On the Commodification of Race

In The Travel Habit, WPA guidebooks by WaxS1 Comment

In the introduction to his article titled “The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification,” Andrew S. Gross writes that race does factor into the American Guide Series’ mobilization of the “idioms and strategies of corporate advertising to combat a crisis created by corporate capitalism” (2), but as background information. Race is, he says, “included in the scenery as an object of regional difference, but excluded from the tour perspective, which is politically progressive but determinately ‘Yankee,’ as the Guides put it” (ibid.). In other words, race comes up primarily as tangential information but is not brought up directly in the tours offered in the guidebooks. “Yankee” discourse refers to the way in which the U.S. believed racial difference was to be overlooked in order to focus on an “American” identity, a discourse that crystallizes during World War II. Indeed, many of these guidebooks were published on the eve of the Second World War. While Gross’s analysis is accurate, the Series’ guide to North Carolina, North Carolina: A Guide to the Old North State (1939), reveals how racial difference, particularly black identity, sometimes did come up in tours as an attraction to consider, which shows how Yankee discourse was not hegemonic at all times.

In “Tour 2,” for instance, readers of the guide are told about Princeville, “one of the country’s few incorporated villages politically dominated by Negroes” (310). In this way, then, Princeville is signaled as a site of interest for its “all-Negro run administration including a volunteer fire company” (ibid.). The village is brought up as being notable because black people run it, something not presumed to be a common sight for the tourist. In  another tour, “Tour 4,” a backstory is given to explain U.S. Route 117’s nickname. The guide states how two black men, Dave Morisy and David Hicks, were convicted and hanged for plotting to drive slaves to kill all the white people in several towns in the area. After their hanging, “[t]heir heads were cut off and placed on poles at highway intersections […] Dave’s head was placed on Wilmington Road (now US 117), which became known as Negro Head Road” (331). This disturbing origin story is recounted to readers as if such a violent tale were worth knowing, an “interesting” local historical detail. I cite these two moments only to show how the guidebook spectacularizes black identity in order to sell certain parts of North Carolina to tourists.

Throughout the guide, black identity emerges as a point of tension (even if it not portrayed in this light) in North Carolina, be it during slavery or post-Civil War. While I cannot treat every instance where black identity comes up in this guidebook, I find it noteworthy that, in most of the tours offered, racial difference is not put on the back burner, hidden from readers to make North Carolina seem hyper-progressive. Instead, the state’s racist history and segregated social institutions are branded as sources of fascination for the tourist. Princeville is a sign of black resistance to Jim Crow segregation, founded as a space for black people to live and run their own lives without being led by white politicians. This resistance is elided in the guidebook, which relies on the ignorance of the tourist to recast the village as a spectacle, exoticizing it in order to sell it to them as a point of interest. U.S. Route 117’s backstory explicitly represents racial violence without problematizing it. The story is told to readers as if it were a fun fact to pass on to others during a trip. Essentially, what I am trying to suggest is that in some cases, minorities were capitalized upon, turned into commodities for tourists to consume. In the guidebook to North Carolina, racial tension and violence is presented to readers, not as background information, but as a sellable aspect of any trip to the state. It becomes a main feature of touring the state.

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  1. Great post. To be honest, I didn’t even notice the tension you talk about while reading the guides. I strongly agree that both the native and the “outsiders,” their interactions, and the progress of their interactions are essential part of the “culture.” There really isn’t a clear line separating tourism and culture. They are part of each other. I learnt a lot from reading your post!

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