As I walked through the Forbidden City, the majestic imperial palace at the center of Beijing, with a friend and her teenager, I scanned the crowd. In the maze of shrines and courtyards, there was no one quite like us: I am an African-American with long dreadlocks, and my friend, Maria, a Mexican-American, had her half-Dominican son in tow.
And yet, we were nearly invisible — at least to the guards checking the bags of Chinese tourists, possibly for materials that could be used in protests at this landmark, which adjoins Tiananmen Square. We passed through checkpoint after checkpoint unhindered, while Chinese people were stopped and their bags searched. Sure, we got a couple of stares from people. But no one touched our hair, pointed or acted hostile — which has happened to me as a tourist even in the United States. Once again, my travels had taken me to a place — not just a physical but a mental place — where the rules as I knew them had changed.
That is partly what drives my wanderlust. And I am part of a sizable fellowship of African-Americans on a mission to see the world. Seventeen percent of African-Americans take one or more international trips a year, and we spend $48 billion on travel in the United States alone, according to the Mandala Research firm. That amount may be smaller than spending by other (not mutually exclusive) niche groups like LGBT travelers ($70 billion). But, according to analysts at MMGY Global, a marketing firm, Black travel has rebounded since 2008, which is notable considering that the great recession doubled the gap between Black and White wealth. When you look at per capita income, our travel spending is significant.
Yet for all of that buying power, major hospitality companies and tour operators often steer clear of targeting African-Americans. After all, it’s complicated. Hoteliers are promoting women-only floors, but that idea would be anathema to Black travelers, who are concerned about getting equal and respectful treatment from staff members. Similarly, tour operators pushing gay-friendly getaways would not be wise to advertise trips as “Black-friendly.” We are a niche that it seems shouldn’t exist in a country that aspires to be postracial.
As a result, minority travelers are mainly paving our own path, guided by ourselves, our social and professional networks and by bloggers. We are a largely untapped market, exploring the world without being aggressively sold an itinerary on how to do it. That means there are few guidebooks or tour operators to prepare me for the moment of surprise that I experienced in the Forbidden City. And it is one of the reasons that travel right now feels more freeing than ever.
For African-Americans, domestic and international exploration used to be filled with significant roadblocks. From the late 19th century until the civil rights era, the lack of parity in pay left African-Americans with little to spend on leisure (a disparity that continues to this day); segregation meant substandard seats and service on public transportation; and finding lodging on the road if you were Black, in particular, was a challenge, especially in the South.
“The Negro Traveler’s Green Book” was published from 1936 until 1964 to give Black travelers a list of places where it was safe to stay and to stop. Published by a postal worker named Victor H. Green, the book was used by thousands of African-Americans as they crisscrossed the United States by car. Green optimistically wrote in one edition: “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States.”