Eric Martin and Kent Johnson found inspiration in the offensive. Four years ago, the pair launched Black & Abroad, an online travel and lifestyle platform for African-Americans. The site features crowdsourced tips and insights for more than 120 countries, including many destinations not known for being minority-friendly. The Atlanta business partners recast the racist taunt “Go back to Africa” as a call to visit the land of their ancestors.
The campaign’s ultimate goal is to galvanize blacks to visit the continent and to draw the diaspora closer. The company organizes several Africa trips a year to countries including Ghana, Senegal and South Africa. Martin recently sat down to discuss the website, and his own experiences of going back to Africa.
Q: What motivated you and Kent to create the website?
A: Kent and I travel, but we wouldn’t see ourselves reflected in the research or the reviews of the destination. There are destinations that are notorious for not being the nicest to people of color. A lot of people feel more comfortable when they see themselves in these particular destinations. That recognition was what we were looking for.
Q: How does the website fill the gap in information?
A: We created a platform where people can go and write about their experiences in these different countries. There are different types of black travelers. There are single moms who travel with children, gay couples, single dads and disabled travelers. We just wanted to cover a niche of people and supply them with information.
Q: Can you provide an example of a post?
A: We had one woman who went to China and she took a picture of this Chinese woman who was fascinated with the braids in her hair. There was this huge group of Chinese women fascinated with the texture. Some of the people in our community were offended by it; others embraced it. Obviously, if there is a homogenous group of people living in the country, they’re not familiar with seeing this type of hair or this type of person. They are going to be fascinated by it. The opposition was saying that there is a way to respectfully satisfy your curiosity without going up and touching it.
Q: Can black travelers help break stereotypes?
A: They all think we’re basketball stars. You are black and tall, so you’re automatically a basketball player or an actor. They want your autograph. Or you’re a rapper. Exposure helps to dispel those stereotypes. The more they see us in these places, the more it becomes normal. We want to make sure we set a standard for the next generation of black travelers.
Q: Which countries are the most challenging for African-Americans?
A: Russia is one. But a couple of weeks ago, we posted a [photo of a] guy who was in Moscow, a young brother. He was wearing his Black & Abroad merchandise and took a picture outside the Kremlin. A girl messaged us right after that and said that photo helped her decide where to study abroad. She wanted to go to Russia but had a little bit of trepidation because of its reputation. And now that she saw that he came back in one piece, she can think about doing it herself. All it takes is one.
Madrid was one place known for blatant racism, so we worked with the tourism office and had a whole Black & Abroad experience there. Those small efforts help to overturn popular misconceptions about certain places.
Q: Have you experienced prejudice while traveling?
A: The most racism I receive is in the U.S., hands down, especially as of late. Traveling abroad has been a refuge for me. It’s been therapeutic because I am able to just be and not have to worry about whether I might get pulled over or mistaken for this person or that person. It’s very different, which is why we encourage travel to the African continent.
Q: What inspired the “Go Back to Africa” campaign?
A: “Go back to Africa” appears online on average 5,000 times a month. We set out to subvert that bigoted phrase and make it something that people of color embrace. We are trying to take that term and make it into something that we actually do.
Q: What are some common misperceptions African-Americans have about Africa?
A: A lot of the narratives we’re fed about the continent are not the best: It’s disease-ridden, it’s Ebola, it’s not safe. There is this divide between African-Americans and Africans, because we often project that same narrative on them. Africa is the heartbeat of the rest of the world. It supplies the resources, it supplies the culture, a lot of things originated on the continent and now we treat it like a wasteland.
Q: How does the project work?
A: The goal is to crowdsource images of black people enjoying themselves in each of Africa’s 54 countries. On the website, each country has its own category of images that are being added in real time.
Q: What has the response been?
A: People have been saying, “Where has this been the whole time?” There’s a heightened awareness of who you are these days. It helps to empower us to become more comfortable with who we are: Yes, I will go back to Africa! I will go back to beauty, amazing waterways, the most beautiful mountain ranges, the best game drives anyone could ask for. I will go back to those things, because that’s the beauty I am from.
Q: What have you learned from your travels?
A: I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase a plane ticket and connect with my ancestors. You can’t go to Africa and not feel that. The history can be a little heavy, because the Europeans were brutal. When we embrace today’s Africa, the coming together, it makes you appreciate it even more. We just did a tour of a township outside of Cape Town and they talked about how they had to walk around with these cards that identified them as a person of color. You had to carry them all the time. If you didn’t, you went to jail. The courthouse where they’d send these people to jail is now a museum. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, but we have made a lot of progress in the way of independence, freedom and self-acceptance.