I lay on the hotel bed, laptop propped on my belly, grading student papers. Ru Paul’s Drag Race is on in the background, a queen tells us about her withholding mother. I’m in Estonia and it’s still hard to imagine why. My husband, who is out scouting Tallinn alone, is having the time of his life. I, on the other hand, am still stuck in the surreal daze of: “I’ve just been to Finland, I took a ferry across the Baltic Sea for Tallinn, Estonia. And here I am, in Estonia, grading papers.” I’m teaching an online English class for my university.
When my sister calls through Skype (invented in Estonia), she’s with her best friend, J. Through the jerky pixelated screen I can see their smiling faces. “How are you? What’s it like there? What are you eating? What’s the city called again?”
I pause the Drag Race and laugh at them. I answer all of the questions as fast as I can, trying to add meaningful details and pausing to remember what I’ve eaten. It probably sounded like: Cobblestone streets, fresh salmon, black bread and bicycles! I ended with a “I still can’t believe we’re here.”
My sister grins. I know she’s excited that I’m here. “Hey,” she starts. “Have you seen any black people yet?” It’s a loaded question. She’s my big sister and I know she’s concerned about my comfort and safety. “Have you seen any black people yet?” means, “How do they treat blacks over there?” “Have you been harassed yet?” “How do service workers interact with you?” and possibly, “Do you recommend it to other black people?” I think of all of these questions before going anywhere. Understanding a country’s history, geo-political atmosphere, and their class system is always helpful before you take a trip. Black people, especially, are always concerned about comfort and security while traveling abroad. But sometimes we’re so concerned about comfort and safety, that we stop ourselves from going off the beaten track. Did I ever see myself going to a Scandinavian country, then crossing the sea to a former Soviet state? Not at all. But I also happen to be married to mischief making man (our original plan was to go to Russia). I’ve learned to have a sense of adventure because of him.
But to answer my sister’s question: “Have you seen any black people yet?” I did see black people! While we were in Helsinki, I saw lots of Somalians in the suburbs and a few other Africans in the city center. They were all living a Finnish life, walking or cycling to their jobs or shops. Not a big deal.
I could have stay hung up on how many black people I saw while traveling to the whitest parts of the world, or I could have enjoyed myself. I chose the latter. Because coming back to America was truly slap in the face. When my husband and I returned to the states, we were once again confronted by the idea that the United States is not a safe or comforting place for black people to live, work, and play. Since we’ve been back, two more black men have been killed by policemen. Blacks have taken to the streets in anger and frustration and whites have made excuses for hundreds of years of oppression. This is where I come from. This is what my blue passport shows the world.
I hope the next time either I, or my sister, leave the country, we each skip the question of “have you seen any black people yet?” While we might get funny looks in foreign lands, we’re probably going to be safe. We’ll most likely learn something wonderful about another country, before returning to a home that treats us like second-class citizens.
I’ll leave you with a quick anecdote before signing off.
Finnish Customs in the Helsinki Airport: I lug my bag to the desk to see a large blonde viking man, named Lars or Gunter or whatever. He’s dressed in black and I assume he’s got a gun strapped to his thigh. He asks for my passport, he wants to know if this is a trip for business or pleasure. I give him the dates of my stay and he smiles before saying “Wonderful, have a nice stay.” Sure, there’s something eerily Bond-villain-like about him, but he’s polite and I keep it moving. My husband’s experience is nearly the same, as his customs agent has told him: “Two weeks? You should stay longer!”
American Customs in Chicago’s O’Hare: We’re quickly trying to catch our connecting St. Louis flight, but we have been corralled along with other harried travelers. I see that my husband has made it past customs ahead of me and when I lug my bags up to “Derek,” I’m sweaty and I have to pee. Derek looks at my passport and travel itinerary before asking where I’ve been. “Helsinki.” How long? “Two weeks.” Business or pleasure? “I was on vacation” He studies my face, while I’m about to pass out from the heat. Derek asks if I met friends while I was there? I told him I didn’t. He asks me why I went to Helsinki if I didn’t have friends there. I was at a lost for words. I don’t know, to experience Finland? He wanted to know where else I’d been. “Estonia.” The smirk on his face as he watched sweat roll down my temple, made me want to scream at him. He said in a snide voice that he assumed I didn’t have any friends there either. That’s when he asked me for another form of identification. I looked over to where my husband stood, he was frowning and mouthing “what’s wrong?” While I dug through my unorganized travel bag to find another ID that was better than a US passport, I watched Derek show my passport to the agent next to him and whisper something in his ear. I angrily slapped all of my ID on the counter. “Here, I’m from Ohio, I’m a university professor, and I have a Capital One credit card. Does that help?” He gives me a slight nod and tells I can go. No explanation for the extra scrutiny and certainly no, “Welcome back home!”
All of this is to say, Black folks: Don’t let fear keep you from exploring the world. You will be pleasantly surprised by who you’ll meet and what you’ll learn. Other countries have an idea about us that will quickly be refuted once you open your mouth and speak to them. I can’t say the same about America. I’ve been talking, bargaining, and trying to appease white people since I was a child and at age thirty-one, I still haven’t gotten anywhere new.