Travel

Why black solo female travel is a radical act | Georgina Lawton

Solo travel can be freeing and restorative, a chance to hit the restart button or a break to bring you back in touch with yourself. You may return home with not just a deeper understanding of a place and its people but of who you are – and I know from experience how valuable that is.

At 21, I left London to roam the world alone for more than a year. I had recently lost my father and a large part of my identity, and travel was the medium with which I chose to repair myself. I swayed to samba in Rio de Janeiro, ate mouth-watering street food in Vietnam and Mexico, wandered around ancient metropolises in Morocco and lost days and a few nights in fleeting romantic encounters, divided by language but united by desire.

I swam with seals in the Galápagos Islands, walked with white rhinos in Zimbabwe, was sunburned in Manhattan (not sure how that happened), got debilitating food poisoning in Nicaragua and nearly got arrested in Cuba.

Georgina in Fez, Morocco

Spending my time (and most of my money) on an extended period of solo travel is the best decision I have ever made. It helped me glue the pieces of myself back together, inspired my writing and reminded me of my place in a vibrant global diaspora. It was also a ridiculous amount of fun.

I’ve heard many black women offer protestations about why we should not travel solo, the terrible things that may happen to us, what we might lose by leaving our homes. And I get the hesitation; there are times when I’ve felt on edge or unwelcome on the road. But for the most part, solo travel has given me far more than it has taken away, and it has always reminded me of my power in a world that so often serves to make me, as a black woman, feel small and powerless.

For far too long, black women have been told how to live. We have been forced to exist in spaces that were not built with our comfort in mind, and as such, we have absorbed the pernicious myths about our bodies, telling ourselves, “No, I can’t do that” or “No, I don’t belong here.” We have been denied the authorship to our travel stories and have been turned away or told to go home when we dared to demand more from our leisure time.

But what would happen if you ignored the naysayers and the stereotypes? What would happen if, instead of waiting for permission or allowing fear to dictate your decisions, you told yourself, “Yep, it’s time for me to go”? I’m willing to bet you’d have the time of your life.

Georgina, pictured with a giant tortoise, on a trip to the Galápagos Islands.
Georgina on a trip to the Galápagos Islands

For black women, solo travel holds a deep meaning that’s rooted in the political and the personal. For centuries, the movement of black bodies has been strictly controlled. During the brutal period of colonial expansion, black people were forcibly removed from African and Caribbean countries and transported across the globe for the economic advancement of white European nations. Black bodies were simply a tool for capitalist production, a means to an end, and as such, our access to leisure travel was denied.

The movement of the black female body was (and still is) heavily policed. In times of bondage, we persevered, but we could not travel freely or for pleasure; such a concept would have directly contradicted colonial rule. And even though this period has long since ended, black women have inherited a legacy of narrow and biased assumptions about our bodies that impact us today.

Neoliberal capitalism and structural discrimination continue to burden black women more than many other groups. The systems we navigate are tainted by white supremacy and have never been designed for our self-discovery or pleasure. Opting out of this oppressive system via some well-deserved rest or leisure travel is actually pretty revolutionary. Black female travel can therefore be seen as a radical act, a tool of rebellion, an allegory for emancipation that allows us to redefine our position in the world.

To travel while black and female is to upend and overcome legacies of mobility impairment. It is to dispel myths that come from a history of restricted movement. It is to say, “See ya!” to a lifetime of setbacks and struggles. Now that might sound like a heavy load for one person to bear and I’m not implying that the route to racial equality rests on your decision to visit Venice for the weekend. Just think of it as another thing to motivate you to book a trip.

Of course, coronavirus is making us all rethink the purpose and pleasure behind solo travel. You may be feeling more comfortable in your solitude, and find the idea of travelling alone a little more appealing. Or perhaps you’re over working from home and have realised that life as a digital nomad is well within your reach now that offices have gone remote and freedom of location is no longer restricted to freelancers.

Georgina Lawton tries a cigar while on a trip to Cuba.
Cigar time, in Cuba

Black women travelling the world freely and for pleasure is certainly boundary breaking – even more so if we manage to pull it off in a post-Covid world when extreme planning is suddenly vital for safety. And with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and a more urgent global discourse on the treatment of black bodies, now is an exciting (if not wildly unpredictable) time to add your experiences to a discourse steeped in revolutionary history.

The Black Travel movement began in 2013 as a social media-led conversation focused on greater visibility for adventurers who don’t fit the traditional mould. It has since gone mainstream, with black-owned brands such as Travel Noire, We Go Too, Tastemakers Africa and Nomadness Travel Tribe offering curated content, aspirational trips and heritage tourism, giving black consumers and travel providers a seat at the table while centring our stories.

Travelling solo for leisure is a privilege that more black women have been able to enjoy in recent years. We travel for escapism, excitement and unbridled joy, for the fun, the freedom and the food. We travel because we are lucky enough to venture to places our parents never could, to live out the dreams and intentions of our ancestors and be a part of a generation for whom free movement is finally feasible.

We travel to craft our personal identities, especially in spaces where being an unaccompanied woman of colour is seen as taboo. And we understand, better than most, the responsibility and consciousness related to our movement. We travel for ourselves, first and foremost, but attached to our journeys is the potential to rebuke stereotypes, break moulds, trace roots, foster inclusivity and give back. We travel because we can. And that in and of itself is enough of a reason to go.

This is an edited extract from Black Girls Take World, a travel guide for black women by Georgina Lawton, published by Hardie Grant


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