Why Akon Doesn't Speak for Me

First of all, the dude responsible for the deplorable song, “Smack That,” can never speak for me. While I’ve previously ignored his sexist and degrading lyrics upholding the status quo of female objectification, I will remain silent no more. As a woman of color— a black woman specifically— who dedicates a significant portion of her resources to international travel, I wholeheartedly reject Akon’s unfounded and characteristically simple statement that African-Americans don’t travel to Africa for vacation.

This just in. Breaking news.

Most Americans don’t travel. And most Americans don’t travel to Africa for anything, much less vacation.

Americans as a whole are notorious for their sedentary behavior, even when it comes to international travel. Of the US population, only 38% now hold a valid United States passport (while 71% of Europe trample through airport security lines like a herd of elephants). To be fair, it doesn’t take much for a European to travel abroad, as “abroad” can mean a short, affordable, high-speed train ride. Still yet, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean aren’t that far or ridiculously expensive places to fly from the US. But guess what? Americans aren’t going there either.

In fact, the most popular international destination for Americans is Europe, with an average of 35% of Americans travelling there each year.

Let’s me honest. From Mali to Morocco to Madagascar, Africa is far. There’s literally a whole ocean to cross and limited direct flights to get there. Flying to Malawi from Seattle takes 30-35 hours of travel time; the fight from New York City to Johannesburg alone takes 15 straight hours. I can’t even sit that long at home much less to sit on a plane. My direct flight time from JFK to Accra, Ghana took about 10 hours. Those Americans who get paid vacation time—and sadly some don’t—only get 14 days. Allocating 4 days just for flying for one trip is a big ask.

Perhaps Americans would accept the 4-day commute to visit a country or two in Africa. Do they even know where to go and what to do? At least once a day you’ll happen upon a tourism ad for some Caribbean island, enticing American viewers with sandy beaches, tropical colors and drinks with umbrellas. I’ve never seen an ad for family friendly safaris, cultural tours or adventure sports. Have you? There are no messages of African tourism in America. We only hear of charities, terrorism and Nollywood.

Back to Akon.

Akon has no business, better yet, no authority to call out “African-Americans” for not wanting to vacation in Africa. Moreover, is he talking about African-Americans as in African-migrants to America? Migrants from the African diaspora? Native black Americans? Black people in general? Because quite frankly, if we’re including Africans in this equation, I doubt they’d consider “going to Africa” as going on vacation. I was born in Jamaica and a good portion of my family still lives there. Going to Jamaica, where 5% of American tourists go each year, is not considered a vacation to me.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Akon in all his genius is talking about all black people. Get ready for some numbers. Black people, or “African-Americans,” make up just 13.2% of the US population, roughly 41.7 million people. According to a recent study highlighted by Attorney General Eric Holder, 25% of them do not have a government issued identification (ahem, oppressive voter ID laws). Assuming that black people attain passports at the same rate as white people, which is unlikely, only 11.9 million black people have passports. Potentially. That means that 9.9% of all US passports in circulation might be held by a black person. This is just 3.8% of the entire US population. Given these numbers, hey, I wouldn’t know any black people travelling either.

The long and the short of it is this: it’s not that African-Americans aren’t going to Africa for vacation. Americansaren’t going much of anywhere. Statistically, black people aren’t going much of anywhere either. This emphasis on “statistically” is important because I’m not saying that black people don’t travel. I’m saying that it’s low chances meeting a black person on the street and hearing about their last international travel itinerary.

As I wrote in my essay, “You’ll Have An Easier Time”: Reflections on Being Black and American in Malawi: There are grave inequalities stratified across race and class in the United States. This may present a structural limitation on the ability for people of color to travel to remote places in the Global South. It may also be possible that first or second generation immigrants of color travel to their familial origins instead of other places. Perhaps it’s this idea that our parents have already migrated from the Global South, why voluntarily return to the dirt roads and cold water bucket baths? Why aren’t there more black Westerners traveling to the Global South? This is a complex question with layers of complex answers.

Whether black people travel, where they go, how often why. The questions go on and so do the answers. Black people are not a monolith and what we do, when and how is a rich, textured and beautifully complex issue.

Cue the social media “black travel movement.”

Social media groups show there are definitely other black people out there like me, who make travel a crucial part of their budgeting, time and even their identity. Groups like Nomadness Travel Tribe, Travel Noire, Black Adventuristas, Black Women Only Travel Group, African Americans Abroad, Black Travel Blogger Chronicles, Door to the Outdoors and countless others including my own, For Colored Girls Who Travel, aim to create a community of “urban travelers.” Perhaps meeting a black person on the street who travels religiously is low, but on the social media streets, the block is live. These online communities serve to connect those with this common interest, and form friendship and community in the real world as well.

This social media explosion of black people showcasing their travel adventures encourages me. We need it. I need it. Akon needs it. Because if Akon was hip to it, maybe he wouldn’t be running his mouth saying that we’re not out there. Oh, we’re out there. Just check-in online.