I got my passport the summer before my junior year at Baltimore City College High School. Studying a foreign language was mandatory after completing ninth grade Latin. I chose Spanish because my dad was from the Bronx and after his death, I became obsessed with creating a persona for him and thus myself. JLo was also the reigning queen of my life at that time. The Spanish students were invited to spend a week in the Dominican Republic and because my grandmother, like many other people in Baltimore City, was employed by the Social Security Administration, I was able to afford the not-so-cheap-trip abroad.
On this trip I met black Spanish speakers who, although some were darker than me, would not consider themselves "black." I also learned that my black skin can in fact burn in the sun. Our group would spend time with children orphaned by the country's AIDS epidemic, and I became very attached to a little boy very fast. He looked like my dad. My dad who died from AIDS. Maybe the little boy could see himself in me, another child hardened by a disease that didn't have to be as damaging as it was.
I imagined being his teenaged mom, us driving off into the horizon in a convertible, my dreads whipping in the wind, his little hands in the air, the black strap of the car seat keeping him safe. Maybe we were going home to Baltimore, or to another home in the Dominican Republic. It didn't matter really. He looked like my dad, so he looked like me, we looked like family. We could exist in either place, Baltimore or the Dominican Republic, and be OK.
The trip only lasted a week but it planted seeds of global travel and long-term stays abroad in my head. Before visiting the D.R. I had no idea that other countries (excluding African countries) could be as black as my hometown. Despite the best efforts of gentrification, some places still are black and that knowledge sent me wandering for more. So far I've been to about 10 different cities between four different countries: Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Brazil, and Colombia. I'm beginning to see what makes a quintessential black city and what makes Baltimore one. An important factor is the presence of a port, because that is how all these black people arrived at said city in the first place. And I've noticed I'm most comfortable living near a large body of water and places with significant bodies of water usually have a decent amount of black people.
As I write this, I'm in Cali, Colombia—a valley whose imposing mountains make me feel trapped. This city has a population just slightly larger than Chicago (another quintessential black city, despite its lack of a port) and is home to a large amount of Afro-Colombians. Most of the black presence in the city recently migrated from coastal cities such as Buenaventura, a port town—a poor and "violent" place. I quickly learned that any place deemed "dangerous" is where the black people live. And as a black traveler from a "dangerous" city myself, I find myself drawn to and grounded in these places.
The increased visibility of black travel on social media would make one think it's always selfies on the beach and tourist photos. In my experience it's more about being stared at on public transportation. That sense of being an outsider is doubly complicated as a black person, and at times I feel I'm creating a hierarchy of urban black oppression in my mind, trying to figure out where Baltimore fits on my list. My friend Mia once referred to our place of birth as a "third world city" and the more I travel, the more I learn how true that is. Calling any country third world or first world for that matter is disparaging and classist—I am aware of that—but calling a place "developing" leaves a nasty taste in my mouth as well. What are these places developing into exactly?
Baltimore recalls Cali (it too is a city actively dealing with the devastating impact of drugs) and Salvador, a city in the state of Bahia, Brazil (it too is a bastion of black culture) and Capetown, South Africa (because it too is a neoliberal wet dream with its up-and-coming "creative economy").
Actually, any place that has an Impact Hub could be considered "developing"—Impact Hub is the McDonalds of culture and community right now. The neoliberal dream is for the whole world to eventually look the same. Glassy sky-high condos and dog parks. Chain restaurants that pretend they aren't (did you know there are "Starbucks community initiatives"?) and the destruction of the local culture.
I witnessed this in Rio de Janeiro during the Olympics, and I've lived it in Baltimore. I live next to a Nissan dealership and a strip mall in Cali. If it weren't for the one time I went to a club called "The Bronx" and experienced the storied Afro-Colombian nightlife of Cali, I would have thought I was living in Laurel, Maryland. And as a girl from over West, quite frankly, it's boring me. I miss sitting on porches and talking shit. I miss snow balls and dirt bikes and the smell of the heat and beauty supply stores and chicken boxes. Hopefully I'll make friends with local Afro-Colombian people soon so I can see the West Baltimore equivalent of Cali, Colombia. I know better than to travel into anyone's hood uninvited. Every country has a West Baltimore, where they push the poorest and the blackest of people. Where these people, despite their circumstances, create what will eventually become the blood and lifeline of the city. Once those poor black people make something of their community, outsiders who grew up consuming and romanticizing this culture will circle around like vultures, wanting everything the community made, except the actual folk. So to those from West Baltimore looking to travel abroad but worried about homesickness: Go where they say you shouldn't and sure enough, you'll find your people.