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As the black travel movement gains momentum, we explore the relationship between women of colour and the cities they visit.
This article appears in Volume 28: The Cities Issue
Travelling 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 spaces.
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 living.
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 writers.
Brands such as Tastemakers Africa, Nomadness Travel Tribe and Travel Noire 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 Ciara, 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 narrative.
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 Havana, Santo Domingo, Cartagena and 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 relative.
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 Fez. 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.
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