By Luke Morales
In December of 2021, my family and I went to New Orleans. Prior to our arrival, we had signed up for a food tour, which was one of the things I most looked forward to; I had been dreaming of the day I could try gumbo for the first time ever since watching The Princess and the Frog as a young boy. The tour guide ended up being very informative, easily. I learned (but honestly, do not remember much) about how the French wanted the land, but so did the Spanish and the British. I learned about the disastrous fires which resulted in new architectural rules, the wrought-iron balconies. Knowing the demographic of New Orleans, though, and the land on which it was founded, what I was truly waiting for our guide to address was what happened to the Indigenous and how they interacted with the colonizers, and how the city was built on the backs of much of its current population. But this topic never came about; our tour guide never once mentioned the Chitimacha Tribe’s influence over the region prior to European arrival, nor of their murder, enslavement, and displacement.
In doing research for this article, I wanted to learn more about the Indigenous of pre-colonial New Orleans myself. So, in the hopes that the internet would prove fruitful, I searched, “New Orleans history.” One of the top results featured an image of the famed Andrew Jackson statue in Jackson Square on its site, and upon reading its opening sentences, my mouth dropped. It read:
The Gulf South was first inhabited by Native Americans, starting as early as 1000 B.C.E. This would be a pretty long history if we started there, though, so let’s [sic] fast-forward a bit! By the 1690s, fur trappers and traders had reached the region. In 1718, French explorers led by Jean-Baptiste Le Sieur de Bienville founded the colony of “La Nouvelle Orleans” in honor of Philip II, Duke of Orleans and then-Regent of France. (Experience New Orleans, 2021)
The site continues to talk about the French and the Spanish, the Civil War, and various other historical events from the late 1800s to the modern day (Experience New Orleans). In other words, the author of this site skipped thousands of years’ worth of history just to focus on a few hundred touched by Europeans. This “long history” that the site excludes happens to be the history most often left out of our often-Eurocentric conversation, which probably acts as an explanation for why many who lack cross-cultural awareness feel as if history is being rewritten when it is only reality that is being recovered. But I digress.
Plantation tours may often also suffer from this callousness, with many approaching them as if they were on their way to an amusement park, as if they would go take a tour of the gorgeous home, stroll under the gorgeous trees, breathe the gorgeous air, and afterward, call it a day by watching Netflix on their presidential suite flatscreen. The harsh truth is that enslaved people were tortured and murdered for hundreds of years on plantations, and it is the responsibility of these plantations to not try to shy away from the fact when it is the only reason they even exist (Enelow-Snyder, 2021).
There was a moment when, after reading a beautiful poem by Anthony Cody, titled “Borderland Apocrypha” (a big “thank you” to my former professor Diana Nguyen for introducing it to me), I searched “Goliad hanging tree” on the internet. The first result had this to say:
An official Texas Historic Landmark, the Goliad Hanging Tree is a symbol of justice, Texas-style. For 24 years the court trials of Goliad County were held under this big oak tree. Death sentences were carried out promptly, usually within a few minutes, courtesy of the tree's many handy noose-worthy branches. The tree also served as a gallows for a number of impromptu lynchings during the 1857 "Cart War" between Texans and Mexicans. (Roadside America)
Only a few results below that of Roadside America, with a 4.5/5 rating, Tripadvisor reviewers said the following: “sturdy oak tree,” “loved it,” worth a look,” “majestic,” “beautiful,” “justice served quickly back in the day!” (Tripadvisor, 2021). I have only one question, simply for clarification: was it truly Texas-style justice?
To call the Goliad hanging tree a symbol of justice is to actively disregard the injustice that the tree stood for back when the mainstream world allowed people to own other people. But it is not necessarily the fault of these visitors for their ignorance: naturally, there is no reason for a white person to seek out knowledge on the injustices of the past if they do not want to, because they do not need to. However, if organizations wish to capitalize on landmarks such as this tree and the various plantations scattered across the United States and Brazil, it then becomes one of said organization’s moral responsibilities to ensure that it does not continue to profit from the exploitation of enslaved people.
That being said, there will certainly (at least, currently) be many who see the inclusivity of decolonized knowledge as absurd and pointless. As an example, one may look at the multitude of low-rated Google reviews left under the McLeod Plantation Historic Site, located in South Carolina.
Jennifer: “We went into this tour wanting to learn the history of the home and family. Our Tour Guide was knowledgeable however he was clearly pushing an agenda. It made people in the group feel uncomfortable. The tour was not professional. We went on another tour today and the guide stated facts not pushing an agenda either way.”
Briana: “Plantation and grounds were beautiful. The presentation and tour was very biased and one sided. Not what I was expecting. Was very disappointed. It felt like we were having a tour of a plantation from a northerner. He was very knowledgeable but made sure to insert his political agendas. Just not for us.”
Alfonso: “Nice place, but very biased slanted view of life on the plantation.” (Google, 2021)
In these reviews, we see colonial knowledge working in such a way that anything that does not fit the Eurocentric and ethnocentric lens that has continued to dominate society over the last several hundred years is regarded as pushing an agenda, slanted, biased. Uncomfortable.
Despite many people rejecting decolonized knowledge, Condé Nast Traveler, a traveling magazine, has created a guide to ethically visiting plantations for those who are interested in learning about the true history behind their creation and survival by outlining four things to look for. Up first is looking for a plantation tour that centers Black voices (Enelow-Snyder, 2021). This includes plantations that focus on the lives of enslaved people, and plantations that employ people of color. Another tip includes avoiding plantations that host weddings (Enelow-Snyder, 2021). Though plantation homes may be the perfect size, look, and space for a wedding, it is far from appropriate, “drawing parallels to throwing a birthday party at Auschwitz” (Enelow-Snyder, 2021). A third point is to look for the living descendants of enslaved people, who should have a say in things such as how their family stories are told (Enelow-Snyder, 2021). The last tip that I will mention is to ask about reparations. Though rare, some plantations are working toward this, and justifiably so: “the descendants that contribute to the narrative of a plantation should be compensated,” especially when considering that there are situations such as those at the McLeod Plantation, where descendants of enslaved people continued to live there in huts and without running water until 1990 (Enelow-Snyder, 2021). In conjunction with what has been said earlier, all of this works to bring about a question: are cultural tours built on exploitation?
Take touring of Brazil’s favelas, for example. Favelas are slums “located within or on the outskirts of the country’s large cities, especially Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo” (Wallenfeldt, 2015). Also known as poverty tours, slum touring is advertised as showing tourists the “authentic city,” but more so, they allow tourists to see something different from what they see in their own lives (Scarbrough, 2019). Around 50,000 tourists participate annually in these tours in Brazil specifically, and much controversy surrounds them, as many argue that visitors come as if they’re visiting a zoo (Draven, 2021); favela tours can make people seem like philanthropists, but the sad truth is that many will simply snap a few pictures and call it a day.
On the other hand, however, some argue that favela tours are giving insight and understanding into the realities of these marginalized communities (Draven, 2021). Thus, it may be a point that slum tourism is only ethical so long as it improves the lives of those living in the favelas. People who wish to visit these neighborhoods ethically may do so by choosing tours which visit project sites meant to help the area, such as those sponsored by NGOs or similar organizations (Shepard, 2016). These places include schools, educational centers, and orphanages. “Often, these sites are chosen to show tourists what’s being done to better the community, and sometimes include suggestions as to how they can lend their support” (Shepard, 2016).
The plantation touring of the United States and Brazil, along with the popular touring of the favelas of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro bring to light the prevalence of both whitewashing history and exploiting marginalized communities for the sole purpose of enjoyment. While many may visit these sites in good nature, consumers have created a market for tourism based on cultural differences, which may easily continue propagating and reinforcing inequities should these consumers not take care in how they choose to partake in these cultural explorations. As outlined above, there are measures that tourists may take to ensure that while gaining a greater cross-cultural awareness, they are also supporting causes meant to build back up those who have acted as a foundation on which much of current society heavily rests.
Draven, J. (2021). Are favela tours ethical? National Geographic.
Enelow-Snyder, S. (2021). An ethical guide to plantation tours. Condé Nast Traveler.
Experience New Orleans. (2022). History of New Orleans. Experience New Orleans
Google. (2022). McLeod Plantation Historic Site. Google.
RoadsideAmerica. (2022) Famous hanging tree. RoadsideAmerica
Scarbrough, E. (2018). Visiting the ruins of Detroit: Exploitation or cultural tourism? Journal of Applied Philosophy, 35(3), pp. 549-556. https://doi.org/10.1111/japp.12237
Shepard, W. (2016). Slum tourism: How it began, the impact it has, and why it became so popular. Forbes.
Tripadvisor. (2022). Hanging tree. Tripadvisor
Wallenfeldt, J. (2019). Favela. Britannica.