Tyana Jackson Data News Weekly Contributor
As New Orleans prepares to slowly restart its festivals and Mardi Gras yet again, cultural experts say they hope the Pandemic has shown how the city’s important tourism sector often neglects the African American artists and workers who keep the industry afloat.
The economics of tourism in New Orleans have deep roots that can be traced back to American slavery and its exploitation of African Americans, said Dr. Lynnell Thomas, who is a Professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
“Local, national, and public officials and media collaborate in the tourist promotion of debauchery and degradation as the most predominant and enduring features of Black people in New Orleans during that time,” said Thomas, who is a New Orleans native, and has studied the post-Katrina New Orleans diaspora.
Thomas spoke at the “Legacies of American Slavery” lecture hosted by Dillard University’s Ray Charles Program in African American Material Culture on Sept. 29th, where she focused on tourism’s connection to race and historical memory.
“Tourism is often not connected to other forms of legacies of slavery,” said Zella Palmer, the Director and Chair of the Ray Charles Program. “Cultural creativity is defined as a cultural expression in all its forms as a way to understand and cope with American slavery and its aftermath,” said Palmer, who explained that African Americans created forms of resistance to slavery through culture that are now part of the tourism experience of the city.
That legacy of tourism in New Orleans, Thomas explained, can be found through tourism merchandise, monuments, and today in the gentrification of Black neighborhoods.
“An example is when vendors in New Orleans would sell Gambina “servant” dolls in a way to glamorize slavery as a community festival,” Thomas said.
These dolls, found in the French Quarter before Katrina, are sold to tourists as a merchandized form of antebellum New Orleans, but few tourists stop to think of the souvenir’s connections to slavery, Thomas explained.
The real impact of tourism is the post-Katrina desire to live among Black spaces, which are considered the true immersion into New Orleans Black culture. This has resulted in the ongoing gentrification of Black neighborhoods since Hurricane Katrina, particularly in Tremé.
“There are international models for sustainable tourism and cultural equity policies that we should be examining and testing here,” said Asali Ecclesiastes, the Executive Director of Ashé Cultural Arts Center, about how New Orleans should begin to think of tourism in ways that do not further oppress Black communities.
Ecclesiastes called for a new form of tourism in New Orleans that would better the lives and livelihood of its residents and not just exploit them for cultural extraction and push native New Orleanians out of their communities.
“The ecological impact of tourism is a real issue, and it really just overlaps with histories of inequality,” said Phil Katz, who attended the lecture.