A Weary Traveler in a Familiar Land

By Psyche Williams-Forson

March 16, 2021

"Palm Curtains," by Jasmine Clarke

It was one of many trips that we planned for our first-year undergraduate students during fall semester. This one would take us to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. And because the return trip would bring me closer to home than to campus, I did not ride the bus with the students and other faculty but decided instead to drive. Shortly after we started out, however, I somehow got separated from the tour bus. This being prior to GPS apps like Maps and Waze, I phoned back to my campus for someone to provide directions taken from the website of the college we were visiting. As chance would have it, the young white woman who answered my call had recently graduated from that college. After giving me directions, she lapsed into a soliloquy about how I would “love the ride” through the countryside and how the wonderful little town to which I was headed was so “quaint” and “nostalgic.” As she waxed on and on, my stomach got tighter and tighter. She most likely did not know that words like “quaint” and “nostalgic” to describe a rural town could prompt discomfort for a Black woman traveling alone. Instead of matching her feelings of elation, my race and gender consciousness awakened in me the realization that I would feel most safe if I arrived in town before nightfall. For ten minutes, she described what a lovely trip I would have. My impromptu travel guide was excited! As she concluded, I calculated how and where it would be best for me to get food and gas. The last thing I wanted was to be caught unaware under the cover of night in a strange, yet familiar land. 

 

Black people in America have always been travelers. From our violent capture and kidnapping to being born into restricted movement during enslavement, to the legally prescribed racist policies that further constrained our mobility, travel and movement have always been a major part of Black people’s lives. And though often overlooked as trivial, food is at the center of most every African-American travel story—how to get it, where to get it, what to get, and how much should be gotten. I was reminded of this while rereading Carole and Norma Jean Darden’s memoir-cookbook Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine. Not only was I taken in by its elegant and graceful prose, but also I remembered how the narrative could easily make one forget what our bodies and minds hold within—the racism of travel. The Darden sisters’ book is complete with historic recipes and sepia-toned photographs woven among the many stories of their lives. Mixed in between pickled peppers, fruited honey chicken, and gingerbread waffles are snippets and memories of Northern middle-class Black life and travels to the South.

Like many Black families born in America, the Darden ancestry can be traced back to enslavement. However, literary and culinary historian Rafia Zafar explains that, being Northern-raised and educated, their “gastronomic social history of African America [emphasizes] nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century ideals of racial uplift in the face of adversity.” This is one way to account for why the Dardens discuss their family’s culinary traditions with tasty ingredients like duck, new potatoes, and freshly cut corn off the cob rather than more vernacular foods like ham hocks, corn bread, fried chicken, and pork chops, the latter of which are often associated with soul food. And while Black people of all social classes eat these foods that are often wrongly associated primarily with the working class, the Dardens present a set of experiences that Zafar suggests “showcase[s] the elegant side of southern cooking.” This perspective also informs how they recall their food experiences traveling to the Jim Crow South:  

 

We could hardly sleep the night before and would help pack our bags and lunches, which our mother put in shoe boxes with the name of the passenger Scotch-taped to the top so that special requests were not confused. . . . These trips took place during the fifties, and one never knew what dangers or insults would be encountered along the way. Racist policies loomed like unidentified monsters in our childish imaginations and in reality. After the New Jersey Turnpike ended, we would have to be on the alert for the unexpected. So, as we approached that last Howard Johnson’s before Delaware, our father would make his inevitable announcement that we had to get out, stretch our legs, and go to the bathroom, whether we wanted to or not. This was a ritualized part of every trip, for, although there would be many restaurants along the route, this was the last one that didn’t offer segregated facilities. From this point on, we pulled out our trusty shoe-box lunches.

 

The contents of their “trusty shoe-box lunch” included fried chicken, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, deviled eggs, carrot and celery sticks, salt and pepper, and chocolate layer cake, all neatly wrapped in wax paper, with “extra treats” like lemonade, fruit, nuts, raisins, and cheese. When that was gone, the Darden sisters explain, “we would have to keep our eyes peeled for black-owned establishments, which usually took us off the main route.” The sisters go on to say that any “discomfort” they might have felt was balanced by a “sense of adventure” as they watched for people and places willing to provide food and shelter for the weary Black traveler. Their reminiscences, some might observe, sound like the exploratory travels of a tourist in unknown territories enjoying the haphazard and unexpected. 

 

As I read the Darden sisters’ recollections, I contrasted their upbeat memories with those of the protagonist in the work of Ugandan photographer Sarah Waiswa. Stranger in a Familiar Land is a photo series that looks at the persecution of albinos in Sub-Saharan Africa. While looking for materials to use for my graduate course, “Black Feminist Cultural Criticism of Diasporic Texts,” I happened upon this startlingly beautiful set of portraits that features Florence Kisombe, a person with albinism. Photographing against the backdrop of the Kibera slums of Nairobi, Kenya, Waiswa indicates that this visualization is “a metaphor for my turbulent vision of the outside world.” She goes on to note, “People fear what they do not understand and because of this fear, people with albinism continue to be at the receiving end of ridicule and persecution.” According to Waiswa, Kisombe, like others with albinism, is forced to live her life facing challenges from both the sun and society in an aimless sense of constant disbelonging. Looking at the photos and the title of the series, it strikes me that most African Americans in the United States quite likely feel more like Kisombe, moving about ever aware of a constant sense of not fitting in, than they do the Darden sisters. 

Black travelers, whether for business or leisure, were, and often continue to be, confronted with geographies of power that restrict their access to bathrooms, stores, and other basic social spaces. These restrictions mean that traveling can get complicated regardless of how familiar the route. And eating while Black and traveling can be an embattled experience when it should provide satiation and enjoyment.

 

By the time I took that fall semester road trip, I had lived in Maryland for almost twenty years, most of my adult life. I had traveled along many a back road to all quadrants of the state. Having grown up in rural Virginia, I was familiar with how to navigate such terrain, but I also knew better than to travel alone along unlit, dark highways. What if my car broke down? When I learned to drive, my family did not have AAA or other roadway saviors; it could be hours before the help of a tow truck arrived. I vividly recall my family traveling to Virginia from upstate New York through Cumberland, Virginia, to get to its neighboring town of Farmville. It could be eerily dark, quiet, and scary. The fears of such travel and the scary stories I’ve heard of traveling alone along unlit roads have left an uncompromising imprint on my mind. All of these memories came rushing back that afternoon as I prepared to drive alone to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. 

That day, I became an “accidental tourist” of a sort. In Anne Tyler’s novel by the same name, we meet Macon Leary, the main protagonist, who hates to travel beyond the comfort of his city block in Baltimore, Maryland. To help him and others, Leary writes guidebooks for those who hate traveling lest they encounter the unfamiliar. Unlike Leary, I was willing to venture out; however, I very much could have used one of his guidebooks. Or I could have used one of Victor Hugo Green’s Negro Motorist Green Books, which would have led me to hospitable, Black-owned establishments of safety, like those mentioned by the Dardens. 

Culture shock for any traveler is to be expected. But should it be expected in a land that should be comfortable? Given our complex histories of moving about, always being surveilled, and often facing discrimination, Black people in the U.S. are hopeful yet wary while traveling. I recall once sitting with a noted poet in an eatery in the western Maryland college town where I taught. While eating, he off-handedly said something to the effect, “There is a white man right now somewhere in Montana jogging and moving without a care in the world.” Maybe he said it because we were the only Black patrons having a late breakfast before his afternoon speaking engagement, or because we both suspected that the restaurant had seen few people who looked like us. In any case, we were ever aware that we seemed not to belong in that space. 

Some scholars of tourism have written about the histories of Black discomfort while traveling. Geraldine Murphy points out that “the autonomy, leisure, self-cultivation, and intellectual curiosity associated with [tourism] bespeak the privileges of class, gender, and . . . race,” the latter of which I would emphasize above all else. Because even though travelers and sojourners tend to be heterogeneous, the symbolic traveler, explorer, conqueror tends to be white and male, able to throw a dart anywhere on a map and assume he will be willingly and openly accepted there. Having neither of these identities, I know that I am not afforded the same privileges of movement, despite my being middle class and educated. The mere thought of stopping at just any country store along a route sends shivers down my spine. Even going to more popular convenience marts in unfamiliar areas often requires some reconnoitering before assuming ease.

It is easy to dismiss such abundance of caution as paranoia. However, one need only look to the news to find stories of Black travelers being kicked out of coffee shops, arrested at waffle houses, or asked to leave old-time eateries because they allegedly resisted a manager’s commands. And while these specific incidents have occurred in the twenty-first century, they are not new. 

Countless African Americans meticulously prepare to travel, including factoring in where they will get food. So familiar was this experience, historically, that in its 1987 exhibition Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration 1915–1940, the National Museum of American History included a replica of a young woman traveling by train with a lunch pail. The placard on the wall beside the installation indicated that shoeboxes and pails usually contained some combination of fried chicken or beef, cake/cookies, and a biscuit or roll. This practice was so well known that it has become grist for the mill in African-American folklore. According to legend, during the Great Migration, when millions of Blacks fled the Jim Crow South in search of education, jobs, and social equality, the travel routes became known as the “Chicken Bone Express.” After eating, travelers supposedly tossed their bones from the windows, leaving a trail along the way, thus signaling that Black people had been there.  

Food is at the center of most every African-American travel story—how to get it, where to get it, what to get, and how much should be gotten.

Untitled by Jasmine Clarke

By the time I took that fall semester road trip, I had lived in Maryland for almost twenty years, most of my adult life. I had traveled along many a back road to all quadrants of the state. Having grown up in rural Virginia, I was familiar with how to navigate such terrain, but I also knew better than to travel alone along unlit, dark highways. What if my car broke down? When I learned to drive, my family did not have AAA or other roadway saviors; it could be hours before the help of a tow truck arrived. I vividly recall my family traveling to Virginia from upstate New York through Cumberland, Virginia, to get to its neighboring town of Farmville. It could be eerily dark, quiet, and scary. The fears of such travel and the scary stories I’ve heard of traveling alone along unlit roads have left an uncompromising imprint on my mind. All of these memories came rushing back that afternoon as I prepared to drive alone to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. 

That day, I became an “accidental tourist” of a sort. In Anne Tyler’s novel by the same name, we meet Macon Leary, the main protagonist, who hates to travel beyond the comfort of his city block in Baltimore, Maryland. To help him and others, Leary writes guidebooks for those who hate traveling lest they encounter the unfamiliar. Unlike Leary, I was willing to venture out; however, I very much could have used one of his guidebooks. Or I could have used one of Victor Hugo Green’s Negro Motorist Green Books, which would have led me to hospitable, Black-owned establishments of safety, like those mentioned by the Dardens. 

Culture shock for any traveler is to be expected. But should it be expected in a land that should be comfortable? Given our complex histories of moving about, always being surveilled, and often facing discrimination, Black people in the U.S. are hopeful yet wary while traveling. I recall once sitting with a noted poet in an eatery in the western Maryland college town where I taught. While eating, he off-handedly said something to the effect, “There is a white man right now somewhere in Montana jogging and moving without a care in the world.” Maybe he said it because we were the only Black patrons having a late breakfast before his afternoon speaking engagement, or because we both suspected that the restaurant had seen few people who looked like us. In any case, we were ever aware that we seemed not to belong in that space. 

Some scholars of tourism have written about the histories of Black discomfort while traveling. Geraldine Murphy points out that “the autonomy, leisure, self-cultivation, and intellectual curiosity associated with [tourism] bespeak the privileges of class, gender, and . . . race,” the latter of which I would emphasize above all else. Because even though travelers and sojourners tend to be heterogeneous, the symbolic traveler, explorer, conqueror tends to be white and male, able to throw a dart anywhere on a map and assume he will be willingly and openly accepted there. Having neither of these identities, I know that I am not afforded the same privileges of movement, despite my being middle class and educated. The mere thought of stopping at just any country store along a route sends shivers down my spine. Even going to more popular convenience marts in unfamiliar areas often requires some reconnoitering before assuming ease.

It is easy to dismiss such abundance of caution as paranoia. However, one need only look to the news to find stories of Black travelers being kicked out of coffee shops, arrested at waffle houses, or asked to leave old-time eateries because they allegedly resisted a manager’s commands. And while these specific incidents have occurred in the twenty-first century, they are not new. 

Countless African Americans meticulously prepare to travel, including factoring in where they will get food. So familiar was this experience, historically, that in its 1987 exhibition Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration 1915–1940, the National Museum of American History included a replica of a young woman traveling by train with a lunch pail. The placard on the wall beside the installation indicated that shoeboxes and pails usually contained some combination of fried chicken or beef, cake/cookies, and a biscuit or roll. This practice was so well known that it has become grist for the mill in African-American folklore. According to legend, during the Great Migration, when millions of Blacks fled the Jim Crow South in search of education, jobs, and social equality, the travel routes became known as the “Chicken Bone Express.” After eating, travelers supposedly tossed their bones from the windows, leaving a trail along the way, thus signaling that Black people had been there.  

 

The travel experiences that Black people in the U.S. have had since enslavement and  the official end of racial segregation have left what bell hooks refers to as “representations of whiteness in the Black imagination.” In her essay “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” hooks does not give us a “we versus them” point of view, so that Blackness is synonymous with good and whiteness with bad. Rather, hooks wants us to think about how centuries of trauma and pain due to white racist domination manifest in our minds and in and on our bodies. We are not paranoid, hooks assures us; many Black people live in a “psychic state that informs and shapes the way [we] ‘see’ whiteness.” In other words, repeated racial aggressions (micro or large scale), both experienced and heard about, leave a mark on our mental, emotional, and social states of being. 

Even the most well-planned food and travel events can elicit responses of fear. As a founding member, I have attended several symposia of the Southern Foodways Alliance. For years, the annual meeting was held in and around the small, quaint town of Oxford, Mississippi, where one event of this three-day high-priced food fest was a trip to a remote country store for a catfish fry. When I last attended many years ago, an African-American colleague warned me not to be late getting on the bus. I did not understand the implication and allowed myself to be sidetracked before the excursion. I ended up exactly where I was told not to be—at the top of the Londonesque double-decker bus, exposed to the pitch-dark night. It was a brisk fall evening that quickly turned cold in the darkness of the back roads of Mississippi. As the bus sped through the night, my white colleagues decided to take the chill off the air by downing a bottle of Jack Daniel’s that they gleefully passed around, encouraging everyone to take a sip. As laughter and cheers abounded aboard the big red travel mobile, I was told that passing the bottle was part of the fun of the event. I sat in horror, feeling like I was in a scene from the novel A Time to Kill by one-time Oxford resident John Grisham as I rode along with a group of mostly unknown white people cheering, laughing, and drinking whiskey while riding among deep South poplar trees. Though seemingly lost on my riding companions, my feelings of discomfort were palpable as we approached the remote old-time country store, which viscerally reminded me of the site of Emmett Till’s murder. 

Those who planned this outing did so thinking of the culinary adventurists without considering those in the group for whom the entire experience might conjure up memories of terror and trauma. Herein lies a fundamental problem with culinary tourism or traveling to have particular food experiences: These excursions tend to be geared toward the privileged and monied without regard for anyone else. These situations are never devoid of the context of racism, imperialism, or discrimination, but these are often the most overlooked aspects in the planning. 

Though our trip to the Eastern Shore was not planned as an eating tour (we were headed to a lecture by a noted African-American scholar), the culinary part of the trip was nonetheless heavily considered. For one, the mostly African-American students from this predominantly white liberal arts college delighted in the possibility that they would experience Maryland seafood when traveling “to the Shore.” I could see their mouths watering at the thought that our hosts would feed them hush puppies, crab cakes, shrimp, and other seafood delicacies. This was understandable given that their college was in an area that primarily held chain restaurants and fast-food eateries. So, while the students were preparing to be gastro-tourists in their own right, hoping to experience the tastes of a new region, I had to help them manage their expectations by announcing they would be eating boxed lunches of turkey or ham sandwiches, chips, soda, and a cookie, complete with packaged condiments. And, though I had done my job as an educator in preparing them for various aspects of the trip, I had failed to prepare myself for the unexpected. No amount of tourism seemed attractive in that moment that I found myself separated from the motor coach.

 

In the late 1990s, I traveled with a group of Black professionals from Washington, D.C., to the Poconos for a ski trip. These trips, having become trendy since the 1970s, are designed to encourage African Americans to enjoy a predominantly white sport in the company of those from their own community. One of the most favored aspects of the trip is the “party bus” because the movies, music, and conviviality all provide an opportunity to meet new people during the lengthy drive to the resort. Our coordinator provided everyone with boxes of chicken and biscuits—typical road trip food, even to this day. As we ate, fellowshipped, and enjoyed the comforts of familiarity, we joked about the nostalgia of Black folks eating chicken while traveling. We left D.C. during rush hour, so we were noticeably behind our estimated time of arrival at the resort. Well into the Pennsylvania mountains, we pulled off the road and picked up a group of white skiers who had been waiting for a while for the bus to arrive. We were told as much by their coordinator, who boarded the bus and immediately said something to the effect of, “Wow, you guys are way late. We have been freezing our asses off.” Almost immediately, a white plastic trash bag materialized and without a word we started dumping the remains of our chicken dinners into the receptacle. Minutes later our riding companions boarded the bus, and they too made it clear that we were very late. To stay warm and ramp up their partying, they had been consuming Jell-O shots. Some in our party accepted the offered party favor, but most of the African-American riders became jarringly quiet. We were, after all, a group of chicken-eating Black folks who arrived late to a function and were met by a group of loud, somewhat drunk white people. What could go wrong? After settling in at our villa, it became clear that many of us had felt the shift in the atmosphere and were thankful we had finished eating before our riding companions had gotten on the bus. 

Unlike the Darden sisters, few of us felt the need to put a positive spin on our experience. Like photographer Sarah Waiswa, we were willing to name the encounter as part of the “turbulent vision” we often experience, even when we do not speak on it. The “knowing” of passing around the trash bag with haste and without much explanation reflects what bell hooks describes as the shared experience of “terror” that we as Black people sometimes associate with whiteness. It is easy to silence us by suggesting that speaking our fears is an act of divisiveness and “playing the victim.” Though speaking specifically of white women who called her feelings of being terrorized “ludicrous,” hooks says, “Their inability to conceive that my terror . . . is a response to the legacy of white domination and the contemporary expressions of white supremacy is an indication of how little this culture really understands the profound psychological impact of white racist domination.” 

Those of us studying travel, mobility, and culinary and other forms of tourism must push to expand the discourses of movement to include Black experiences. Using food as a lens is one way of exposing white imperialism, privilege, and domination, as well as representations of terror in Black imaginations. These histories might reveal that far more of us experience the world like Waiswa’s Florence Kisombe. We have grown weary of being unwelcome travelers in a familiar land.

Psyche Williams-Forson

Psyche Williams-Forson is associate professor and chair of the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of Taking Food Public: Redefining Foodways in a Changing World and *Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, & Power.