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Cultural Tourism and the Voyeuristic Value of One's Own Culture

Shantella Y. Sherman | 2/12/2014, 3 p.m.
Plantation tours often omit slave quarters such as these. (Courtesy photo)

At Emoya's Shanty Town, guests stay in a manufactured "informal settlement" — shacks made of corrugated iron sheets to resemble those millions of Black South Africans were forcibly relocated to in the 1940s.

“Millions of people are living in informal settlements across South Africa. Now you can experience staying in a Shanty within the safe environment of a private game reserve. This is the only Shanty Town in the world equipped with under-floor heating and wireless internet access," Shanty Town’s website notes.

Where is the line drawn between cultural tourism and cultural voyeurism? In the case of the Shanty Town and other South African tours, the cultural and social value is tied inextricably to the race of the visitors and what popular media term glumming (glamorous slumming), or poverty tours.

Township tours and slum tours are becoming increasingly popular especially with visitors traveling to South Africa, Kenya and Namibia. Do these tours offer a valuable cultural exchange, or just another photo opportunity?

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Other tours enable visitors to relive the "slave experience" by lodging in slave cabins. (Courtesy photo)

States like Mississippi have similar accommodations for tourist visiting the Delta who wish to bypass traditional hotels and lodge in bona fide tin-roofed sharecropping bungalows. In the Delta as with South African, there remains a class of disenfranchised residents still living in similar fashion.

But what happens when one’s history is detached enough to render grandparents and great grandparents cultural and social Others? In order to better understand how enslaved Africans lived, would African Americans spend the night in slave quarters, work a row of cotton, or “play slave” for a few hours?

I encountered an impasse in 2002 while in Harare, Zimbabwe on a fact-finding mission with a group of African-American journalists. In addition to meeting with President Robert Mugabe to ascertain the true state of the nation following the deportation of most white settlers to various European countries, the group of 38 reporters visited markets, schools, resorts, and hospitals. Be clear, this was no slum tour. It was at the Parirenyatwa Hospital, though, that life conditions of some Zimbabweans became evident. The maternity ward overran with formerly healthy newborn babies, malnourished and weakened due to a general lack of nutrients in their mother’s milk. I was pelted, sure enough, with “Survivors’ guilt,” trudging the red clay beneath my feet in Bvlgari flip flops, and wearing a Marina Rinaldi sundress, suddenly ashamed that I had been initially so eager to capture their suffering the way I would London Bridge.

It wasn’t until 2003 when Melanie K. Smith wrote in "Issues in Cultural Tourism Studies" that certain forms of tourism can easily become a kind of “cultural voyeurism in which the local indigenous population is reduced to little more than a human zoo,” that my discomfort was named. Others expressed similar angst with the traveling exhibition of James Allen’s "Without Sanctuary" lynching photography.

Like seeing resemblances of relatives in the faces of contorted bodies — strange fruit — dangling from poplar trees, bridges, and lampposts in lynching photos, the misfortune of the Zimbabweans could not become simply a byproduct of my tour. If there is any legitimacy to collective identity, soul ties, and psychic connectivity, the Zimbabweans deserved better than to be presented as cultural / racial / social Others, and fawned over with the same frivolity as the bracelets or fabric I purchased on the tour.

I still firmly support plantation tours, particularly in locations where the original slave quarters are intact. Visiting such spaces provides a necessary understanding to incomplete narratives in far too many books. The artifacts of enslaved families evidence communal structures, social practices, and spiritual rituals that have been lost along with the oral histories that once gave them life.

Read the slave narratives conducted by the Works Progress Administration field historians in the 1930s before going on a plantation tour to gain some perspective. Consider talking with elders and creating family histories that can more easily be linked to larger collective histories. With so many unknown variables to African American history through poor record keeping and the dissolution of Black families during enslavement, cultural tours can only be of benefit in piecing them back together. There may also be value in voyeuristic tourism, provided the contextualization is present and the commodification does not overshadow or damage the integrity of the people. The function of Black history, after all, is to laud the distinction between victims and survivors.