I’m not a first-timer when it comes to getting my hair checked by the TSA. At this point, I’ve got it down to a science: If I wear braids in a bun, which is the most travel-friendly style, because otherwise they can reach down to the end of my back, I know someone is going to put their fingers through my hair. If I wear faux locs or any kind of extensions that give my hair volume, all I have to do is look at the X-ray screen and see a sizable yellow rectangle over the size of my head and know that a Black TSA officer will soon emerge out of nowhere and begin to course through my hair. I’ve made Facebook statuses about this inconvenience, and white female friends will tell me they have their hair in buns all the time and never get checked, mentioning this not to discredit my experience but to highlight the inequality.
What gets me is that this extra inspection is not universal across U.S. airports. I may not get hair-checked at JFK, but I might at LAX. Philadelphia Airport might check me, but not Phoenix.
But by far the most revolting experience happened in Louisiana.
I was on way back to New York after a research trip spanning the Acadiana region, and I had to go through Lafayette Airport. As the white female TSA officer was putting her fingers through my hair, she asked me if I knew the kind of damage that braids do to your hair. She said one woman had hair loss because of it.
I’ve been traveling since I was a baby, and I’ve gotten used to the ways in which my body is surveilled both in and out of the airport.
First, I was not wearing braids. I had Marley twists, which use two strands (not three) of hair to complete each twist, hence the name. Second, I know the potential damage any kind of style that pulls at the root can do to the hair. But I’ve been wearing variations of these styles for the majority of my life, and my hair has gotten fuller and longer, not shorter and more frail.
The conversation aggravated me, but given that I did not want to cause a scene in a small airport, I just said, “Oh,” and quickly gathered my bags. A Black man saw what was happening and said, “I don’t like how she kept you longer than she should have.” I immediately vented. Not only did I feel like boundaries were crossed, I told him, but I also felt her admonition incinerated any potential of me being polite. It felt like this woman assumed she knew my body better than I did — or worse, that I was not equipped to protect my own body and she was just passing along information that might be useful for me and my well-being.
I’ve been traveling since I was a baby, and I’ve gotten used to the ways in which my body is surveilled both in and out of the airport. I’ve had a near run-in with neo-Nazis in Russia, landed in a taxi situation where I thought I could’ve been assaulted in the Bahamas, and had employees refuse to acknowledge me in domestic places like Florida. The constant awareness of what kind of treatment I’ll get for being born Black and assigned female is often more exhausting than the time it takes to get to and from my destination.
What does escape mean for an individual who has to be mindful of who he or she is at all times?
But I know I’m not alone. And it’s for that reason that I’ve chosen a mix of emerging and established writers who can also attest to the challenges of traveling while Black, demonstrating that anti-Blackness is real no matter where you go. You can find all five of them here:
On Being Black in First Class
"I'm really sick of paying for customer service that doesn't seem to be granted to people who look like me when I…
Letting My Guard Down as a Solo Black Traveler
"That familiar scenario - being the only Black - had an outcome I hadn't expected"
Traveling While Black in Florence
The most dangerous thing a person of color can do is forget they're a a person of color - especially in unfamiliar…
Where Blackness Is Its Own Nation
"It's a shock, whenever you leave the U.S., to realize how much other people understand that history matters"
Traveling While Black in Colombia
"Anti-blackness can be found in any corner of the globe."
I wanted to do this series because of its juxtaposition. Vacationing or traveling is often a means of escape, a way to shed obligations from one’s base. But what does escape mean for an individual who has to be mindful of who he or she is at all times — especially if the circumstances can go from a microaggression to a fatality? In this collection, you will read stories ranging from TSA irritations to the heights of Italian monuments, and from intimate study-abroad experiences to safe-space cultivations and history assessments from one land to another. All of them will be either surprisingly familiar or unusual depending on your vantage point, but each memory underscores the jagged path Black people have to travel for some momentary relief and enjoyment.
Morgan Jerkins is the author of the New York Times-bestselling essay collection, "This Will Be My Undoing" and two forthcoming books. She is based in Harlem.
About this Anthology