Since 2015, Black & Abroad has provided a multi-layered platform that not only talks about international travel but encourages it — especially for Black travelers. Founded by Eric Martin and Kent Johnson, the company powered by this dynamic duo is on a journey to showcase the beauty and luxury in international travel for Black people. They’ve recently unveiled the Black Elevation Map. This tool merges commerce and travel through a searchable map of the U.S. that features Black businesses, connecting tourists to their travel communities.
For(bes) The Culture caught up with the two founders to chat about the Black Elevation Map, how they’ve influenced the Black community to partake in luxury travel, and upcoming plans for 2022.
For(bes) The Culture: This year, you unveiled the Black Elevation Map that uses data such as social media activity, historical markers, and Black population data to create an elevation map that features Black businesses, city guides, national guides, and more. What was the inspiration behind this?
Eric Martin: There were so many nuggets of inspiration that pushed us to bring this map to life. Our first thought was the symbolism of mountains. A mountain can symbolize adventure and escape in the travel world. In the spiritual world, it can symbolize consistency, awakening, and overcoming obstacles. There are so many historical references to the symbolism of mountains in African American literature, art, and music. We thought it would be a great idea to integrate this symbolism into the project to serve as the framework of the map.
Business-wise, our core mission of Black & Abroad is to explore the world, embrace other cultures and empower the community at large. To put that into context, we’ve hosted projects and events in the past which fell under at least one, maybe two of these core values. The Black Elevation Map seamlessly loops in all three by encouraging exploration while embracing Black culture through commerce. As a collateral benefit, we’re indirectly helping to mobilize Black communities by driving tourism dollars to these thriving establishments and organizations.
For(bes) The Culture: What were some of the obstacles that you faced in the process of creating such a map?
Martin: We worked hard to bring a robust set of data to the map – that proved to be difficult when we were building out this idea. In choosing which data to include in this project, we wanted sources where the Black community had self-identified versus data collection sources that try to identify without consent. We utilized Yelp and Google, both of which have options for business owners to self-identify as Black-owned. The map also includes data classified as “African American” from The Historical Markers Database. Using these outlets for data sourcing, the map contains over 30,000 unique points of interest, plus detailed population data and Black-travel-related social media activity data.
Visually, we wanted a map that took another view on displaying the data we collected, and we liked the idea of height being an indicator of cultural density. Being inspired by the creative takes on infographics that W.E.B. Du Bois would use in his writings; we took a look at topography maps and how we could make use of this style of the map in a unique way.
For(bes) The Culture: How will the Black Elevation Map make travel easier for Black travelers worldwide?
Kent Johnson: As a community, our people have always worked to support Black businesses through word-of-mouth and by sharing compiled lists of Black-owned establishments. We wanted to take that energy a step further and bring rich visual experiences that added new texture and depth to how we as a community support one another. In addition to those businesses, the Black Elevation Map takes data points around the Black population, historical markers, and social media activity to give a full perspective on our impact in this country and an indicator of where one might find an inclusive Black experience.
We want this project to help Black travelers see the country in a way that prioritizes and celebrates the contributions of folks who look like us – and facilitates travel choices that deepen engagement within our community. Repurposing a traditional elevation map is a way for us to weave joy and depth into the story, the experience, and our interpretation of the data.
For(bes) The Culture: In 2019, your campaign “Go back to Africa” turned the derogatory phrase into a celebratory one, highlighting the beauty of traveling to Africa. Do you have plans to revive this campaign or create something similar?
Johnson: This campaign was a start, but we definitely haven’t finished. The Go Back to Africa project is still very much alive at gobacktoafrica.com. We invite those who are experiencing unforgettable moments on the continent to tag their photos with the #GoBackToAfrica hashtag so that our site can capture and share the experience with others.
For(bes) The Culture: As the world still deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, what are some ways Black people can still maintain safety while traveling abroad?
Martin: The pandemic has shifted the travel styles and habits of many people in our community. Some aren’t quite ready yet to take on the world internationally, while many have limited their travels to more local, meaningful explorations. But for those who are ready to bounce back into the travel sphere, I would recommend reviewing your destination’s Visa and COVID-19 guidelines along with any quarantine requirements. You definitely also want to protect your pockets with good travel insurance coverage that includes the cancel for any reason option. It’s a small cost that will take you a long way!
For(bes) The Culture: Since the brand’s inception, what are some of the ways that Black & Abroad has influenced the way that Black people interact with the idea of travel?
Johnson: We’ve helped to make the idea of luxury & international travel more accessible to those in our community who may not have seen it as an option before. Our interest in experiences and things is heightened when the people we see in those experiences look like us. Seeing other people having these experiences that we thought were outside of our access all of a sudden becomes much more attainable because of the initial connection of seeing “us.”
The more representation that we’re able to provide in media where people actually see someone [of] their skin tone, someone from their neighborhood, someone from a similar background having these experiences, it just makes it that much more normal. We always talk about “Black Excellence,” but it’s also about “Black Normalization,” too. Because the truth of the matter is that Black people were always having these luxury experiences, it’s just they weren’t given the place to show and display them. Now that we have social media, those walls have been taken down as far as what kind of media we can choose to see or allow to be fed to us.
So, the more opportunities we put out there for people to see themselves in these luxury situations, the more it becomes normal. And that’s what we want.
For(bes) The Culture: Aside from the Black Elevation Map, what can Black travelers expect from you all in 2022?
Martin: We have brought back our Black & Abroad Journeys, which is our slate of international experiences and trips.
Johnson: We’ll also be expanding the Black Elevation Map to include more travel and destination guides.