The American Family Road Trip: Traveling While Black | Anna Doogan
In the remote mountains of Georgia, I slowly watch my knee swell to the size of a baseball. It’s red and throbbing. There’s no cell service here. I take shade under a sugar maple until my husband finally convinces me that we should go find a doctor.
We take down our campsite and head back to the car, which involves crossing a creek with all our gear. It’s my daughter’s birthday, and aside from being in excruciating pain, now I’m silently berating myself for ruining her day. We did get to milk a cow earlier, at least.
We wind through the mountains, and I’m sweating in the July heat, my ballooning knee aching. With the added obstacle of it being a Sunday morning, we opt for the closest Urgent Care we can find.
“It’s that way,” I point out the window to the hospital as my husband drives. “Just past that…Confederate flag store.”
In the summer of 2016, my husband and I took our three kids on a 12-week road trip around the country. Three months, all of us crammed in the car. Staying in tents and yurts and covered wagons and rented cabins. From Oregon to Niagara Falls, down to Florida, and all the way back across America, finishing up through California. Sometimes we stayed with friends, sometimes with family, or at the occasional hotel. We wanted to see the National Parks, see how landscapes changed, and see the parts of the USA we’d never visited.
Summer 2016 seems so long ago now.
As a Black woman, I was nervous taking the trip back then.
I’d be terrified to do it again.
Traveling while Black:
Will I be welcome?
Will I have to deal with ignorant racist comments?
Will I be safe?
My kids understand that racism very much exists. We talk about it. I hold my breath, always hoping they don’t have to experience it. But I know I can’t protect them from everything.
I wish I could say you get used to it. You really don’t.
I’m always aware of my Blackness. I do imagine, frequently, what it would be like to move through my life as a white person. To possess that power and privilege just by my very existence. I’m aware when I’m the only Black person in a store, in a restaurant, a class, at a child’s birthday party. I feel it. Living in Portland, Oregon, it’s pretty common.
I could say you get used to being followed in stores. But you don’t.
You don’t. You don’t, you never do. You just adapt.
Keep your hands out of your pockets.
Don’t linger around in the back.
Sometimes I just overtly hold a twenty in my hand, so they know I intend to pay.
From 1936 to 1966, the Negro Motorist Green-Book provided an annual guide of places that were welcoming to Black travelers. Hotels, restaurants, barbershops, taverns. A guidebook that could potentially help Black people avoid discrimination and violence so they could feel a little safer as they traveled around the country.
Just think about that.
We spend a day hiking the red rock formations at Arches National Park and taking in the views at Canyonlands. The campsite has a pool and life-size chess, and despite the stifling heat, the kids are happy and playing. We can’t sleep because our campsite neighbors insist on performing a drunken off-tune rendition of “Riptide” on their ukuleles all night.
In the morning, we decide to explore Moab. A store has a sticker on the window: Unattended children will be sold into slavery.
We stop window shopping; instead we go for lunch at the Peace Tree Café.
Three men are sitting at an outdoor table. All three are wearing NRA hats, and black leather vests that say “2nd Amendment for Life”emblazoned across the back.
I can’t help but glance at them while I’m eating my Peace Burger and quinoa salad. They glance back. It’s respectful glancing though, if there is such a thing.
I mean, this is the Peace Tree café, after all.
On our road trip, we stop in Charlottesville to visit my oldest friend. We’ve known each other since preschool. That night, we head out to a brewery for dinner.
In all the years she lived there, I never visited because I was too afraid. Over dinner, we laugh about it over fries. The brewery is playing old ‘80s pop.
Charlottesville seems like a nice enough town, I remember thinking. Maybe my fears about racism in Charlottesville are just an overreaction.
I try to convince myself of this. Somehow, I am always trying to convince myself.
Occasionally, I’ve pointed out racist comments or behavior and been shut down.
No, Anna, I’m sure that’s not what they meant. They were probably having a bad day.
No way. In that town? It’s so progressive!
You must have just been imagining it, Anna. This is 2015!
That one hurts the most. You must have imagined it.
Variations of the same explanation. It’s uncomfortable, I get it.
It’s more uncomfortable for me.
No, it couldn’t be. It couldn’t be. That would never happen here.
At Costco, an older man grabs me by the arm and asks how often birds mistake my dreadlocks for their nest. He reaches towards my hair, and I swerve before he can touch it.
I deal with this sort of nonsense all the time.
He keeps chuckling about it, even after I walk away.
That’s not even a good joke.
Plus, I’ve heard that one so many times.
“Guess what I like best about St. Louis.”
My daughter has paused from splashing long enough for me to reapply sunscreen to her quickly baking skin. Nearby, my boys are still running through the fountains. We’ve stumbled upon Citygarden downtown, and the cold fountains are a welcome relief from the heat.
I think about her question. “The City Museum?” It had a ten-story spiral slide and a ferris wheel on the roof.
“Well, I give up. What?”
She grins at me, and water is dripping out of her ponytail. “What I like best about St. Louis is that there are actually lots of other brown-skinned people like us here.”
I’m caught off guard by her answer, but of course. Of course.
“I like that too,” I tell her. I snap the cap of the sunscreen closed. “You’re all set.” She’s off again, splashing through the water.
My husband is a large 6’5” white man. Having him with me has likely protected me in some situations where I might otherwise have been harassed or targeted. I’m very aware of this.
In a rural part of Southern Oregon, I watch as he chats with the cop who has just pulled him over for speeding. He gets a warning.
“Take it slower next time,” the cop says, as he waves us off.
No ticket. We’re free to go.
I run my hands over the glove compartment. I always double check that the registration and proof of insurance are in there when I drive alone. Just in case. On more than one occasion, I’ve practiced how to slowly retrieve my wallet if necessary, when asked. Just in case.
I mean, that’s life or death.
I browse Instagram to follow full-time traveling families. Buses, RVs, tiny homes. I want to see how they do it, to get inspired. Traveling used to be of my favorite things.
One of the white families blogs about being stopped by the police while exploring. The car being searched. A misunderstanding. A big long discussion until they were finally free to go.
I read all the comments beneath.
So sorry you had to go through that.
What? That’s ridiculous. I can’t imagine.
So glad you’re safe and back to your travels.
I thought about that post for a long time. I thought about it as I was falling asleep that night.
What I was really wondering was, what if that was me?
Would I still be alive?
This essay originally appeared in Mutha Magazine.
Anna Doogan is a writer, dancer, and mother of four living in Portland, Oregon. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Hip Mama, MUTHA Magazine, The Literary Kitchen, Threadcount, Nailed, The Boiler, and elsewhere. When she is not writing, she can be found exploring the forests of the Pacific Northwest.