where the air hangs heavy with traffic noise and bright
with light pollution, and I have seen myself reflected in those
around me. After losing myself, my time as a flâneuse recentred me,
helping me find connections and commonalities in spaces where
wandering solo is still considered a radical act.

This article appears in Volume 28: The Cities

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