How I experienced Barbados as a Black safe haven: A response to Chibundu Onuzo

As a fellow affluent Nigerian woman traveller who also recently escaped to Barbados, at a time when I needed a black safe haven from whiteness, I felt very much at home and grateful for the way this island received me and the generosity of its Black people.

Which is why I felt very confused when my contemporary wrote an article for The Guardian about how Barbados did not feel like a black man country until she saw Black boys walking freely.

Initially, my decision to go to Barbados was a practical immigration consideration. As the holder of a Nigerian passport, I was looking for a country that would receive me without making me jump through endless hoops of visa requirements that Western countries use as penalties for people whose passports they consider inferior. Which is why I was filled with joy when I realized that the island of Barbados allowed Nigerian passport holders to travel into the country freely. I don’t know how to explain the depth of exhilaration I felt at that realization to someone who has been hassled out of money, time, and peace just to take a trip somewhere. I was still a bit nervous landing in Barbados with my Nigerian passport, that can be the result of the years of being detained at different country entry points and harrassed/questioned for appropriate kinds of documentation. And yet I stood in line, met with a kind gentleman who asked me for my passport, my return ticket, and then proceeded to stamp my passport with a visa and welcomed me into the country. (sidenote, is this how white people feel all the time?)

As soon as I cleared customs at Grantley Adams International Airport, an airport named after a man who spent his career as an attorney using his law degree to “dethrone the plantocracy” and bring social and political transformation within Barbados, I stepped out, found a taxi, and gave him my location. It was precisely at that moment I realized I felt safe, even though it was almost midnight in a new country and I was a solo female traveller in a car with a man I didn’t know. He made small talk, gave me some recommendations of sights to see, and dropped me off at my Airbnb. 

My decision to spend time in an Airbnb and not a resort was an intentional one. I did treat myself to a day in a resort to experience the luxury of it but want most of my time in Barbados to be a true getaway. To experience life at the pace of the locals, and to be conscious as a traveller and respectful guest. This is important to me as someone whose hometown, Calabar, Nigeria, is also a tourist hot spot. Learning how to be a tourist in a way that is respectful of locals was part of my experience with tourism. For context, resorts in Barbados tend to be very luxurious and an all-inclusive experience. I could see why people are attracted to them, but going to a resort space is a way to self segregate with other people who don’t mind paying over $300 American dollars a night to be served and pampered in every way. Nice, but not indicative of what a lot of travellers consider valuable. The narrative is that Black people cannot afford to stay in such places. The reality as an affluent Black woman who travels often is that I just don’t find the experience of luxury overpriced anti-black spaces a valuable way to spend money. However, during my night at the resort, I did have Black people in domestic support roles, which is not an anomaly for a country with 93% Black people. The Black men, women, and boys I encountered during my day at the resort were very generous with their time and helpful with their service. They were focused on doing their jobs and I did not feel any racial dynamics at play in my interactions with them. They were professional, kind and very helpful in answering my questions and supplying me with a steady dose of free cocktails that were part of my all-inclusive beach package. We engaged in conversations about Bajan culture and practices and were curious about my experiences as a Nigerian. Afrobeats and Jollof always came up in our conversations. 

I recently spent some time in Ghana and toured the Elmina slave castle, the Door of No Return, and other historic reminders of the genocide of African people by white supremacy. It was history I wanted to understand the full context and cruelty behind, but it was also very painful to witness and I knew that I wanted my trip to the Caribbean islands to be a reprieve. In Barbados I did not want to center the stories of the cruelty of enslavers, I chose to explore the stories of the resistance and the Joy of kidnapped Africans. Which was why I stayed away from plantations, and places like “the cage” – a place where runaway slaves were kept until their owners came to reclaim them. I centered my visits on paying homage to places like Accra Beach, the first entry point of kidnapped Africans who survived the Middle Passage. Also bearing witness to Rock Hall, the island’s first village for and by freed slaves, with a powerful inscription:

 “From the belly of the slave ship to a freeholder, the spirits of the African ancestors beckon the enslaved souls guiding them to the first free village.

The history I witnessed in Barbados made me proud to be Black.
Proud of the global African diaspora.

In centering Black joys, I spent a lot of time on the beach. Water, sun, and sand are recipes that nurture my soul. One of the things I appreciated about being in Barbados was precisely the fact that its beaches were not privatized. As a lawyer who spends my days fighting the growing trend of the commercialization and privatization of public spaces, it felt nice to be in a country that actively prioritizes protecting the people’s rights to not be segregated out of certain spaces in their own countries. The insidious nature of classism is that its thinly veiled promise that having more wealth gives us a way to escape from being among “common people” which leads to self-segregation of the wealthy elites in spaces where the only non-elite people there only exist to serve them. In sharing the beach space with local Bajans in the middle of their own spaces who were not pushed out to serve tourists, it made my experience at the beaches more authentic and gave me the space to observe people on their own terms. There was a freedom in being with everyday Bajans as they showed up in their public spaces without surveillance or exclusion.

There is a certain thrill of being in the sun which makes me reflect on why Nigerians shy away from frolicking in the sun, or “sun-worshipping” as Chibundu calls it. Maybe its because the sun rays are harsher in our part of the world, or maybe it is due to the colorism we inherited as part of our white supremacist colonial legacy. A collective experience of internalized anti-blackness that lead us to buy bleaching creams and avoid being out in the sun recreationally so we don’t get darkened by the sun. An attempt to position ourselves in proximity to whiteness. This is why it always feels like a revolutionary act to bask in the glory of the sun from sunrise to sunset and be in the company of a lot of other Black bodies in Bikinis doing the same. 

One of the incredible women I met during my time in Barbados recently had a baby and it was her first time out of the house with her friend. They were two beautiful dark-skinned women who spent all afternoon drinking cocktails and alternating between sunbathing and playing in the Caribbean ocean. After an afternoon spent observing them, I decided to walk over and let them know how much joy sharing space with them had given me. They were so generous with their compliments and joy and invited me into their space to talk about the ways we were all experiencing adulting in our 20’s. It felt powerful. Sisterhood. The Black women sisterhood is global.

I also experienced this overwhelming appreciation for the sacred space that is the Black women sisterhood on my last full day in Barbados. I met up with a local woman I had previously connected with on Instagram – one of those digital connections that had turned casual acquaintances where we liked each other’s posts often, dm’ ed each other with beautiful affirmations, and amplified each other’s work. We finally took our relationship from URL to IRL and from the moment we met until the end of the night we co-created an incredibly nurturing space for each other. I didn’t think much about how palpable it was to the people around us until we were headed out and an elderly woman pulled us aside and told us how affirming watching us have fun had been for her. My friend and I spent the entire day at Boatyard, eating, getting cocktails, being in the water, taking walks, taking Instagram worthy pictures of each other, and basking in the nurturing space that only Black women can offer each other. We hugged and complimented each other’s bodies and gassed each other up as we took pictures. It was so mundane and yet so nurturing and grounding.

The safety and care I felt were not only isolated to my interactions with women. There were men I associated with also full of care. One particular interaction will be a forever memorable one. During my stay at the Airbnb, I decided to walk about a mile downhill to a supermarket nearby to get groceries. While shopping for groceries I got a bit overzealous and forgot about the fact that I would have to walk a mile uphill back to my Airbnb. The trek back in the middle of the hot afternoon with what felt like a million bags hanging off me was long and strenuous. At one point I dropped all the bags and found a small corner with a shade to pause and rest. I noticed a man walk up behind me and ask if I was okay. I immediately stiffed. My interactions with men have taught me to be cautious in an effort to stay safe. I told him I was fine and just resting because my bags were heavy. He offered to help me with them if I would allow him. Again, I was suspicious but I knew I still had an uphill climb ahead so I graciously accepted his offer, bracing myself for what I assumed would be him trying to express an interest in some kind of intimate thing with me, which is typically what I have come to expect from men when they are kind. This man was different though. He asked me light and interesting questions that didn’t feel like he was prying. He shared random tidbits about living in Barbados and what he loves about it. He talked about his nieces who he was on the way to pick up from school, and when we got close to my Airbnb (never reveal your exact location if you are a solo traveller), he handed over my bags, wished me well, and walked away, without asking for my number or trying to ask me out later. Witnessing this kindness and generosity from a man with no ulterior motive made me feel so grateful and safe and dream about a world where more of those types of interactions are commonplace. Where women didn’t have to feel hyper-aware of their surroundings and always be prepared for worst-case scenario. 

After so many amazingly nurturing experiences with the Black people of Barbados, I was jolted out of my Black safe haven as I headed back into spaces dominated by white people. By people with the expectation that Black people exist to serve them. As I got to the airport line, I encountered him. An older white man with that expectation. With the entitlement. Emboldened by white supremacy. The kind that had probably stayed in a resort all week and was frustrated that he had to wait in line and abide by rules created and enforced by Black people. I was jolted back into the overwhelming nature of whiteness after a blissful week of “white people who?” Jolted back into the experience of being in rooms with white people who expect subservient behavior from Black people. From white people who don’t see Black people, especially Black women as authority figures and deserving of respect in their own right. Jolted back into the kinds of experiences that wore more down enough to escape to this safe haven in the first place. And this time it was unfolding right in front of me at the Bajan Airport.  I stood at the checkout line and watched a white man yell at the Black woman who was staffing the ticketing counter for not being fast enough in processing his ticket. After his rant, hitting the table, and just being overly aggressive and impatient, He asked to speak to the manager. Delight filled my eyes when the woman he had just yelled at proceeded to tell him “I am the manager.” She kept a straight face, dropped all his documents, went to the back room and a few minutes later security, a group of three Bajan men came over and escorted the “angry white man” outside to have a conversation with him. She called me next in line, I smiled at her, and apologized that she had to put up with that. 

This experience with whiteness jarred me back to the reality of having to negotiate with whiteness as part of a human experience that I have as long as I live in the Western world but it made me even more grateful for all the days I was able to spend in the safe haven of Barbados away from the white gaze and all its trauma.

Salem is a lawyer, activist, artist and lover of all thing Black womanhood.

This article is for Black People.

Distinguished Diva

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