If I ever go missing you should begin all search and rescue operations at the North Beach Bar & Grill, which squats in the midst of the recovering ruins of Fort Screven under the cyclopean presence of the Tybee Beach Lighthouse in Georgia. It’s a laid back beach bar with sand in its floorboards and the ocean in its nostrils. If the crowd is light and there’s no band playing that night you might be able to hear the ocean between sips. I go to Tybee Beach every few years if I can to take the rare, real vacation. Ninety percent of time I spend on the road is for poetry gigs or similar business, so a real vacation is rare. When I do it, I hit it pretty hard. This year, as busy as I’ve been, I decided to unplug with extreme prejudice: no phone, no internet, no computer, not TV save football games, no writing…just living in the moments as they came.
It was relaxing, but also a little disconcerting.
Some of that is my default speed at play: I need to be working on stuff to feel like myself, or at least be priming the pump. I did really good on my recent trip. I didn’t spaz or twitch or anything. I finished the Grace Jones autobiography (buy it), ate until I got sleepy, then slept until I got hungry. You know, vacation shit. I’m at a point in my life where my relationship with the internet could be seen as mildly obsessive. I check it constantly, which is impressive when you consider I don’t own a cellphone. I do it raw, baby; strictly old school accessing at any port in the storm of ignorance. Having a different presence online than I did just a year ago has a lot to do with that, of course, but it’s also how I sustain parts of my intellect and creativity. I’m constantly checking the news or researching things for future projects. So there were times when I felt like my brain had simply turned off. It’s not a feeling I’m accustomed to, nor do I seek it out. I like my brain on. Connecting dots in disparate things isn’t a hobby with me; it’s a lifestyle. Every good revolutionary needs to at least be operating at hobby level with Connect the Dots.
But I’ll tell you what doesn’t go away, and no vacation can wear it smooth out of me: conditioning. And the worst conditioning I have is racial conditioning. Thanks America: you’ve made vacations practically untenable for Black genius.
There are the typical touchstones: If I’m driving, where can I go safely? How far south is too far south? Why can’t I go as fast as these other drivers? Is the service in this restaurant just bad or is it racist? I wonder if this food is safe? Do I have to buy something in every store I enter? These things have been in the back of Black travelers’ minds since AAA opened a drinking gourd branch. These are entry level defense mechanisms, and not in the purely psychological sense. Many Black lives have been saved because a family stopped to consider these things in the parking lot of a diner in the middle of nowhere.
There is a game Black people on vacations: Spot Your Black Road Dawgs. It’s the deluxe travel version of Spot the Black Person we play every day at work or whenever we go out pretty much at any point in our daily lives, assuming we’re not in pre-existing Black spaces already. Black staff don’t count, though you get half points for Black wait staff. A Black nuclear family is worth double. On previous trips, I may have scored 2 points. This trip? A whopping 15. Black folks were everywhere this year. Black-ish got Black people thinking they can go on vacations. THANKS OBAMA.
Most importantly, there was the guilt. The whole time I’m there I could feel an undertow of guilt, not for being there (because my family works hard and this is what we get instead of reparations or Black sick days), but for not staying up on the news. I knew that every couple of days I was missing some new story about how America was wearing Black people out, some egregious microaggression gone viral, some shaky and brutal police snuff film uploaded amidst the cat videos on YouTube. To some people, a reprieve sounds like a lovely idea, and don’t get me wrong: I ate enough popcorn crawfish to choke Popeye and binge watched all the Pirates of the Caribbean movies to pump up for the Annual Tybee Island Pirate Festival parade around the corner AND WE GOT ALL THE BEADS. But to a black revolutionary, the full-on unplugging from what’s happening in the real world is like not knowing how your cousin stationed in a foreign war is doing. And I get that island life is real life to some people, but come on: you live in a town with 1% poverty. You’re practically not American at all.
And then there was the pure obliviousness of the retreat, how if you didn’t turn on a television or a smartphone there was nothing to inform you that anything might be wrong in the world at all. For a few days, a Black family moving in luxurious White space was roughly the equivalent of being an obtuse White person in Middle America. When you’re unplugged you have to go looking for trouble, have to seek out something more than a weather condition report. There was nothing there aiming at Blackness, or seeking to incorporate it. So long as everyone played island tourist ball, there was nothing for us to talk about, no new people to meet in more than a how’s-the-sandwich kind of way. I imagine it’s what general whiteness is like in much of the country: the complete flattening and normalization of culture in a way that the exclusion of things that don’t secure whiteness or a colonial value system never raise an eyebrow. You just see what’s in front of you and that’s it: the rest of the world can go drive itself over a cliff. That’s “over there.” That’s city livin’, or urban, or anything but what’s here and can be had here.
For a brief time, being a Black person unmoored in rich whiteness balanced out to a feeling of mock Middle whiteness. Rich blackness doesn’t even get you that. What a dangerous mindset to live in.
I’ve determined I’m not built for cultural obliviousness, for pure unplugged recreational living. As strongly as I feel about Blacks and self-care, I need to feel connected to my struggle, to balance those temporary and necessary absences with just a shot of hotep. It’s in my blood: my maternal grandmother once made all of my aunts and uncles go to the segregated public pool in Nelsonville, Ohio and desegregate it with the purview their young black bodies could create. So this isn’t the part where I poured out a little bit for the revolutionary homies who couldn’t be there. It’s the part where I found myself sighing in resignation that I may have to bite the bullet and get a damned smartphone the next time I go away so as to not feel guilty about missing my Black American life. Or to take some black radio station up on a soul cruise (which, seriously, is never happening. I don’t care how many times you book Morris Day to perform. Not happening).
In short, America in 2015 has ruined the dream of the 100% unplugged, full-on decompression Black vacation for me.