On She Goes

Against the ‘Gram: On the Purpose of Travel

Were these destinations simply backdrop for my social media whims?

Imani Thornton
Imani Thorton
November 21, 2017
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On a family trip to Aruba, I remember noting that these people looked like me—same dark skin and dark eyes. Many of them had wavy hair like my mother’s, but some had nappy locks like mine. Walking through the glamorous hotel lobby, I remember wondering what they thought of me: a middle-class Black American tourist. Most of the other tourists were white, and I was relieved when I saw Black Americans at the Oranjestad airport when we landed. There was a kinship I felt with the Aruban people—but a distance too—as I knew that in some ways my relation to the space was not entirely different than that of any other tourist.

By American standards, my family is neither poor nor wealthy, but I’ve been fortunate to travel extensively from a young age because my mother has worked for an airline ever since I can remember. I am thankful, because traveling allowed me to view the world from a global perspective, bringing the settings of my schoolbooks to life right before my eyes. My parents always considered this our luxury. We kept no fancy cars, clothes, or gadgets. Instead, we jokingly considered it odd if we had not been to Paris for more than a year. I loved the rush of airports, the invigorating speed of a plane taking off, and most of all, I adored tracing my finger over paper maps and knowing that my little Black girl body had stepped foot in many of its colorful representations. Even so, I have always recognized that traveling to Europe and Asia as a Black adolescent girl is a spectacular privilege. I remember the guilt I felt answering my peers about my spring break plans. What would my friends, some of whom had never even set foot on a plane, think of me spending my time in cities on the other side of the globe?

On the way to Buckingham Palace.
photo by Imani Thorton

When I got to college, I traveled less with my family, tagging along during breaks. As a political science major and African American studies minor, I began to question Americans’ relationship with travel, including my own.

The first time I traveled without my parents was to the Puntarenas Province of Costa Rica with my college friends. Even though it was almost everything I could ask for in a trip, I felt quite lonely. I knew that it was partially because I was the only Black girl, and my race sometimes placed me in awkward situations. I remember my friends all jumping a daunting 40 feet from a giant waterfall. Not knowing how to swim, I watched from the shallow end of the river and heard my mother’s voice in my head berating me for being the stereotypical Black girl who cannot swim (or didn’t want to get her hair wet). It took this loneliness, however, to cement a feeling that had been bubbling inside me for quite some time.

Even though it was almost everything I could ask for in a trip, I felt quite lonely.

I realized that my primary motivation for going to a place like Costa Rica was for the pictures and social capital. This is not to say that I did not enjoy the lustrous waves of the Costa Rican beach or the moments with my friends captured in hundreds of photographs we uploaded to Facebook. But, even to this day, I scroll through those photos and try to get a sense of how cosmopolitan I must look to anyone who looks through my profile. I had to admit to myself that my motivations for traveling to Costa Rica involved gathering a great deal of collective evidence that I had been there. And at what cost? 

Twirling around with friend on a beach in Costa Rica.
photo by Imani Thorton

I think often about Nayyirah Waheed’s poem:

you still want to travel to
you could not take a camera with you

—a question of appropriation

I am not sure that Nayyirah is speaking to me as a person of color, with no familial or ancestral possession of colonialism hanging over my head. Some may argue that as a Black woman whose ancestors were enslaved I cannot appropriate—appropriation happens to Black people, not by Black people. Yet, when reading this poem, I know that my visits to areas in the global south, such as Curaçao or Sint Maarten, would not have engendered the same allure if my cell phone camera were not plastered to my palm. When does my admiration become something almost disrespectful, or at the least, just selfish? And as an American, how can I perpetuate modes of neocolonialism, even as a Black person who has little institutional power? Nayyirah’s short stanza cannot answer these questions for me, but it is a start.

I cannot use the various homes of millions of people simply as a backdrop for my social media whims.

The year looms closer when I will have to pay for my own airline tickets, without the luxury of my mother’s job benefits. This idea used to make me incredibly sad, because travel was always something that made me special growing up in my predominantly Black community. Now I must reinterrogate my reasons for traveling and if they are worth the sometimes thousands of dollars it requires. While I know that the feeling of breathing in foreign air and comparing one beach with another will always have a special place in my heart, I also know that I cannot use the various homes of millions of people simply as a backdrop for my social media whims. I am not giving up on capturing memories in photographs, as they are often powerful ways of understanding people and ideas. Rather, I believe that with a revised mind-set, I can begin to love travel more deeply, selectively visiting locations with a more profound sense of my belonging.