On July 14, popular YouTuber Glen Henry, his wife, and their four kids under the age of eight are heading out on a month-long, multistate RV trip. He has only two concerns: whether his kids will get bored a few days into the journey—and whether, as a Black man driving from California to South Carolina, he’ll be safe.
“Honestly, [what makes me nervous are] sundown towns and unfriendly people … and driving the whole time while being Black,” says the musician turned full-time, stay-at-home dad.
Travel is a summer ritual for many families, a ritual stymied last summer in the midst of pandemic restrictions. Now, pent-up wanderlust has people hitting the road in record numbers. They’re packing up the kids, charting itineraries, and, if they take a wrong turn along the way—well, that’s part of the adventure. But for Black dads, getting lost in an unfamiliar place can be one of several reasons to reconsider traveling.
Black dads who push past the hurdles to travel are rewarded in ways similar to white dads (family bonding) and ways unique to racialized communities (empowering their kids to feel self-confident and safe in a world that can threaten their right to exist because of the color of their skin). Along the way they are displacing stereotypical ideas of what fathering while Black looks like.
Marvyn Harrison runs the online community Dope Black Dads. The father of two, who is based in London, already travels with his two young children, but recent events, including the murder of George Floyd last summer, give him pause about a trip to the United States.
“Normally I would go to the U.S. every year, and I do want to still go to Atlanta, but there is a slight lack of desire to do so on the basis that I don’t know how safe it is,” he says.
While anti-Black racism isn’t a uniquely American product, it is particularly loathsome, he says. “There’s something about the U.S. version of it, which is quite proactive and violent, which puts me off heading to certain places. Florida and the southern states are the ones that impact me the most and make me second-guess whether it’s worth going.”
The gift of presence and time
The lack of statistics around how many Black dads are traveling or what is motivating (or preventing) them doing so—including financial considerations—is further proof of their marginalization, says Fathers Incorporated CEO Kenneth Braswell.
To fully understand Black dad travel, he says, researchers would need to look at how, where, and why they travel, and measure impact instead of destination or distance. It could be as simple as recognizing that family travel can mean a trip to Europe, or simply accompanying your child’s team to an AAU game.
“The most valuable thing that a father can give to a child is presence and time, so whether they are traveling, whether they’re reading a book, whether they’re playing sports together, that shared time is unmatched in impact by anything else,” Braswell says. “That bonding, in terms of what is created when we spend so much time together, research around that hasn’t been done.”
Understanding how to move in the world is an especially important lesson for Black children, says Braswell.
He recalls having older relatives alert him to spotting potential dangers as he traveled. (If he couldn’t see the gas station from the highway, he shouldn’t exit. If, while driving in a new town, he noticed that there were no other Black people in the cars around him, he should avoid stopping.) They were lessons borne out of experience and life-preserving necessity.
Today, Braswell tries to instill a similar understanding in his son and nephew. Black men have a responsibility to teach their children how to recognize unsafe spaces, and it’s something that can only be truly learned by exposure, he says.
“As Black boys, you always have to be aware of where you are, so that you know how to conduct yourself and so, if for no other reason, travel is important,” he says. “It’s important for dads to be able to show their children a way of having a consciousness about their presence.”
Normalizing Black fatherhood
Mervyn Harrison says that a part of Dope Black Dads’ mission is to disrupt the barrage of media reports that often reinforce negative stereotypes about Black men, such as absenteeism. Especially because the truth is quite the opposite. He points to a 2013 study that looked at fathers’ involvement in child rearing—both for fathers who lived with their kids and those who didn’t—and found that Black fathers are often more involved than they are given credit for.
“We spend the most time with our children under the age of five compared to any other racial identity,” says Harrison.
Showing the joys of Black fatherhood is now a part of Henry’s mission, as well. “There’s not a lot of media around us doing anything else but being really great or really terrible,” he says. “So, for us to be consistently normal is a story that needs to flood popular culture because it’s not really glorified.”
Pre-COVID, work-related travel meant Braswell was in the air at least three times each month. As a self-described “bougie” traveler, he says he grew used to the stares, questions, and assumptions that come from being a Black man seated at the front of the plane or checking in at a luxury hotel.
Aside from his enjoyment of luxury travel, he says having his own children see him exist in those spaces normalizes the experience for them. It’s also why he takes them on travels across the country and around the world.
“The four blocks that surround where you grew up shouldn’t be your defining measure of how you live in the world,” says Braswell.
Through Fatherhood Incorporated, he has planned trips that took young, low-income, Black and Latinx dads from Brooklyn to camp out in the Catskills, without their kids. The goal, says Braswell, is to show them the world beyond their neighborhood so that they, in turn, can offer it to their own children. “The more you do that, the better father you’re going to be for your children, because you’re not going to limit your child to your experience.”
Keith Sims; his wife, Tia; and three of their six kids spend more than a hundred nights each year traveling in their RV with that intention in mind. As the Soulful RV Family, they’ve visited 19 states over the last seven years.
“We have barely scratched the surface of the things we want to do, the places we want to see, and the experiences we want to have together as a family,” says Sims, a former NFL player in Miami and Washington. “It has been such an eye-opening experience and blessing for our family.”
Though neither he nor his wife grew up traveling in this way, the idea of trying it as a way of homeschooling their younger kids took root. Over the years, favorite stops have included science museums, national parks, and iconic landmarks. A road trip through Kansas City (where they enjoyed barbecue and discovered both the Negro League Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum) is just one of many adventures.
But Sims says some of his favorite moments are the “just the boys” outdoor adventures he’s planned solo with his kids—including a four-day trip to Providence Canyon in Georgia where they hiked and explored together.
“We did studies on all the different regions in Georgia, and then I took them on a boy’s trip,” he recalls. “They loved it. I loved it. It was a great hike, and it was a great experience.”
He suggests getting the kids involved in the planning of the trip and making sure to schedule light, fun activities alongside heavier emotional outings to places such as African American museums.
It’s the kind of advice that Henry appreciates as he prepares for his big road trip. Recently, he got a few tips from an unexpected source: Actor Blair Underwood saw one of his videos on Instagram and sent him a note.
“He said, ‘I agree we don’t see enough brown people out there on the road,”’ Henry recalls, “and what resonated most was that he said this country is our birthright too.”
It was one more reminder of why travel is worth pushing past his fears. He hopes other Black families find his trip inspirational too. “Those photos and those videos we’ll have for a lifetime,” says Henry. “So it’s all about the memories.”