America is strange. Particularly the south. Documentary maker Ayo Akinwolere has just finished filming a TV programme about American vampires. But he explains that it was one of his first trips to the US that was truly weird.
I’ve been a broadcaster now for over twelve years and my career has taken me from the world of children’s television to current affairs and now to documentaries. Travels around the world as a person of colour can be quite daunting and come with many challenges, to say the least, but I’ve always persisted and, in many ways, I take pride in being the ‘only black in the village’.
You become clearly aware you are a black man, even if you are a Nigerian/British one.
One country I’ve been going to for many years is America, through work, and also because my family live there. Travelling through southern states like Mississippi and Alabama, I’ve noticed the remnants of tension and racial segregation. You become clearly aware you are a black man, even if you are a Nigerian/British one. I have many stories of my different trips through so many American states but I remember distinctively one of my earliest trips and when the ugly traits of the South almost hindered my travels.
I’d decided one year to go on a trip down the east coast of America by train with one of my best friends, who’s also called Andy. He suggested we stopped in on his aunt in North Carolina. I saw it as another adventure, another state I hadn’t seen. His aunt was also of Irish/Birmingham origin, a woman who’d fallen in love with an American and moved to North Carolina. I remember vividly that when we met the family on our arrival something felt different but I couldn’t place it.
After the initial hellos, Andy and his aunt went away for a little moment and began to have a little discussion. He came back to me looking sheepish saying ‘I don’t know how to say this to you mate, but my aunt didn’t actually realise you were black’. It was at that point I realised I had truly arrived in the South. Here was a woman who grew up in a very multi-cultural Birmingham who was Irish. These are people who have faced similar trouble integrating as many black people in the past. And now she was indoctrinated.
She proceeded to come forward looking rather embarrassed to explain herself with the most classic excuse of the racially biased. ‘I’m not racist but – you have to understand I have no problem with you – it’s the people in my neighbourhood who might have a problem with you. We live in a gated community and there are no black people there at all.’
No different to any other American suburban neighbourhood I’d been to except this one was decorated with Confederate flags.
I don’t know if she felt how disappointed I was but her tone changed quite quickly. She agreed to ‘allow’ me and Andy to stay for a couple of nights on one condition. When we entered the neighbourhood, I had to ‘duck’ so I wasn’t seen by neighbours. It was either this or get back on the train. We’d been travelling on the sleeper for seven days already. We drove to their house and my heart started pounding. There was inevitably an awkward silence as we all awaited the inevitable.
It is down to those in a more powerful position to stand up and speak for the oppressed.
We arrived at the gate and I clocked Andy’s aunt’s eyes in the rear view mirror: a gesture for me to ‘duck’. My heart pounded faster, I could see the electronic gate open. We drove into the compound. I dared not sit up. I felt like a refugee smuggled into a new territory and scared of what might await if the authorities found out. Curiosity forced me to peer up to take stock of my location. No different to any other American suburban neighbourhood I’d been to except this one was decorated with Confederate flags. I got out of the car as we arrived at her house and the garage door closed. I was sweating heavily. We all breathed a sigh of relief. They seemed as scared as me.
I’m one to put myself in uncomfortable situations and, yes, I was afraid, but I was also disappointed that my host wasn’t brave enough to treat me like a normal person. I feel situations like these are exactly what make many people of colour apprehensive about travelling. It is the fear of not being able to roam freely. I do think things are changing.
Years later, I look back at what happened and see that partly change is in the hands of the privileged. Often it is down to those in a more powerful position to stand up and speak for the oppressed.
A few months ago I found myself back in the South. Dallas, Texas, to be exact – and it was to film a new series World Of Weird. I was told my first assignment was to interview two vampires. The South, it seems, just keeps on giving. You’ll have to watch Channel 4 on Wednesday night 10pm to find out exactly what happens.