The Importance of Experiencing Culture
"Don't look for folks that just look like you. Don't look for folks that just pray like you. Don't look for folks who just vote like you. Look for folks who can't stand you because you're just different but you show love anyway ..." - Anita Singleton-Prather, Aunt Pearlie Sue and the Gullah Kinfolk
I met Anita during a recent visit to Beaufort, South Carolina. Through her storytelling, she brought to life the things I'd read in history books. She recounted the time when she was the first and only little Black girl in class. It was the first day of integration. The teacher asked a question and Anita shot her hand up into the air, waving feverishly. The teacher made a point of calling on the white children, none able to answer the question correctly. The teacher turned to walk back to the chalkboard; Anita shouted out the answer. The teacher's response was crushing.
"I will not have any little [expletive] girl interrupting my class. Go to the principal's office."
Walking out of the classroom and toward the office undoubtedly meant getting in trouble; down the hall in the other direction were the exit doors and the comfort of her grandmother who was working as a housekeeper only a few doors down. Upon hearing what the teacher had said, Anita's grandma removed her apron and marched up the street, right into the classroom, where she gave that teacher a real piece of her mind. Needless to say, Anita never made it to the principal's office.
Before I can even begin to explain why I visit cities like these in the Deep South or make time in each destination to take in cultural experiences, it's important to understand why I travel. Simply stated, I love to learn. I'd go absolutely nuts if I weren't able to discover something new each day. I travel to expand my appreciation of the world around me, not to reinforce what I already know. Gathering little bits of knowledge is, for me, as rewarding as perhaps singing is for a performer or a workout for an athlete. Yup, I'm a big nerd.
I also travel to connect with people. People I already know, new people with interesting stories, people who encourage me to laugh, think, smile and explore. I'm very fortunate in this regard. Having spent the last 20 years working in tourism development, I've met some amazing, kind, thoughtful and creative people. Many of these people I'd see at trade shows, meetings & conferences several times a year. They hail from all around the globe and, for years, have been telling me I should visit. Well, that's exactly what I'm doing. I approach each destination with the same sort of open mind I'd hope these folks have toward me, my background and the queer community at large.
It's not always roses and glitter.
While in Mobile, Alabama, I met Darron Patterson, head of the Clotilda Descendants Association. Now covered by river muck and sediment, resurrecting the Clotilda and making an educational experience from it is Darron's mission. The Clotilda was the last ship to arrive in America from Africa carrying human cargo—110 people who spent two months at sea, naked, chained and crammed in a 20x20 foot space. It was a smuggling vessel, commissioned on a bet, that arrived in Mobile years after the import of enslaved people had been made illegal, but five years before slavery was abolished. Darron reminded me:
"Black history is American history, and you cannot separate the two. We have a great teachable moment in front of us, if we take advantage of it. Our history is what it was, but it was not nice, and it was not right to enslave other people. People want to know these things ... instead of now trying to sweep that history under the rug."
This complex history is all around us. After touring the Destrehan Plantation and hearing the story of the 1811 slave revolt, a local friend suggested we visit the 1811 Kid Ory Historic House, an old plantation house turned museum and workshop by writer, historian and Jazz aficionado, John McCusker. The house tells two very different stories. One story being that of the 1811 uprising where dozens of enslaved people took up arms against the slave holders, this home being the location of the first death during the incident. The second is that of Kid Ory, a jazz musician of mixed race, born a free man on the same property. Kid Ory's lifeline, keeping time with the birth and evolution of jazz; interwoven with characters like Louis Armstrong and so many more. Kid Ory's story is one that bridges the musical traditions of plantation life with the popularization of jazz as we know it today.
"Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." - Maya Angelou.
I live to be a little better each day—a bit smarter, more kind, more compassionate, more understanding and more worldly. None of this would be possible if I weren't willing to learn and experience life from perspectives other than my own.
To learn more about my travels, hear music from Kid Ory and interviews with some of the fascinating people I've met, visit tourismacademy.org/business-class or subscribe to the Business Class podcast.
Stephen Ekstrom is the Chief Strategist at The Tourism Academy. In addition to holding leadership roles within the tourism industry, he's been profiled by the New York Times, lectured at leading universities, appeared on numerous television and radio programs, and been published by trade media around the globe.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Ekstrom.