The southern part of the U.S. offers so much for travelers, from charming cobblestoned towns dripping with otherworldly Spanish moss, to culture-rich cities that boast themselves as the birthplace of the blues and jazz and swampy coastal regions that offer seemingly foreign landscapes and wildlife viewing There is so much drawing visitors to the region, but there’s also an important part of American history that is often overlooked by travelers. The South has a dark and painful history as ground zero of the enslavement of Africans–and its effects still linger today.
As I’ve brought more conscious understanding of local history into all of my travels, I’ve realized that this lens can offer a transformative way to view the places we’re seeing. It can certainly be sad and sometimes depressing to learn about the truly awful history of certain places such as slavery, but I also believe it’s a way to deeper transformation personally that can also lead to more nuanced and even more unique ways to view the places we visit. Below is a guide to help you explore all that the South has to offer while maintaining awareness of its history and significance.
Many well known ‘Southern’ food favorites actually have roots in the ancestral cuisine of the enslaved Africans of the South. The Gullah Geechee people are descendents of people from the rice growing regions of West Africa. Their unique food culture grew out of their knowledge of African cuisine and an adaptation to crops and food rations available to them. Nowadays, Charleston, South Carolina has become a hub of Gullah Geechee cuisine where several Black-owned restaurants are proudly sharing their family favorites. Additional reading/watching:
- Hulu’s Taste the Nation has an episode dedicated to Gullah Geechee cuisine, its roots, and ongoing preservation efforts to teach younger generations about their ancestors’ food culture.
- Charlotte Jenkins, a pioneer in the Gullah Geechee culinary world, wrote a book about Gullah Cuisine which shares the recipes and background of Southern food favorites.
- Guide articles such as this Afar piece and Charleston CVB’s list provide details on the small restaurants, cafes, and outposts where Gullah Geechee fare is on offer.
- Michael Twitty’s James Beard Award-winning book, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South offers a deep dive into old southern cooking.
- Netflix’s recent series, High On the Hog, is based on Jessica B. Harris’ book of the same title and provides a comprehensive look at African American cooking in the U.S.
- The Sporkful podcast released this excellent, award-winning episode When White People Say Plantation explores the term “plantation” through the eyes of Black food writer, Osayi Endolyn. The second part of the story, When Black Chefs Created Plantation Food goes even deeper into the culinary history of enslaved people of the South (it’s worth the Stitcher upgrade 🙂 ).
Louisiana Creole cuisine has a similar backstory. With the arrival of colonists and missionaries, Black slaves in Louisiana had to innovate a fusion cuisine to satisfy a range of palates. Favorites such as beignets, gumbo and jambalaya are all products of enslaved people’s creativity in the kitchen. A trip to New Orleans is not complete without this fusion fare! Additional reading:
- This piece about the history of Creole food (and the closely related Cajun food) in Louisiana paints a stunning picture of how this food culture came about.
- This article outlines the difference between Creole and Cajun food, and ways in which you can authenticate traditional Creole and Cajun fare, especially outside of Louisiana.
- The widely popular Gator Gumbo book introduces this iconic dish to kids and makes for fun reading before a trip to the South!
- We are big fans of Eater, and even more so when we came across this article on the best spots to enjoy classic Louisiana dishes!
We may not realize the origin of modern genres of music, but it should be no surprise to learn that many have roots in genres popularized by Black artists in the South, such as Blues, Jazz and Funk. Blues, for instance, was meant to be a cathartic expression of the enslaved people’s experience. In Charles Burchell’s article ‘The Lasting Legacy of the Slave Trade on American Music’, the Blues, “… represents the transition from African slave to African American citizenry.” He states,
“…both musically and metaphorically, the blues represents an unorthodox juxtaposition of ideas, which is arguably reflective of how the African American experience fits into American society as a whole.”
Now, various rock-n-roll and hip-hop artists have drawn inspiration from ancestral slave songs, Jazz and the Blues into modern music, further cementing the influence of the African diaspora on what we listen to today. Additional reading:
- In New Orleans, you can find a variety of music ‘walking’ tours which take you to historic places where legendary artists performed and where these genres of music were born.
- Here’s a great guide to enjoying the Blues and understanding its historical roots in Memphis.
- This article lists great books which introduce Jazz concepts to kids to get them connected with the history of this form of music.
The South offers miles and miles of State Parks and waterways for everyone to enjoy but many of these are not just respites in nature. Several are historically significant locations that have saved countless lives of enslaved people. The Underground Railroad was a network of routes which helped slaves escape to the North. They followed the waterways and sheltered in swamps to stay safe on their journey. Some stayed in the swamplands for just a short rest stop, while others simply stayed there and created ‘maroon colonies’. The residents of maroon colonies established a community in the woods where they were safer than being enslaved in the plantations of the South. Additional reading:
- Dismal Swamp State Park, now offering a series of boardwalks and walking paths for nature lovers to enjoy, is widely considered as having been the largest maroon colony in the US.
- The National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom website pinpoints sites in the South which were historically significant for the slaves’ struggle for freedom.
- Archaeological efforts such as Looking for Angola are underway to dive deeper into the lives of people living in maroon colonies.
A trip to the South is arguably incomplete without admiring the stately architecture and the charming, colorful buildings. The old plantation estates have a regal air about them and are stunning to photograph. After all, houses are simply not made that way anymore and they are truly a historical landmark. However, these plantations housed generations of enslaved Africans who were abused at the hands of their masters and, sadly, much of this history has been ‘whitewashed’ because it is an uncomfortable part of US history to casually speak about. Caroline Eubanks from This is My South states,
“The main issue that comes up with visiting plantations is the “whitewashing” of what really happened there. It’s not uncommon to hear docents describe the slaves as “part of the family” or tell stories of how once slavery was abolished, they continued living there.”
- Another article from This is My South provides a guide on where to learn about Black History in Charleston, like the McLeod plantation which is connected to Gullah culture.
- The Whitney plantation, Monticello, and the Redcliffe plantation are known for offering tours from the perspective of the slave’s experience.
- We also have a personal responsibility when visiting plantations by being respectful when taking pictures and understanding that these locations were once sites of human suffering.
- This recently published book by Clint Smith, How The Word is Passed: A Reckoning with History of Slavery Across America takes you through his own tour of the American South that leads to both his (and the readers’) transformation around the understanding of the history, and with it the present, of the region.
We hope this guide helps enrich your next visit to the Southern US!
You might also like these articles on the Bébé Voyage blog: