Black History Is American History — Here’s Why That Matters For Australian Travellers

I've been fortunate enough to have travelled to 36 countries, and while I don't love planning, I've never taken an extended guided tour. Until recently, I'd thought of myself as the kind of person who likes to figure things out on my own, and most of my fondest travel memories have come from pure serendipity.
But when Intrepid Travel invited me to attend a media trip for its newest tour to explore Gullah Geechee culture in the South of the United States, I immediately said yes. Why? Because it was planned and guided by a Black-owned tour operator that also works with Black-owned local businesses (restaurants, bus drivers, tour guides, you name it) to level the playing field for underrepresented businesses and neighbourhoods in the hyper-competitive American travel and tourism industry.
Both Australia and the United States share a dark history in their treatment of First Nations people. But on top of that, America was built on the backs of enslaved people, where, for centuries, Black people were bought, sold, exploited, beaten, lynched and murdered for the benefit of the white settler population. Even after slavery was abolished officially in 1865, Jim Crow laws (which enforced racial segregation until the 1960s) and other forms of institutionalised discrimination kept Black people from enjoying the same rights and opportunities as their white counterparts.
And as we saw from the BLM movement only a few years ago, the impact of this continues to live on today. While on the tour, I met a woman in her 80s who recalled picking cotton as a child on a plantation during the 1960s. This was almost 100 years after slavery was officially abolished in the United States in 1865. She remembered Jim Crow and not being able to go to the same school or swimming pool as white people, and being called the n-word. I shudder when I think that this was really not that long ago.
In the South of the United States in particular, it's impossible not to talk about race. In Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia (where most of the tour took place), the legacy of violence and oppression towards Black people is still present and palpable. The South is a region where antebellum (or “Old South”) parties were only banned by universities in 2016, and where plantations shamefully still host weddings for wealthy white people. Turning back the clock, the region saw the lynching of thousands of Black people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, all the way to the violent repression of civil rights protesters in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s not an exaggeration to say the South has seen some of the most brutal and egregious acts of racial violence in human history; even the trees hold sacred memories of thousands of lives violently cut short. But Black people fought back with courage and determination, and their legacy and impact live on through their descendants.
Among these descendants are the Gullah Geechee people. With an estimated population of 1 million people, they can trace their lineage back to enslaved West Africans who were imported and then brought to the lower Atlantic states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and Georgia as part of a thriving slave trade. Unlike most enslaved people who were separated from their families, the nature of the Gullah Geechee people's enslavement on isolated island and coastal plantations means that they have been able to protect, preserve and pass on their rich culture — including a distinct creole language, made up of over 40 African languages. (You might recognise the word "kumbaya" — which comes from the Gullah language, meaning "come by here".)
Gullah Geechee culture continues to thrive today in its food, music, spiritual expression and cultural knowledge of practices such as a unique form of sweetgrass basket weaving, which has evolved from a utilitarian tool for rice production to a cultural art form passed from generation to generation for hundreds of years.
During the 6-day tour, which took us from Charleston to Savannah, we learned about Gullah Geechee culture from local tour guides, historians and cultural custodians who shared their food, language, music, history and stories with us. We witnessed an inimitable private gospel performance from the Saltwata Playerz, and had the most delicious Lowcountry Boil (like a crawfish boil, but with shrimp and corn). We also paid respect at the Mother Emanuel Church, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in the South, where a white supremacist killed nine African Americans during Bible study in 2015.
To my pleasant surprise, despite being on an organised tour, I still found many serendipitous moments, one of which was that everyone on the tour happened to be a woman — and a woman of colour at that. This meant we talked about race from the moment we met. We openly shared our experiences of racism and discrimination, and the feeling of not belonging in certain spaces. We laughed together, ate together, cried together, hugged each other like we were sisters. We shared a bond despite coming from different countries and disparate histories, but what we had in common was being the descendants of people who had been colonised, enslaved, exploited, abused and always treated as the Other in Western countries.
I don't want to leave you thinking that the trip was morbid. It was so much fun, with heaps of delicious Southern food, great music, unparalleled Southern hospitality (yes, it's a thing!), powerful stories and lots of laughter. But it was also an incredibly moving, haunting trip; one that gave us a peek into the heartbreaking history of the United States.
One moment that I will hold in my heart forever was at the Angel Tree, a 400-year-old tree in Charleston that is thought to be one of the oldest oak trees in the United States. I swear I felt a palpable presence, even though I'm not a particularly 'woo-woo' person; I burst into tears and could not stop crying. Although I didn't know it when I first saw it, many Native Americans and enslaved African Americans were hung, raped and murdered under this tree. Local folklore says the name came from ghosts appearing as angels around the tree. Have you heard the Billie Holiday song, Strange Fruit?
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
As our American friends celebrate Black History Month this February, it's important to remember that Black history is American history. Black people have played a crucial role in shaping American society and culture, contributing to virtually every aspect of American life. This is particularly pertinent now, when many American states are trying to erase Black history by banning books that discuss race, sexuality and gender in classrooms across the country.
So, the next time you visit the United States, I implore you to look for Black businesses to support so you can do your part in driving tourism dollars to sustain Black businesses and Black communities. But more importantly, to acknowledge and support Black culture, without which there would be no American culture as we know it today.
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