On Being a Conscious Tourist and Celebrating Blackness During Our Travels

I’ve been to New Orleans a few times before, but during my most recent trip I decided that I wanted to be more intentional about exploring the city. Admittedly, when I’ve gone before I’ve been the girl on Bourbon and Frenchman streets who didn’t venture out much past the French Quarters. Wait, I lied. I drove outside of the city to do a good ol’ gator tour, which was actually a disappointment because I didn’t get to see any alligators up close. Apparently, this happens from time to time.  In any case, this time around I decided I wanted to do things a little differently. I wanted to explore and get to know a different part of the city, and most importantly, I wanted to be intentional about supporting black and other minority owned businesses in New Orleans.

The Airbnb I stayed in located in the Ninth Ward.

The Airbnb I stayed in located in the Ninth Ward.

It is no surprise that post Hurricane Katrina, the redevelopment efforts throughout the city have been high key predatory and racist. From companies like Airbnb to private developers coming in to take advantage of abandoned and low cost properties, the poor, working class, and people of color bear the brunt of these redevelopment efforts. When I first arrived to the city, I drove through the Lower Ninth ward to visit Cafe Dauphine for brunch, and I was surprised by how many abandoned homes there still were. I would soon hear stories from black New Orleanians about how many of their family members had decided not to return to rebuild and how the city prioritized rebuilding the tourist areas. They weren’t surprised, and honestly, neither was I. Side Note: Cafe Dauphine was closed when I went but TRUST that I will be back when I visit again.

My Airbnb didn’t have all of the amenities like the ones I would have gotten staying somewhere more upscale or in a hotel, but it was home, in a neighborhood where other black folk lived. That was important to me. And I felt safe.

Being hyper aware of the way people of color have been treated post Katrina, I told myself that I wanted to be a tourist who took some time to venture out, to get to know locals. My people. Unless you know someone, lodging in New Orleans provides you two options: a hotel or an Air Bnb. I didn’t want to pay the outrageous prices for a hotel so I decided to do an Airbnb, and recognizing the contentious housing environment Airbnb has created for working class residents, I was adamant about renting a home owned or rented by a black person. And so I did. I stayed in a nice little shot gun home in the Ninth Ward. A big shout out to my host Tess, a black woman who was born and raised in New Orleans. My Airbnb didn’t have all of the amenities like the ones I would have gotten staying somewhere more upscale or in a hotel, but it was home, in a neighborhood where other black folk lived. That was important to me. And I felt safe. In fact, anytime my friend and I left the Airbnb, we were met by our elderly neighbor. When we opened our door, she opened hers. “Y’all be safe okay? And have fun. And make sure you come to see me before y’all leave, okay?”  “Yes ma’am,” we said in unison. Oh yes, she was the proverbial prayin’ grandma we all have.

Congo Square. In 1724, slaves were permitted to visit during their days off on Sunday. They would come here to dance, sing, drum, and eventually sell goods.

Congo Square. In 1724, slaves were permitted to visit during their days off on Sunday. They would come here to dance, sing, drum, and eventually sell goods.

Louis Armstrong Park

Louis Armstrong Park

My second choice was to create a list of potential things to do throughout the city that had to do with black culture, where I knew I’d be supporting a minority owned business in some way and where I’d encounter other black people.  During my 3 days there, I visited Louis Armstrong Park and Congo Square, which is a public space that does a phenomenal job of commemorating New Orleans’ African American greats. When I walked into the park, I was met by a statue of black jazz players, trumpets and saxophones in hand. A few feet away was a memorial dedicated to the African American slaves who would come to Congo square on Sundays to dance, sing, celebrate and eventually sell goods in order to earn money to buy their freedom. At the back of the park is the Mahalia Jackson Performing Arts Theater. The park is designed in such as way that as you move through the space, you can either relax and lounge or become engrossed in a part of black history.

Another place I visited was Studio Be, which is owned by a black visual artist, B-mike, who uses his art to tell stories and make bold statements. His work is truly transformative and visceral, and most importantly, it is a reminder to the world that people of color are beautiful, strong, and persistent.

I wanted them to know, “I see you” and “I appreciate you” because so many people are conditioned to unsee our blackness.

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Finally, while this is never an issue for me because I believe wholeheartedly in respecting people no matter who they are and what they do, I made an even more conscious effort to be kind and thoughtful to the folks that served me at restaurants, bars and other retail spaces. The reality is that in cities with successful tourist economies, the service industry is crucial. People of color often make up a significant portion of service sector jobs. In New Orleans, most of my waiters and waitresses were black men and women. I sometimes witnessed the disregard for who they were as people or the overall non-chalantness towards them by the people they served. I wanted them to know, “I see you” and “I appreciate you” because so many people are conditioned to unsee our blackness.

Tourist economies have changed the fabric of our neighborhoods and our culture has been commodified by local governments in order to attract tourist who want to consume black culture but have nothing to do with black people.

Being aware of the historical narratives of the cities we travel to is crucial to being a responsible tourist. Understanding the spaces we inhabit and move through, if only for a few days, is how we acknowledge the people who call our temporary destinations home. For people of color throughout this country, our land and homes have historically been up for grabs. Physically and psychologically, we have suffered from displacement. Tourist economies have changed the fabric of our neighborhoods and our culture has been commodified by local governments in order to attract tourist who want to consume black culture but have nothing to do with black people.

In the same ways that buy black movements have become a priority for us within the cities we live in an effort to keep our dollars within our communities, we can also take this mindset with us as we travel and explore new cities and destinations. I challenge you to be intentional about how you experience the spaces you visit. I urge you to dig deeper into the various ways you can support minority businesses during your trips and to seek out the spaces that have meaning and value to our culture, that tell our stories, and that uplift who we are. More importantly, I encourage you to treat the black and brown folk who serve, greet, and nurture you during your travels with love, kindness, and respect.

Here is a list of things to do as a Black traveler in NOLA.

Until the next black space blog…