Overthinking Tourism in the South

By | April 29, 2014

“The crowds continue to visit the dead.

They walk through the gates at Auschwitz. They take the boats to the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor. They hike through battlefields and slave auction sites.” ~ Katia Hetter

First off, Charleston and Savannah are amazing. AMAZING. I am a history nerd and I fell in love with Charleston the first afternoon that we spent walking around. More on that and pictures soon.

However, there were moments that gave me serious pause as we began to plan the trip. The following were often recommended: Charleston’s Old Slave Market, Boone Hall Plantation, Drayton Hall, Magnolia Plantation. All with a dark history. Part of me thought I was over thinking it, until my brother mentioned the same thing while at Boone Hall.

While plantation life wasn’t on the scale of The Holocaust (where I also struggled with the idea of the camps as tourist destinations), it wasn’t rosy either. I especially took issue with one of the Boone Hall guides who made light of the fact that the slaves’ grave markers were gone. It didn’t seem to be something you should laugh about.

I’m still thinking about this three days later and decided to look into slavery and dark/memorial tourism. And I admit, this is where my tourism nerd side came in.

“When memories of the actual events fade, many people still come to memorials looking for answers as to why an awful thing could happen: How could Adolf Hitler have perpetrated the Holocaust? Why did Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge murder its people? Why did Japan attack the United States at Pearl Harbor? It’s a balancing act for memorial sites: How to teach the cruel facts of tragedy to an audience that is often on vacation.” ~Katia Hetter

The Camps bothered me. Hiroshima and Nagasaki bothered me.  Pearl Harbor didn’t, for whatever reason. Nor do battlefields (or Ft. Sumter on this recent trip). But the Plantation? That bothered me.

“Thanatourism” is apparently the buzz word, but I prefer dark tourism. I think thanatourism  hides it too much. It should be uncomfortable. It should make you think. Slave tourism is also apparently known as roots tourism.

As a history person, I think memorials are key. Not as much for those who lived through it (my generation doesn’t need “Never Forget” not to forget 9/11), but for those who didn’t witness it. They’re key to education. But being excited to visit it? That’s harder, yet I was eager to visit Boone Hall. Until seeing the “Slave Street” hit me.

The Institute for Dark Tourism Research is clearly an idea whose time has come. In Europe alone, tourist meccas are dark sites. Sadly, death is part of our heritage. Slavery is a huge part of both African and American history, and the slave castles in West Africa are experiencing growth. Is this good or bad?

In truth? I don’t know. But it’s definitely food for thought. And I have some more homework to do.

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