For as long as I can remember, travel has always been a way to hold a mirror up to my surroundings, an attempt to locate myself in the wider world. As a child I was lucky enough to experience family holidays in Europe: Long, languid summers in Ireland with wet walks through glossy fields with my Irish mother, sandcastle building on beach-trips in cold and clear waters with my British father and milky-skinned brother. Then there were the weeks spent in Spain, Austria, France, and the Balearic islands. But it was during the leisure time with my white family that I became more attuned to the visual differences between us all, and I started to really question my own identity in relation to those closest to me.
Although my childhood was characterized by the rituals of regular vacations and lots of love and support, I grew up in a white household with no explanation as to why, or how, I appeared black. The absence of discussion on race, privilege, and discrimination penetrated my world with increasing regularity as I grew up, but my questions largely went unanswered by my parents. I realized that race and its meaning remained totally off-limits in our house.
But when we left our white community at home to vacation abroad, the veil of silence was removed. Race followed me beyond suburbia, and there was no escaping its impact amongst new faces — some of which looked more like my own than my parents’ did. Removed from our absurd normal, my racial identity showed up in high definition: when I grew a dark shade of brown in the Portuguese sun; when I was spoken to in Spanish on the island of Tenerife; when I was ushered into airport lines with the Jamaican families in front of me; and when new poolside friends in France asked me how I “knew” all those white people. My early family trips ignited a deep-rooted desire to find out more about my place in the world. Travel illuminated new paths of possibility, showing me spaces in which I could also belong, filled with people who looked like me and who could recognize the things in me that I had not yet claimed for myself.
As I got older, the silence around my identity slowly morphed into a deafening roar I could no longer ignore. When I lost my father to cancer at age 22, I thought I had reached rock bottom emotionally. His death had almost destroyed me, but it also gave me permission to seek out the truth about who I was. After paternity testing, I discovered my mother had been unfaithful to the father who raised me, with a black man she now knows nothing of. Although that news completely obliterated the remaining structures of my world, it also freed me from the half-life I had spent much time living. I yearned to see myself in spaces I had been too afraid to venture into, and uncover cultures I had willfully ignored because they were filled with those who often reminded me that we had much in common. As a child, belonging was everything, so I had stayed away from these groups, becoming complicit in the denial of who I was as a result. But the DNA results freed me from the practice of living a smaller, less authentic life and spurred me on in the search for myself.
I left home to live in black-majority countries where I could get lost in the arms of huge, noisy urban spaces and educate myself on what it really meant to be a part of a vibrant, innovative diaspora. Solo travel for me was more than just a jaunt to pass the time, it was totally transformative and educational, working like a tonic on my soul, tired from the grieving and shrinking myself into spaces where I was not fully seen. I moved to New York City’s Crown Heights neighborhood for six months while working remotely as a freelance writer and consumed all the literature by black writers I could get my hands on. Then I moved onto Vietnam, for a press trip where I managed to write about the hair extension industry, tracing the route from the heads of Vietnamese women in a factory I toured, back to the shops in London and NYC where they are bought by black women like me. I then went to Havana, Cuba, where I booked home-stays with locals and marveled at the resourcefulness of black Cubans in a place where racial disparities were evident. I also spent one month in the Dominican Republic, three in Nicaragua, and one in Mexico. In Mexico City I finally took an ancestral DNA test and discovered, to my sheer amazement, that half my genetic ancestry is likely from Nigeria. I wrote about all this — and the reliability of the DNA testing industry itself — in my book, “Raceless,” which is out now.
Although my story sounds particularly unique, I can situate it within a new wave of black travelers who are driven by genealogical curiosity and the recent explosion in affordable at-home DNA testing. The global DNA testing market is expected to be worth over $10 billion by 2022. And heritage tours, ancestry travel, genealogy trips, or DNA travel has exploded in popularity in recent years. In 2019, 23andMe joined forces with Airbnb so customers could create a travel and rental package based on their DNA results — the same year Ghana declared its “Year of Return” to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first recorded enslaved Africans in the United States. And when travel company Black & Abroad arranged heritage trips to the continent, the phrase “go back to Africa” was reclaimed and used to celebrate the concept of black people reconnecting with their roots.
I’ve explored the ethics and reliability of DNA testing for black people in my book, and also in my Audible series, The Secrets In Us. I’ve discovered that ancestral DNA results are accurate to a broad continental level, but that Africa’s country breakdowns can often be inaccurate. This is down to the fact that there simply isn’t enough data on people of African descent, and that often, country breakdowns change as the databases are updated. But many companies are deliberately targeting black consumers, knowing that we often have a gap in our knowledge of self. Sometimes they have dubious means of obtaining more DNA samples from Africa, and even more worrying links to law enforcement with whom they have a history of colluding with.
So it’s important for black travelers to know exactly what they are consenting to before they send their spit off in a tube in the quest for planning a dream trip. But I also realize that for many like myself who have been denied access to their heritage, DNA testing is incredibly tempting, offering a window into a hidden past for relatively little cost and little hassle. The legacy of slavery and the common themes around secrets, silence, and shame in relation to black children raised in white homes means many can’t rely on family lore or well-kept records to ascertain where they are from.
For many, there is a visible thread between DNA testing and travel, the impact of which is not just personal, but deeply political and rooted in a very human desire to understand our purpose and place in the world. The movement of the black body was (and still is) heavily policed in many spaces and so traveling freely and for pleasure is still very much a subversive act when you are black — traveling to reclaim a personal history even more so.
I’m hopeful that by combining genealogical research with ancestral results, I can one day track down my black biological relatives and perhaps find out more about the country which provides me with so much of my appearance and sense of self. DNA testing in the context of travel demonstrates that the entire history of humankind spans thousands of cultures and countries, melding to form a rich tapestry of experiences, ethnicities, and genetic clusters, which are no respecter of country borders. For black people searching for the meaning in our genome, taking a trip based on new-found DNA results can be life-changing, offering us a chance to obtain a cultural understanding beyond the percentages. We just need to know exactly what we are signing up for before we send our spit off in the mail.
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