A number of articles have us thinking lately about travel and race. Here on the blog, my “Racist Mascots” post began with a travel story. Nikki’s post about American Airlines’ “Black Atlas” highlights the black experience in various destinations in the United States and around the world.
Cayce recently shared with me an article about Yosemite National Park Ranger Shelton Johnson, who noted that less than 1 percent of visitors to Yosemite are black and is trying to improve the numbers. This, in turn, reminded me of a post by Max Reddick at the Love Isn’t Enough blog, “Oh, the Places We Could Go.”
A couple of months or so ago at the end of the summer, my wife and I planned a trip with a few other African American couples we know just to have one last bit of fun before summer ended….
[M]y wife suggested that we go somewhere and do something none of us had ever done, something unlikely. And we finally decided on a destination and an activity. But on the eve of our trip, one by one the couples and families called us to say that they had to cancel, that they would not be going. And each couple and family proffered the same excuse: “We all talked and decided that that’s just something black folk don’t do.”
And when we arrived at our destination, we found that they seemed to be very right in their assessment. My family was the only African American family present. The other African Americans there were there either with their white spouses or partners or friends.
But nonetheless, we had the time of our lives, and my children talked about the experience for days afterward. This was an experience that they, that we, will never forget and our lives are richer because of it.
Reddick later explained, in the comment section of his own blog, that the destination was a national park in northeast Florida featuring a clear stream where people can go tubing or rafting. Ranger Johnson would, no doubt, be pleased that Reddick’s family enjoyed a national park. He makes an effort to teach Yosemite visitors that “African Americans are right at the beginning of the whole idea of national parks” and travels to inner-city schools with Ken Burns “to spread the documentary’s message of diversity.”
I can’t help but ponder how the different ways that travel destinations and tours address racial issues might come across as welcoming or hostile to people of color.
A few years ago, my parents and I decided to visit Mount Vernon together. As we entered the grounds, we visited some slave cabins first. The signs there seemed to be at pains to explain to me how George Washington changed his mind about slavery during the American Revolution. He came to believe slavery was wrong and against the principles of the new nation, the signs told me. Yet other signs informed me that George Washington began farming Mount Vernon with 36 slaves and owned 316 slaves when he died in 1799. Sure, he willed their emancipation after Martha’s death, but it struck me that George Washington owned a helluva lot of slaves for someone who believed slavery to be wrong. The signs simply interpreted Washington’s actions as “leading [opposition to slavery] by example.” Why not, I wondered, just admit that the first President of the United States, if he was so opposed to slavery, was also somewhat inconsistent?
Worse awaited us in the main house. Before touring the house, a docent introduced us to life at Mount Vernon. It was a 8,000-acre plantation, she told us, and General Washington had to be away for long periods of time during the war. “Yet somehow they managed to keep the plantation running in his absence!” My mother and I shot each other a look. “Somehow?” I muttered. “Like 316 slaves, perhaps? Or are we supposed to believe Mr. Washington normally did all the planting and harvesting hisownself?”
If anyone wonders why people of color might feel uncomfortable visiting a destination like Mount Vernon, I submit that this sort of historical whitewashing and oddly ignorant presentation might well be a factor.
In the epilogue to Blood Done Sign My Name, Timothy Tyson recounts a more extreme experience. Tyson and his father took a group of forty college students on a two-week bus trip through the South, “visiting battlefields of the African American freedom struggle and meeting the local people who had overthrown old Jim Crow.” One of the stops was Destrehan Plantation, the site of a 19th century slave uprising that ended in the slaughter of more than 200 African American people.
Though my students and I had studied the grisly history of this place, nothing could have prepared us for what we found as we stepped off the bus beneath the spreading live oaks with their canopy of Spanish moss. Private investors had turned the plantation house… into a monument to what one tour company’s brochure called “the good old days” of the antebellum South. Young women in swirling skirts and sun bonnets greeted us at the door. The presence of a mixed-race group made them visibly uneasy. The tour included virtually no mention of slaves or slavery, let alone the 1811 revolt…. “Our guide’s presentation was about prayer in schools, parlors, ladies’ portraits on the wall, tall ceilings, hand-carved banisters,” one of the students wrote in his journal. “It was surreal.” …Many of us, especially the African American students, could not hold back tears of frustration and sorrow…. I made a couple of polite attempts to get our guide to talk about the lives of people who had worked on the plantation, but she seemed to panic at the questions.
Not all experiences at historical sites are so awful. When my parents and I visited Colonial Williamsburg a few years ago, my mother and I attended an evening theatre show about black culture in 18th century Williamsburg, and I participated in an excellent a two-hour walking tour called “The Other Half” which explored black experience in Williamsburg, including but not limited to the development and history of slavery in the colony. The tour guide not only encouraged visitors to learn more about African American history, she also tried to persuade visitors to join in modern abolitionist work.
I was pleased to learn that Colonial Williamsburg’s 30-year efforts “to interpret the African American experience in 18th-century Virginia” are not limited to these special programs. Alissa McElreath recently reported her own experience on the Love Isn’t Enough blog:
On Friday afternoon we sat with the kids in the area outside the old capitol building, surrounded by a crowd of visitors, young and old, and waiting for a re-enactment of the reading of the Declaration of Independence. Several “interpreters” (as the costumed re-enactors are called) dressed as working-class colonists milled around, discussing in loud voices to each other what independence meant.
There was much excitement in the air–it was hard to miss, even among those visitors who were more obviously rooted in the 21st century, like the man with the bluetooth device still hooked to his ear.
Before long a black man carrying a tool box and wearing the long pants and raggedy shirt of a slave joined the discussion, after first telling the onlookers loudly that his master had given him permission to listen to the reading.
“What’s this independence people are talking about?” He asked of all of us visitors awaiting the big declaration.
“What’s it mean?”
He turned to different people, the question hanging in the air, unanswered.
“I like the sound of this independence,” he continued. Then he pumped his fist into the air, to encourage excitement. “I like this independence!”
A few visitors cheered with him, but there was an unmistakable sense of discomfort creeping into the air.
He turned to the few who had cheered. “Does this mean I’m free? Does this mean I get to leave and find my wife and boy?”
Some people looked away, their attention drawn to the soldiers on horseback who were approaching the capitol building gates. At that moment the Declaration of Independence was read, and all attention was focused on the front of the building. When it was over, the black man appeared again, shuffling into the crowd of visitors, his toolbox in one hand.
“Hey!” He shouted, at no one in particular. “They’re telling me this independence business doesn’t include me! Is this right?”
Then people turned away–not out of rudeness, but out of discomfort; they reacted the way we all tend to react when someone has challenged our sense of public space–what it is, and who we are when we are occupying it. I think our adult instincts are to turn away from what is most uncomfortable, what is unfair, what is unpleasant, and most people did.
“That’s not fair!” the interpreter continued. “That’s not fair!”
But what I did notice was that the children in the space around the black man did not turn away; instead, they stared at him, confused and questioning, looking for an explanation as to why this wasn’t fair. That was the teaching moment, I think; the moment parents needed to seize in order to teach their children not just about history, but about the right responses to it; that when our sense of the world is challenged in public space discomfort is okay and normal, but it’s what we do with it that counts. Do we sweep unpleasant facts under the rug? Do we teach them that it’s okay to walk away from racial injustice? Do we teach our kids to turn away from difference?
Or, do we kneel down in front of our kids, pull them close, and say to them, this is what independence should mean, this is what equality is, this is what we must always remember.
When Timothy Tyson visited, Destrehan Plantation tried to hide the truth. When Alissa McElreath visited, Colonial Williamsburg tried to unveil the truth. Both created some discomfort for the visitors, but with very different results. Destrehan Plantation, at least as Tyson described it, is ultimately hostile to African Americans and their allies. Colonial Williamsburg, at least in McElreath’s story, may be initially unsettling to some (especially white people who have the privilege of rarely thinking about their own race) but is ultimately welcoming to everyone willing to learn.
How have racial issues and travel intersected in your own experience, for better or worse?