Digesting the Plantation and the role of the Enslaved

David L. Butler, PhD - RESET Research Fellow

When I visit a historic site, I am amazed as much for the information that is shared than I am for the information that is not shared. At any given tourism site, the full spectrum of all that happened at that site, by the many people involved, over numerous years, cannot all be represented. Thus, a culling of information to share is necessary and this removing happens by people, making value judgements, for the visitors who will show up at these sites to learn of the history. What is shared, and what is not, and how, is a subjective experience that is embedded not in the past, when the history took place, but by people living today, experiencing today, reflecting on the past, from today. What I am trying to say is that history at historical sites is not the history of the past, it is the history of the past from the lens of the present.  It is the values, politics, culture, economics of today that influence what of the past, and how, it is shared, and not the values, politics, culture and economics of that time. 

Imagine that the history of a tourism site is a buffet line that goes on, and on, and on. This buffet line represents a year of that site, by time. The first month of that year, January, here are all of the items that happened, each served up as a possible dishes to consume. Births, deaths, weddings, divorces, fights, loves, financial windfall, financial ruin, success, failures, great art events, less-than-great art events, schooling, illnesses, a new car, wagon or horse, less expensive oil or lighting, a road fixed, a tornado knocking down a tree, and that was just the first month of the first year. The next few steps in the buffet show month two, February, in this first year, replete with similar items from January, but with additional edibles as well, including scandals. And as you walk the buffet line to the end of that first year, nearing the December food, you have plates and plates full of food on your tray. And that is just year one of the tourism site. You pause, with a very heavy tray filled with relevant historical items, and walk to the elevator, to go to floor two, the next year, and start all over again with January. Depending upon the age of the tourism site, you may visit fifty to two-hundred floors, each with a January-December buffet, some items showing up with regularity, and sometimes a special unique treat unseen to date. This is the dilemma of a tourism site. So much to show, so little time and space from which to show it. Thus, how do you select from many years of buffets, the ten items you have time to show the visitors, to keep them interested, engaged, and hopefully giving you a good review on social media and purchasing trinkets of their visit at the gift shop?

If the goal is increase the number of visitors to a tourism site each year, then offering up the ten items from the buffets is tricky. You must ask, what 10 things would a tourist, in 2019, 2020, or 2021, want to hear about from the past 50-200 years at this historic site? The answer is commonly something that they can relate to, something that they will remember, something that will make them smile, laugh and have a good time. Something worthy of a post on social media so others can experience this distantly through them. The answer is seldom the most common thing that happened on this site each day, which can seem boring, mundane and not unlike their own life at present, which they are escaping at present while at a tourism site.  

Personal photo from Dr. Derek Alderman on their enslaved cabin tour at McCleod Plantation in Charleston, South Carolina. This site has a rather progressive approach to their history of enslaved people.

Personal photo from Dr. Derek Alderman on their enslaved cabin tour at McCleod Plantation in Charleston, South Carolina. This site has a rather progressive approach to their history of enslaved people.

Now we come to the meat (pun intended) of this blog. What if the tourism site has a history that is less than happy from the point-of-view of 2019, 2020, or 2021? Does one ignore, erase, sanitize or whitewash this history to make it more happy, gleeful and palatable (pun, again) for the current tourist or visitor? Or is there a social, moral or ethical obligation to show the happy with the sad, the good with the evil, the free with the enslaved, even if it does not produce a level of lightness that some people seek while at tourism sites? These questions are what have been discussed, and continue to be debated, within the tourism plantation owner and operator community for decades. How and/or should, a tourism plantation, represent the enslaved and slavery, if at all, at this site? After all, the buffet of choices from these sites are many, why choose such a sad and often depressing subject as enslavement to share with visitors on vacation?

Niche foods and changes in taste

Oak Alley Plantation - personal photo from Dr. Matthew Cook and RESET funded project in 2014

Oak Alley Plantation - personal photo from Dr. Matthew Cook and RESET funded project in 2014

Up until the mid-1990s, plantation tourism chose the pragmatic path of showing the ten buffet items which people stated they wanted, directly by showing up and digesting what was given, or indirectly, through popular culture films such as “Gone with the Wind” where a romanticized view of the period with wealth, opulence and love conquered the box office. There were no enslaved people at a plantation, only “servants” and other trappings one would expect to find at a large, ornate home, of a politically and economically powerful family. To the majority of the visitors and their demographics at that time, affluent, white and baby boomers, this tourism trope worked well and successfully. As the baby boomers started to decline from the majority of the visitors and new Gen X and those alphabet groups afterwards started to appear as tourists, the old tropes did not settle in the stomach as well, and at times were nearly indigestible. The idea that you can have the word “plantation” and no slavery was illogical and oxymoronic. Why did they not share and show enslavement? What were they trying to hide? And why? Year-by-year the demographics would change and any forward looking business person could see that soon the baby boomers would exit the market and the Gen X and after them, the millennials, would be the dominate group touring, and their taste buds were different than what was being served. Should the ten items be exchanged for ten other items? Maybe only one item changed and keep the nine? Or what is the proper mix?  Then along comes Django Unchained (2012), 7 Years a Slave (2013) and other such movies which supplant Gone With the Wind in the new visitors as a part of their pop culture. “If you show slavery, will they still come?” was an underlying question that vexed many plantation owners and operators, and some to this day.

What has emerged, in an erratic and differential landscape, is change. Some tourism plantation sites still sell Gone With the Wind to the baby boomers and hope they keep turning out and will bring others with them to adopt their palate. Other sites have adopted the transition trope where they are taking away some of the old favorites and replacing them with new menu items. If they work, they make them part of the permanent offerings, if they do not, they try something else. It is a trial and error mode as the demographics are no longer monolithic and the tastes are eclectic as each person who visits. And the final offering is the niche locations. Some proudly state that slavery is not on their menu and if you want that to digest, there are other places that offer such options for them, down the road and down the river. While other sides have added slavery only to their menu, all slavery, all day, each day, and this is what they offer and sell, but this too has a specific, niche audience, as it excludes other opportunities. From a normative point of view, none of these sights are wrong and none are right. They all reflect today, 2019, and tomorrow, 2020, and tomorrow’s tomorrow, in 2021, the milieu that is American culture.  The plantation tourism sites that will survive, and thrive, in this new marketplace will be those that figure out how to deliver just the right menu, and the correct portion of enslavement, too the diverse tastes that now travel.

 

Reservation for 1 - Traveling as a solo woman

Stefanie Benjamin, PhD - RESET Co-Initiator & Research Fellow

But … Is it safe though?

When I first shared with my parents that I would be traveling alone to New Zealand after my tourism conference in Australia … their voices over the phone sounded fearful and anxious, “Are you sure no other friends from your conference want to join you? … you know … like anybody?”

My AirBnB experience - ‘Spirit Walk’ - with my local host, Sonia outside Wanaka, New Zealand

My AirBnB experience - ‘Spirit Walk’ - with my local host, Sonia outside Wanaka, New Zealand

Even though I live alone, the thought of me traveling alone seemed problematic to them. I understand that I will always be their daughter, and they will always be worried, but I’m not the only woman on this ‘solo’ band wagon … the movement of women traveling alone has gained momentum. I won’t bore you with statistics or facts around why other women are traveling more than ever - so instead, check out these articles ‘Why so many women are traveling alone’, ‘Why Traveling Solo Might Be the Best Thing a Woman Can Do’, and ‘I Went on a Vacation By Myself, and It Changed My Life’. - or this list of academic journal publications from Google Scholar. In addition to numerous articles around traveling alone, multiple social media groups and professional travel organizations are also discussing the #SoloFemaleTravel movement. However, on the more negative and realistic side of traveling alone as a woman, fear-induced articles like this one, ‘Adventurous, Alone Attacked’ in conjunction with the reality of being raped, drugged, murdered, or tricked into sex trafficking, influence many women to stay home or travel in large groups. Exhibit A - my mother who purchased me a door stop alarm … which I did use once or twice. Thanks mom.

#thatwanakatree - ‘Instagram famous’ tree at Lake Wanaka

#thatwanakatree - ‘Instagram famous’ tree at Lake Wanaka

My personal experiences were not couched or infused with feelings of fear (well sometimes walking alone at night back to my AirBnB in the suburbs) but rather, a sense of excitement mixed with my stubborn touristic academic lens which, I had major difficulty taking off. Now I know my experiences of traveling alone might differ from other women’s narratives - since I do teach and research socio-cultural issues of tourism and have the privileges associated with being White, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgendered, American, no children, and having the discretionary income and time to travel (especially to a rather ‘safe’ destination like New Zealand where I spoke their language). For me, this was the first time in my life where I could actually financially afford to take a trip on my own. I wasn’t relying on my parents or a toxic ex-boyfriend … instead, after three years of working after my PhD, I was the one who saved up her money, taught extra summer courses (thanks online teaching!) and decided to venture to New Zealand to vacation the way that I chose. I was the captain of this ship now.

My own rules … just right

Traveling alone has its perks. As in the words of Cartman from South Park, ‘I do what I want.’ I was the person in charge. I chose where to stay, where to eat, what to do, when to wake up, which experience to have … it was me and me alone who designed my adventure. I flew into Queenstown in June, 2019 (yes - cold weather I know) and made my way to my first destination of Lake Wanaka. There I experienced the natural beauty of the town, ventured to wine tastings off the lake, and even got a new hair cut (bold move Benjamin). Note to self, don’t do that again.

Making friends with the staff and locals of my Boutique Inn in Queenstown

Making friends with the staff and locals of my Boutique Inn in Queenstown

I didn’t feel alone on this journey. I had the comforts of technology through face-time, WhatsApp, and social media to keep in touch and share my experiences with friends and family. I did feel though a sense of guilt of potentially contributing to ‘overtourism’ through sharing my photos through Instagram … but that is for another blog. I made friends along the way. Through the Inns I stayed at to the adventures I went on with the help of AirBnB experiences. Many of these conversations and dialogue would be, perhaps, more difficult if I was with a partner, friend, or family member. Instead, I sat at bars, conversed with locals, tourists, and industry workers to understand their perspectives and narratives of the world. But also chose to stay in occasionally to eat dessert for dinner while watching Netflix in order to re-charge my introvert/extrovert body.

Posing with Phoebe, one of the ‘wine dogs’ and book cover star, outside of Brennan Wines Central Otago

Posing with Phoebe, one of the ‘wine dogs’ and book cover star, outside of Brennan Wines Central Otago

The topic of conversation that inevitably arose during some of my conversations was - well you guessed it, around U.S. gun violence and U.S. politics - specifically, President Trump. Locals and tourists from all around the world were intrigued with why Americans voted this ‘reality television presence’ into office. Once I tried to explain the popular vote vs. the Electoral College and the racial history around that, they were even more perplexed and frustrated. A Malaysian family staying at my Inn in Queenstown started a conversation - yes , over copious amounts of South Island Pinot Noir wine - during our ‘happy hour.’ The elder gentleman of the family asked, ‘What the hell is wrong with the United States!? The whole world looks up to you … Trump has ruined the world! He is racist and cruel and shame on you America.’ This rhetoric continued on with other folks I met along the way. It got so heavy that I chose to escape with a wine tour in the Otago Valley, where luckily, I was surrounded by the comforts of dogs and local wine.

Throughout this journey of traveling alone, I realized that trying to escape reality was no longer an option. I still had major anxiety over climate change, especially my contribution toward emitting carbon with flying the long distance to New Zealand from the East Coast U.S.A. …. not to mention various emails and work deadlines that crowded my email inbox. Even though my ‘away message’ was up … I wasn’t truly away. I would like to suggest that maybe, we respect when someone’s ‘away message’ is up and allow them to bask in the well-deserved time alone while on vacation? But again … that is for another blog - ‘Technology is the death of me’ - #ICan’tStopCheckingMyEmails #FirstWorldProblems

Ironically drinking Tennessee whiskey at my Inn in Queenstown.

Ironically drinking Tennessee whiskey at my Inn in Queenstown.

As I wrap up this blog post, and finally jet-lag free (no joke took me one full week to recover) - I want to share how exciting this adventure was for me. I navigated, rather successfully, all my transportation - even re-routed some of my trip, made new friends, and was able to bring back three bottles of wine! Although I didn’t share all the details of my trip (yes there were some Lord of the Rings film-induced tours) … I have one major takeaway from this blog, especially for people who identify as women … GO TRAVEL ALONE! Or at least take yourself out to a dinner or a movie alone … Fall in love with yourself - Challenge yourself - Be comfortable with being uncomfortable - Enjoy the solitude of you. And at the end of it all, write a cheesy blog post inspiring others to venture alone … but just be smart about traveling as a woman. Kia ora!

Queenstown Hill Summit Trek - note that my overcoat is off to truly show how bad-ass I am … yes I was freezing.

Queenstown Hill Summit Trek - note that my overcoat is off to truly show how bad-ass I am … yes I was freezing.