Tour Narratives of Race, Place, and History: Expanding the Borders of America’s Black Towns

Karla Slocum, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and NEH Fellow, SAR

Colloquium, SAR Boardroom

Wednesday, December 12, 2012, 12:00–1:00 pm, Free

This project looks at what it means to be an American black town in the twenty-first century. Black towns, which were especially numerous in the west, usually are viewed as rural, isolated, and of historic but not contemporary significance. On the one hand, the towns have won praise and recognition for their early twentieth century strong economies and social cohesion, forged against the odds by black Americans during the Jim Crow era. On the other, black towns’ twenty-first century existence is practically ignored and deemed unremarkable.

This presentation examines twenty-first century black town bus tour narratives, exploring how tour narrators present black towns against the grain. By analyzing black towns as directly linked to Native Americans, American urban centers and peoples, as well as major American economic innovations and infrastructural developments, Karla Slocum argues that bus tour narrators deterritorialize black towns. That is, tour narrators situate black towns not merely by the past practices within the towns’ fixed geographic boundaries; they also define the towns by their vast multi-locational, multi-racial, and multi-generational linkages across time and space. Thus, (usually urban) tourist-consumers of black towns walk away from bus tours understanding the communities as centered –even today—within significant American events and structures and, in many ways, connected to aspects of tourists’ own contemporary social realities.

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