Tourism and National Heritage (U.S.)

Allison Carter. Encyclopedia of Race and Racism. Editor: John Hartwell Moore. Volume 3. Macmillan Reference USA, 2008.

Heritage tourism is a form of cultural tourism. According to Bob McKercher and Hilary du Cros (2002), cultural tourism builds on “a community or a nation’s cultural heritage assets” (p. 7). According to the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), heritage includes both tangible and intangible assets, culturally significant places both built and natural, collections of papers and artifacts, and “past and continuous cultural practices, knowledge, and living experiences” (ICOMOS, 1999, p. 7). African American heritage tourism is therefore part of the cultural discourse of both communities and nations. In addition to a resurgence of interest in and development of heritage tourist sites in the United States, African American heritage travel includes travel to African nations such as Senegal and Ghana, nations of the Caribbean, as well as Europe, Latin America, and Canada.

African American heritage tourism raises issues of how history and heritage are spoken of, the interests of potential audiences and funders, and conflicting perspectives on the meaning of historical events, artifacts, personages, and sites. The inclusion of African American heritage and its movement from margin to center in U.S. history is itself a radical revisioning of national heritage.

The first Africans were brought to the New World in 1619 to the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, one year before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. According to Henry Chase in In Their Footsteps: The American Visions Guide to African-American Heritage Sites (1994), Africans were originally brought in as indentured servants. However, within one generation slavery had become a lifelong condition in custom, if not in law, as tobacco farming increased the demand for labor. Hence, from its very beginnings slavery, race, and place are essential components of any depiction of national heritage in the United States, and, as such, become sites of contested meanings. African American heritage tourism forces a revisiting of conflicting discourses about the meaning of African American experience in U.S. history, as well as the meaning of U.S. history itself. While African American heritage tourism comprises multiple eras and facets of African American history, the focus here is on the legacy of slavery.

Perhaps the most important feature of this continuing cultural discourse is the fact that the stories of African Americans have been marginalized and erased from the national heritage of the United States. African American heritage tourism changes this and provides economic incentive for a variety of communities to recognize the role of African Americans in their history. However, in significant ways this interest and development has had to be fought for, overcoming resistance to dominant discourses of the nation that have historically minimized and erased African American participation. At the same time, heritage tourism presents a commodified version of heritage framed to attract consumers. As McKercher and Du Cros (2002) point out, the interests of cultural heritage management are not identical to those involved in cultural tourism. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1995), however, sees com-modification as essential to the heritage industry as part of heritage tourism: “Heritage is a value-added industry. … Heritage organizations ensure that places and practices in danger of disappearing because they are no longer occupied or functioning or valued will survive. It does this by adding the value of pastness, exhibition, difference, and where possible indigeneity” (p. 370). The heritage industry transports the tourist to the past, “from a now that signifies hereness to a then that signifies thereness” (p. 370). Tourism and heritage are complementary insofar as heritage marks a site as a potential destination and tourism makes the destination economically viable as a “representation” or “museum” of itself (p. 371).


Interpretation is integral to the production of the sites of heritage tourism. It is provided by informative placards, by how things are named, by apparently neutral descriptions in guidebooks and guided tours, by the role-play of interpreters at recreations of life at historic sites, and by all sorts of systematic inclusions and exclusions. As Fath Davis Ruffins points out in “Mythos, Memory, and History” (1992), interpretation is an essential feature of any historical site, artifact, or story. Things do not speak for themselves. History is not equivalent to the unalienable facts, but is itself an interpretation of what should rightfully be termed “the past,” the flow of “events and movements, debates and ideas, migrations and discoveries” that occur over time, not all of which become part of the historical record (p. 509).

Parker B. Potter Jr. and Mark Leone (1992) articulate this problematic. History museums and historical exhibitions reflect the interests and ideologies of their founders and clients, as well as curators’ attempts to avoid controversy. As a result, although “it is impossible to judge the realism of a place such as Williamsburg,” the depiction produces a kind of a sense of realism that matches visitors’ preconceptions of eighteenth-century Virginia and produces a passivity in audiences toward historical questioning (p. 479). Potter and Leone advocate an interpretive practice that stimulates empowerment of the tourist by encouraging historical consciousness and questioning. The guides on their site tours in Annapolis are working archaeologists who expose their methodology and share tentative conclusions with visitors who are encouraged to see themselves as “participants in the creation of historical knowledge” (pp. 490-491).

Interpretations are essentially ideological; they are structured by discourses. A discourse is a structure of vocabulary, concepts, and assumptions that frame issues according to a particular perspective or argument that reflects a communal way of thinking and the interests of that group. Discourses are socially available through language and are often unconsciously adopted as depictions of the real and of how the world is. For example, Ruffins (1992) notes that government museums such as the Smithsonian have historically offered a narrative of U.S. history that marginalized the contributions of African Americans, and therefore curators did not collect artifacts of slavery (p. 593). Potter and Leone point out that when sites such as Williamsburg, Virginia, are recreated to reflect an image of the eighteenth century according to the understanding of its founding family, the Rockefellers, they reflect a discourse that is dominant both because it espouses a version of reality that reflects the assumptions of an elite group but also because those assumptions about reality make up the dominant discourse of the United States and its understanding of its history. Interpretations of African American heritage sites offer conflicting versions of reality by introducing an alternative discourse within which to frame events of the past as well as social relations of the present.

Mythos, Memory, and History

Plantation Narratives and Dominant Discourses. The interpretation on plantations at public historical sites illustrate how discourses structure meaning according to the dominant mythos of the southern region of the United States. According to Ruffins in “Revisiting the Old Plantation: Reparations, Reconciliation, and Museumizing American Slavery” (2006), silence about slavery was the norm. Slavery was not mentioned at American museums before 1980 (p. 394). The interpretive canon at historic Williamsburg—home and, more importantly, workplace, for slaves who maintained the lifestyle of the elite who occupied the historic dwellings—did not mention the slavery system as underlying colonial society and the economic system depicted (p. 394). While there has been significant change since the 1980s, the same silence was common and remains in place at many plantation sites. Where there is not silence, there are depictions of slavery that conform to a dominant discourse, allowing tourists to enter into a version of the past that dwells on the richness of a lost, but attractive, social world without dwelling on the sordid underpinnings. These discourses invite white tourists to reimagine a world of gracious living.

This understanding of the discourse around southern plantations structures the analysis by Jessica Adams in “Local Color: The Southern Plantation in Popular Culture” (1999). Adams situates plantations narratives within struggle over issues of “collective identity” as marginalized groups and notions of multiculturalism are being incorporated into U.S. national heritage and identity (p. 164). Plantations are transformed from sites of slave labor to a “vision of the plantation as an ‘antebellum home,’ and elegant reminder of ‘the way things were”’ (p. 163). Slavery is essentially erased in these depictions and the plantation becomes “imbued with nostalgic possibility” (p. 164). In the plantation as tourist destination, “historical fantasies in which race and class are never points of contention” seek to “construct and perpetuate a myth of a white American subject who can be defined without reference to blackness” (p. 164). Ironically, the southern white planter “inhabits the place forcibly vacated by the slave, as blacks get effaced from plantation life; the planter becomes the real laborer, and the real victim, of slavery.…This reconceived white subject transcends Southernness to embody American identity” (p. 166). Adams sees this as a backlash or reaction to the burgeoning multiculturalism that is being incorporated into the U.S. mythos.

According to Adams, evidence of slavery is effaced from the material settings, as slave quarters are allowed to go to ruin or remain disguised as they are reconstructed as restrooms or tourist sleeping quarters. The plantation is “reinvented” as a place of leisure rather than work. White, female guides dressed in hoop skirts and resembling “house-proud mistresses, mothers, or daughters” show tourists around the plantation house presented as a “home” rather than a workplace. The erasure of slave labor achieves a “validation of a social order in which white privilege is both desirable and unquestioned” (pp. 170, 175). Similarly, gift shops become “feminized spaces,” with female staff and stock based on decorative household items (p. 170). The rhetoric of brochures and guidebooks echo this discourse in which “slave masters are changed into passive recipients of the land’s bounty” and slave work is “rhetorically disguised” by “describing the antebellum domestic staff as ‘butlers,’ ‘skilled nannies,’ and ‘servant boys”’ (pp. 171, 178). What is “mourned … is not the inhumanity of the slave system, but rather the loss of planters’ quality of life that accompanied the end of the Civil War” (p. 172). In this discourse, the plantation has become an “important symbol in the nation’s collective consciousness” where “African-Americans … exist simply as local color, while privileged whites assume the now reimagined position of ‘other”’ (p. 179).

According to Grant H. Cornwell and Eve W. Stoddard (2001), a similar erasure of slave labor occurs in the restoration of eighteenth-century sugar estates in the Caribbean, where ruins of plantation houses, sugar factories, and windmills are “prominent markers in island landscapes…being read, appropriated, and restored through a variety of discourses and codes” (p. 134). Their focus is on two sites, the Annaberg sugar mill in Virgin Islands National Park and the Duloo plantation, which has become the site for Caneel Bay Resort. Both are on the island of St. John, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Both restorations emerged out of the “vision” of Laurance Rockefeller, who donated the Annaberg site for the national park and constructed the resort. According to Cornwell and Stoddard, the windmill ruins “exist within a creolized space and a creole history,” by which they mean a layered interpenetration of the cultures of the colonizers and the colonized (p. 137). The windmills show this hybridization. They were owned by European planters, adapted European technology to the conditions of sugar production in the New World, and built and worked by African-descended slaves for the profit of colonizing European planters and to enable the consumption of sugar by Old World Europeans (p. 137).

Rockefeller’s vision for the luxury resort and national park was to recreate the “pristine condition” of the land when it was first discovered by Europeans (Cornwell and Stoddard, 2001, p. 140). This vision essentially erased both the history and the presence of the local community, including a slave rebellion in 1733 in which the slaves took over the island for six months (p. 142). According to Cornwell and Stoddard, the plantation with its historic cannons used to repel the Africans was “the last bastion of the whites during the uprising” and “has continued to play that role in the modern Virgin Islands. Caneel Bay Resort has continued to harbor a wealthy, mostly white clientele on an island populated by people of African descent” (p. 144).

The walking tour and interpretive placards provided by the U.S. Park Service uses neutral terms to describe the sugar-making process with “no explicit critique of the plantation system” (p. 147). Slave labor is “kept on the margins of the viewer’s consciousness” and the word slave is barely used (p. 147). In a placard interpreting the ruins of some slave quarters, tourists are instructed that “workers,” not slaves, and their “families lived mostly outdoors” (pp. 147-148) According to Cornwell and Stoddard, the fact that tourists are not moved to question the need for the plantation mansion or “great house” reflects the “continuing hegemony of the plantation system, now transmuted into the politics and economics of Caribbean tourism” (p. 148). The dominant discourse makes the social inequality between the “poverty of black and brown ‘natives’ in contrast to the wealth of white visitors” to appear natural and not in need of questioning. The resort, with its service workers of African descent “evokes for white tourists a nostalgia for the imagined luxury … of tropical plantation ownership, while simultaneously eliding the realities of slavery and … hinting at the way of life in which masters were dominant over a subordinate workforce of people at their beck and call” (p. 151).

Cornwell and Stoddard contrast the depiction of Caribbean slavery in Cuba, where the site of a major slave revolt on a sugar estate is commemorated with a museum devoted to the history of plantation slavery and where slaves are “honored as Cuba’s first revolutionaries, bringing the historical narrative into the service of Cuba’s national identity” (pp. 146-147).

Ruffins (2006) documents changes in attitudes about remembering slavery. National, state, and local museums (and of course, the more than 100 African American museums) had had exhibitions on African American achievements in art and science in the post-slavery period, as well as covering the history of the civil rights movement. Before 1980 there was “a virtual silence” about slavery on the national level (p. 394). Ruffins characterizes this change in openness to depictions and discussions of slavery as a “new moment in U.S. cultural history” (p. 395). What made this possible? The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s paved the way by reopening questions of African Americans’ place in U.S. society, and television programs such as Roots, which traced author Alex Haley’s ancestors to Africa and the slave trade, brought African Americans to the center of national consciousness as the “first unified portrayal of the African and African American experience of slavery from the perspective of the enslaved” (p. 398). Films such as Glory (1989), Amistad (1997), and Beloved (1998) brought the “representation of slavery” to the general public (pp. 403-404). Major exhibitions at national museums such as the Smithsonian integrated materials on slavery for the first time. In 1991 the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, mounted an exhibition on slavery that “challenged not only the nationwide silence about slavery but also the outright rejection of slavery as the crucial element of southern life for which the Confederates fought” (p. 405). In 1994 Colonial Williamsburg opened Carter’s Grove, a plantation, and rebuilt the slave quarters. In 1999 African American interpreters developed a presentation of a slave auction as part of the living history programming, and by 2000 they had developed an “escaped slave” program in which visitors are confronted by a “runaway slave” and “surrounded by slave catchers” (pp. 406-407).

The work by Antoinette Jackson (2001) exemplifies a revisioning through critical examination of discourse that allows for a different understanding of the role of Africans in plantation life. According to Jackson, “to reduce the view of African association with plantations to ‘slave’ life portraits is to continue to perpetuate a narrow historical representation of Africans in American history” (p. 13) and to miss the fact that plantations were “essentially self-sustaining African communities and agricultural production centers” (pp. 21-22). Jackson’s inquiry focused on Snee Farm, the country home of Charles Pinckney, a pro-slavery drafter of the U.S. Constitution. She points out that Africans made up “not only the majority of the population in antebellum plantation communities but typically were the only permanent year round residents” (p. 22). While the original rationale for Snee Farm plantation as a National Historic Site was “for interpreting and representing the life of Charles Pinckney, this was eventually “expanded to include an interpretation of the life of ‘all’ the site’s inhabitants, free and ‘slave’ (Blythe 2000, p. 13).

Jackson advocates a critical reappraisal of the “continued use of the labels ‘slave’ and ‘sharecropper’ in public forum productions of American history (i.e., National Historic Site venues)” (2001, p. 20). The label tends to both “mask the diversity of African plantation experience and minimize the cultural contributions” (p. 21) as it squeezes a multifaceted community life and structure into “a single template—one defined by an imposed condition created by the institution of slavery” (p. 21). Jackson highlights the diversity of work on the plantation ranging from agricultural and domestic occupations to a variety of crafts such as basketmaking, brick masonry, gardening, and sewing. Her research methodology focused on interviewing residents of the contemporary African community who passed on narratives of their community history from their own and their ancestral perspective, including the post Emancipation community of families who “continued to live in slave cabin housing…and to follow their same occupations…[for] pay….” or who owned their own property and thus were misrepresented by the “sharecropper label [which] has been uniformly ascribed to descendants of enslaved Africans in…community history” (2003, p. 103). For Jackson, oral history data “underscore the need for utilizing more complex models of interaction—such as the heterarchical approach, which can elaborate, and not obscure, the variety and fluidity of roles that Africans and their descendants performed in plantation communities.…” (p. 103). Jackson derived the concept of heterarchy from C. Crumley as a way of “avoiding either top-down or bottom-up approaches” to analyzing power relationships (p. 93). Instead, the inquirer analyzes “relationships between people when they are unranked, or when they possess the potential for being ranked in a number of different ways” (p. 93).

According to Jackson (2001), “the primary significance of the narratives collected is that they privilege African agency. …[where] the subject is brought into the picture as a participant, as a creative force. …” (p. 20). Jackson discovered an image of community that ran counter to her expectations of a narrative composed of “sad stories, stories of pain” (p. 24). Instead, she found that her respondents offered her “a chance to return home, to find home … in the spirit of this community, a community that has managed to survive so I could survive” (p. 24).

An important influence was the success of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which demonstrated that “negative history,” the telling of a “horrific story with dignity,” was a suitable charter for a museum (Ruffins 2006, p. 399). In addition, the Holocaust Museum had become a “symbolic archetype, architectural and exhibitionary, for expressing the sacrifices and tragedies of a people’s collective identity,” as well as for showing that such a specific story can have a “universal” meaning (p. 399). The challenges were greater, for whereas in the Holocaust narrative, the oppressors were Europeans, in the case of slavery, they were to be found on home soil.

Discussing Slavery as National Heritage. Ruffins (2006) concludes that there is “social and political space” now in the national consciousness to discuss slavery (p. 408). For African Americans two narrative interpretive possibilities have emerged for this incorporation of slavery into the dominant discourse. One emphasizes the “Black Holocaust” and African American suffering and calls for national apologies and reparations. This holocaust concept centers attention on a history of atrocities from the transatlantic passage through the period of enslavement, through lynchings and race riots from the 1880s, to the 1950s civil rights era (pp. 410-411). The second narrative possibility is to focus interpretive work in the direction of interracial reconciliation. In 1995, the National Park Service published a list of 400 stations of the Underground Railroad, which stimulated local development of interpretive tours and living history programs. This narrative, which allows for incorporating “white support for freedom from slavery,” incorporates what was a “truly secretive and dangerous effort” on the part of African Americans into the dominant discourse of the nation (pp. 420-421). The interest in the Underground Railroad “represent[s] an attempt to include oneself, one’s family, and one’s locale into a more liberating narrative of the American past” (p. 421). As slavery becomes part of the national narrative, its interpretation remains contested. In 2003 a presidential commission called for an African American museum to be built on the Mall in Washington, D.C. (pp. 424-425). Ruffins reports that surveys of African Americans “do not want to rush toward reconciliation, but rather wish to have institutions squarely place the blame where it is deserved” (p. 423). In Richmond, Virginia, the plans for the Tredegar National Civil War Center propose to “present a unified history of the Civil War, incorporating the ‘three views’—northern, southern, and African American” in the “former capital of the Confederacy” (p. 423). Ruffins suggests that it is a difficult task to fund new institutions devoted to depicting slavery as the “cultural construction … inevitably shaped by diametrically opposed ideas about the meaning of slavery (and race) in the American past” (p. 423).

Another ideologically contested site at the intersection of African American and national heritage is the Independence Mall and Liberty Bell Pavilion in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mark Hutter (2007) has depicted how excavations for the new exhibition center revealed that the entrance was the site of former slave quarters for house and stable slaves brought by George Washington from Mount Vernon, his Virginia plantation, to serve him during his first term as president in the 1790s (p. 144). Slavery was illegal in Pennsylvania. According to Hutter, the U.S. Park Service decided “not to promote or even recognize the existence of slave buildings in Revolution-era Philadelphia,” prompting criticism from the Philadelphia Tribune, an African American newspaper in Philadelphia, that the Park Service was effectively erasing American history (p. 144). A “public outcry at the blatant attempt to hide history led to an accommodation that will have slavery and the Liberty Bell in spatial juxtaposition” (p. 145). Hutter notes that despite its Revolution-era origins, the “Liberty Bell” was named by Civil War-era abolitionists, who used it as their symbol. Ironically, in the early twenty-first century the U.S. Park Service recognizes that maintaining the connection with slavery “may attract a much sought-after diverse tourist population” and is considering the development of a series of tours, educational programs, excavations of free African American housing sites from the eighteenth century, an Underground Railroad walking tour, a museum devoted to African American experience, and a Civil War museum (pp. 145-146). Hutter notes that “the economic benefits to the city are not being ignored. It is estimated that about a third of the visitors to Philadelphia are nonwhite. That translates into tourist dollars of about $1 billion in annual revenue” (p. 146). Philadelphia is projected to become “a destination of choice for tourists of color” (p. 146). Hutter notes that local officials recognize an “emerging new collective memory of Philadelphia,” as further archaeological digs produce evidence of the existence of a vibrant eighteenth- and nineteenth-century free African American community in the city (p. 147).

This revaluation of “negative history” is occurring nationally, recapturing the history of slavery and commemorating it for historical and tourist purposes. As slavery enters the national conversation, it is perhaps most prominently seen in Colonial Williamsburg, on some plantations, particularly on those of presidents, Mount Vernon, home of George Washington, the Monticello home of Thomas Jefferson, the 400 official stops of the Underground Railroad certified by the U.S. Park Service, numerous sites of slave auctions, runaway slaves, and slave rebellions, as well as former slave quarters in cities and small towns across the country with any history of slave labor to reclaim as part of their history, in the South, Midwest, West, and Northeast. Potential tourists for African American heritage sites can get information from guidebooks specifically directed to African American heritage, such as In Their Footsteps (1994) by Henry Chase and Black Heritage Sites: An African American Odyssey and Finder’s Guide (1996) by Nancy C. Curtis. Both include more than capsule summaries of available historical information on each site and point out the existence of slave quarters as the point of interest in a plantation visit. Chase attempts to enumerate the population of slaves at any plantation site, as well as describe what is known of the conditions of their work and lives.

The explosion of interest in African American heritage means that tourists also have access to pamphlets from the National Park Service and tourist brochures published by municipal and state governments devoted to their local African American heritage, as well as those published by tourist attractions themselves. Tour companies often include an “African American tour” and companies have emerged who specialize in African American travel. Of course, much of this content is available on the internet. The National Park Service has embraced African American heritage on an extensive Web site with listings of park sites related to African American history, short historical essays, resources for education, and site brochures and information. The tourist brochure for the Kingsley Plantation in Florida emphasizes the slave quarters and explicitly describes sites of slave labor at stops one through six of its walking tour, while the waterfront and master’s home are mentioned at stop seven.

While the focus here has been on slavery, popular tour destinations include the sites of the great events of the Civil Rights struggle in the 1950s and 1960s, including homes, churches, and educational institutions associated with civil rights leaders such as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., or in neighborhoods deemed historically significant that have been historically connected with African American populations and great African American achievements in science, the arts, education, politics, and sports. The African American Travel Guide by Wayne C. Robinson directs tourists to historical landmarks, museums, and colleges, as well as to restaurants, travel agents and tours, entertainment, and lodging in seventeen United States cities and two Canadian provinces.

What had previously been left to African Americans to document as their own heritage has become part of a national conversation and a burgeoning tourist industry. This means that the narrative of African American heritage is subject to the pressures of being part of an industry devoted to both a market niche and a broader national market. The reclamation of this “negative history” depends on the availability of historical records and collections of artifacts to document any historical revisiting and revisioning of the past. And it depends on the perspective or motivation of the person interpreting the documents.

Documenting the Past to Construct Heritage

The dominant national or external mythos of the nineteenth century was not interested in African American materials because of its orientation, which came to be organized around the notion of a “theoretical racism” that defined African Americans as “outside…the national character,” as “primitive, childlike, violent, musical, sexually voracious, and superstitious.…Cultural forms that differed from mainstream European American forms… [were seen]…as evidence that confirmed an inferior or primitive past” (Ruffins, 1992, p. 521). Social Darwinism proclaimed that “Africans…inhabited a lower rung on the ladder of evolution” (p. 522).

This dominant ideology pervaded the culture of the curators and scholars who headed the development of the major national museums, including the Smithsonian and major natural history museums. As a result, there are few pre-Civil War objects of African Americans in the major national museums (p. 523). Whereas Native American artifacts became a focus for collecting, “no object was collected specifically because it reflected African American culture” (p. 523). However, some artifacts and papers were “inadvertently collected” as parts of collections of abolitionist materials or connected to plantations such as Mount Vernon and Monticello, homes of Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, with their legacy of slavery (p. 523). Collections of papers and artifacts have an important role in documenting and thereby substantiating the historical record as authoritative records become gatekeepers as well as inspiration for national memory.

Libraries of African American papers are better served because of the employment of an African American, Daniel Alexander Payne Murray, at the Library of Congress, who was allowed to embark on an ambitious campaign of collecting documents, manuscripts, books, and letters. The Smithsonian, however, missed a chance to create an important collection of materials. A longtime African American employee, Solomon Brown, was not empowered to collect on behalf of the museum. He did become a “leading preservationist” in the African American community of Washington, D.C., and was “renowned in the 1880s and 1890s for organizing annual trips to Harpers Ferry on the anniversary of John Brown’s 1859 raid” (p. 526). This might be the first recorded instance of African American heritage tourism.

Collecting of artifacts and literary materials primarily went on in African American institutions and organizations, primarily churches, colleges, literary and historical societies, and civic organizations. The internal mythos of African Americans in the nineteenth century was of their special destiny and role as truth tellers. African Americans connected their history of enslavement and deliverance with the ancient Hebrews and with the suffering of Christ (pp. 514-515). Narratives of former slaves’ memories of slavery “intersected with this larger mythos” and were published by abolitionist presses (p. 515). Frederick Douglass’s life and memoir were seen as “emblematic of this larger mythos” (p. 516). At his death in 1896, his home, Cedar Hill, in Washington, D.C., became the first African American historic house, maintained for seventy years by African American civic organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and the National Council of Negro Women (pp. 516-517). In 1963 it became the first African American property acquired by the United States Park Service and thereafter maintained by the national government and entering into the dominant discourse as part of the commemoration of the Civil War (p. 517).

Ruffins (1992) documents the changing attitudes and mythos of African Americans toward Africa, as well as toward slavery. While in the eighteenth century organizations mentioned African heritage, the nineteenth century marked a shift away from identification with Africa (p. 518), perhaps affected by the dominant racist discourse about primitivity. William H. Sheppard, a missionary among the Kuba tribe in the Belgian Congo, became a collector who argued for the sophistication of African society. His collection of artifacts were donated to Hampton Institute in Virginia and marked a change in attitude toward collecting African objects.

Twentieth-century African American movements were to be more embracing of African heritage. Black Victorians, as Ruffins calls the educated nineteenth-century African Americans, who founded the main cultural institutions, were also uninterested in collecting the material culture of enslaved or even rural African Americans and there are few extant examples of eighteenth-century artifacts: quilts, clothing, musical instruments, basketry, and other household items. They are mostly recovered from southern plantations that have become museums (pp. 519-520). The Black Victorian mythos embraced a notion of the “heroism of everyday life,” where those who “founded businesses, practiced professions…, taught school, or led congregations were seen not only as model citizens but as living proof that Black people could and did achieve middle-class respectability” (p. 517). Educated African Americans collected the artifacts of their own achievements, but distanced themselves from slavery and rural populations, reflecting the dominant discourse of the nineteenth century. These artifacts became the basis for collections, as well as documents of churches, businesses, and newspapers. The homes and businesses of these nineteenth-century professionals are themselves tourist destinations for heritage travel. According to Judith Wellman, their documents, as well as those of nineteenth-century white abolitionists, became the historical evidence that allowed sites to be certified by the U.S. Park Service as official sites of the Underground Railroad and thereby enter into the dominant discourse (pp. 11-29).

Heritage Travel

Heritage travel for African Americans includes a variety of United States destinations. Every major city across the United States and every rural town in the south and other regions have rediscovered their African American roots and compete with each other for the tourist dollar. Whereas Europe, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Canada have also constructed African American tourist destinations, arguably the most moving destination is to journey back to the continent of origin—heritage travel to Africa. African nations such as Senegal and Ghana have responded to this interest of the African diaspora in returning to its roots.

According to Edward M. Bruner, the West African nation of Ghana is attempting to develop its tourist industry around the “star features” of the “historic castles of Elmira and Cape Coast, which were used as staging areas for the mid-Atlantic slave trade” (1996, p. 290). Elmira Castle, built in 1482, has received designation as a World Heritage Monument from UNESCO. Of 17,091 visitors in 1992, 12.3 percent were from North America, including African Americans. According to Bruner, these represented a “class-privileged and more educated segment of the larger African American population” (p. 290). The interests of Ghanaians is economic development of their country and they see tourism as an important vehicle. The interest of African Americans is on the historic significance of the dungeons at Elmira Castle as an opportunity “to experience one of the very sites from which their ancestors may have begun the torturous journey to the New World” (p. 291). Elmira represents “sacred ground not to be desecrated” and a “return to the slave forts for diaspora blacks has been called a ‘necessary act of self-realization”’ (p. 291).

The Ghanaians’ focus on Elmira is not primarily on slavery. Elmira’s 500-year history represents a series of foreign occupations, as well as their own independence in 1957 (Bruner 1996, p. 292). Restoring the castle has raised issues of interpretation: whose story should be told? One Africa Productions, an organization founded by the Robinsons, an African American couple living in Ghana, is “dedicated to the reuniting of Africans from the diaspora with Africans from the continent, and, for a fee, they also conduct performances in the dungeons, primarily for African American tourists” (p. 294). Because of the European history of Elmira and the presence of European tourists, tours of the castle shift emphasis depending on who is visiting. One concern of a meeting of the African Travel Association in 1994 was whether to focus marketing strategies of Elmira to African Americans or to a broader tourist market. The recommendation that emerged from the conference was that “the cultural heritage of all the different epochs and powers should be presented, but also that the area symbolizing the slave trade be given reverential treatment” (Bruner 1996, p. 294).

Controversies have emerged over whitewashing Elmira to maintain it and the closing of a restaurant-bar as inappropriate to its location over the men’s dungeons at Cape Coast Castle. Ghanaians saw the restaurant as a means to keep tourists in the area and stimulate the economy. Legitimate tourist attractions would include programs of music and religious services (Bruner 1996, p. 294). Bruner highlights a further disparity between the expectations of Ghanaians and African American tourists. The Ghanaians calls them “obruni” which means “‘whiteman,” but “the term is extended to Europeans, Americans, and Asians regardless of skin color, so it has a meaning of foreigner. This second meaning is also ironic, since the diaspora blacks see themselves as returning ‘home”’ (p. 295).

The Robinsons’ performance for African American tourists at the Elmira dungeon site is a participatory reenactment of the slaves’ passing “Through the Door of No Return-The Return,” where “the tourist group assembles in the dungeon, where they hold hands, light candles, pray together, usually weep together, pour libation as a homage to the ancestors, and then pass through the door that the slaves went through to the slave ships taking them to the Americas” (Bruner 1996, p. 296). In the tourist reenactment, the tour group sings “We Shall Overcome” and the Negro National Anthem, then return to the castle singing and dancing to African music to “celebrate their joyous return to mother Africa” (p. 296). Bruner describes another “Through the Door of No Return” tour that is geared to the native Ghanaian market, produced by a tour operator from Accra, where “the performance ends after going through the door, and there is no reentry to the castle, or symbolically no return to Africa” (p. 296). For Bruner these differences reflect “different versions of black history and dramatically reveal the disparate understandings of African Americans and Ghanaians” (p. 296).

Other areas of contradiction surround the role of African participation in the slave trade that is not addressed and some Ghanaian feelings about the obvious economic advantages of diaspora blacks and how that may represent a “fortunate” impact of slavery (Bruner 1996, p. 296). Bruner remarks that the castles have been segregated from native Ghanaians for the sake of preservation. They are more available to tourists than to the local population, and the elimination of local markets and the restaurant has meant less opportunity for locals to benefit from the tourist trade (pp. 298-299).

Paulla A. Ebron describes a similar tour when she accompanied a group under the sponsorship of the McDonald’s Corporation. The tour guides reminded the tourists that they were on a “pilgrimage, not a safari” (1999, p. 916). She experienced the tour as a “deliberately designed” ritual that “resolved at the end of the trip to create a sense of transformation and reintegration” (p. 916). The phrase, “pilgrimage, not a safari” was offered “first [as] a subtle suggestion; as it was repeated throughout the course of the trip, it became like an advertising jingle, a collective prayer, as well as our hosts’ desperate plea that we remember the distinction between this tourandan ordinary tourist jaunt.… Even in the moment of becoming tourists with our bodies and baggage, we were called upon to be more than tourists; we were to be pilgrims” (p. 918).

The trip to the slave fort on Goree Island in Senegal effected the change from tourist to pilgrim. Although it played only a “minor role in the slave trade,” it has become “symbolically significant for African Americans as well as tour company ventures” (Ebron 1999, p. 920). For Ebron, the ferry ride and walk to the fort created the sense of “homecoming,” as well as “apprehensive moments and perhaps even a sense of awe brought about by the meeting of the myths of our African home with the material site, the slave fort, the place where it all began” (p. 921). Touring the narrow slave quarters a second time after the curator’s dramatic narrative of the capture and deportation of the slaves, which “confirmed a sense of collective history,” the group became sober and there was a “hush.” A prayer and libations were offered and the group entered a room with walls of chain irons and log books of slaving records. Ebron notes that “certificates—written verification of our visit to Goree—were available for purchase” (p. 292).

The group stayed on the island for four hours, bonding with each other and producing a “potent … deeper connection” (Ebron 1999, p. 922). Ebron notes that this “pensive and reflective period was disrupted by the swarm of peddlers that surrounded the group once we were no longer protected by the walls of the fort. The historical return met present time, and we were urged back into our tourist status” (p. 292). Ebron highlights the counter-narratives of tourists and natives as they interact with different interests. These disjunctures—between identity as pilgrim or tourist, as coming home or foreign—occurred throughout the journey, which continued to Gambia, but the group had taken its “first step in the collective experience of regenerating an emotional connection to what had only previously been a more distant set of fragmentary semblances. Images of ship hulls packed with Africans are African American memories. …” (p. 922).

Christine Mullen Kreamer also describes the contradictory interests of Africans and African Americans as she describes the creation of the museum exhibition space at Cape Coast Castle in Ghana and the debates that ensued from the multiple perspectives of those who “to varying degrees, claimed ownership of the use and interpretation of Ghana’s historic forts and castles” (2006, p. 437). She likens the process to Ebron’s analysis of the globalized context of her 1994 tour experience, where “transnational trends and ideas about culture and identity converged with the strategies of multinational capitalists, the dreams of diasporic communities, and the income-generating plans of African national governments to produce Africa as a commodified cultural object of global significance” (p. 439). The conflict concerned how narratives would be prioritized in a limited exhibition space. The Ghanaian narrative topicalized Ghana’s “five hundred year history” of “interactions with European economic and political interests,” its “struggle for … independence from colonial domination,” and a celebration of contemporary culture. The second narrative described the transatlantic slave trade and the “struggle for freedom and equality of peoples of African descent in the Americas” (p. 438). Kreamer points out that the controversy over the role of Ghanaian ancestors in the slave trade provides a “subtext” to the conflicts over the museum space and the desire on the part of African Americans to “educate” Ghanaians about the slave trade, including African complicity (p. 456).

The disparity in incomes and the need for the tourist dollar adds fuel to the conflicts. Tours run by “outside tour groups” such as the Nation of Islam and the Robinsons’ One Africa Productions bypassed the official museum guides. These tourist ventures “generated considerable fees, only a fraction of which were shared with the museum to help it with its operating funds” (p. 456). An “atonement ceremony … performed for visiting African Americans … by some local Ghanaian chiefs … was received with mixed reviews by Ghanaians, some of whom felt offended and coerced to participate in the ceremony or to admit that their ancestors played a role in the trade” (Kreamer 2006, p. 457).

The controversy highlights “an increasing sense of ownership among people of African descent for sites in Africa associated with the transatlantic slave trade (Kreamer 2006, p. 460). As designated UNESCO World Heritage sites, the forts and castles of Senegal and Ghana take on the identity of world heritage sites and the claims of a global constituency to share in their meaning (pp. 438, 450). These sites are “akin to shrines where people of African descent come to mourn their enslaved ancestors, to question the culpability of Africans during nearly four centuries of the trade, and to create mechanisms that allow for reconciliation” (p. 460). At the same time, for the Africans who are custodians of these sites, other stories are equally important to tell. Kreamer concludes that “the voices of the African diaspora have diminished the voices of the Ghanaians in the representation” of these sites (p. 462).

Discourse, Power, and Commodification in Heritage Tourism

Stories that get told, retold, revised, and revised again reflect more than the collective memories of communities and nations or the outcome of objective historical research. They reflect the power of those who sponsor and fund museums, historical monuments, and the refurbishing of tourist destinations. As a potential market, African Americans are enjoying an upsurge in the development of tourist destinations focused on a part of history that has been underrepresented in the dominant discourse that the United States has historically erased: the history of slavery. The stories of African Americans, more specifically the discourses in which African Americans draw strategies of narration, develop different emphases from the dominant discourse; the trip to the plantation focuses on the slave quarters, rather than the big house. As African Americans claim a central place in the national narrative, their power as tourists involves them in the transnational discourse of global tourism and the narration of the national heritage of African nations.