You can’t walk down Savannah’s downtown streets most nights without seeing a ghost tour. Supernaturally-themed entertainment is common in tourist-filled historic cities.
It’s a big money-maker. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone that these carefree, often boisterous and amusing trips into the horrific often sensationalize historical facts.
But what surprised me, especially as a historical guide myself, was the idea that African-American stories actually come up more in ghost tours than traditional tours in the South.
That was the experience of Tiya Miles, a University of Michigan history professor who traveled across the region collecting ghost stories for a book about “haunted tourism.”
“It was in ghost tours, rather than traditional historical tours, where African-American history is being addressed,” she says. “Ghost tours are supposed to be this lighter, frivolous, fun side of the dark tourism industry and yet one of the most horrific moments of our nation’s history was being represented within this so-called light and fun context.”
Miles gave an insightful talk about this topic at the “Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture” symposium organized by the Ossabaw Island Foundation in February. The series of lectures is a must-listen for anyone who cares about the environment and local history.
In her talk, presented here in its entirety, Miles says that tours operating out of Southern plantations, historic homes and cemeteries often highlight salacious sexual encounters between white masters and their slaves, the physical abuse and torture of black bodies and the “exotic” nature of African-American spiritual practices.
Miles argues that the troubling details and omissions from these stories commercialize and skew African-American lives into a macabre distortion that shapes our history.
“These stories, in my view, really sensationalize slavery and they make light of the very serious tragedy that happened to millions of black people in this country,” she says.
Not that African-American oral traditions also haven’t turned historical fragments into supernatural tales to suit the desires of contemporary ears over the centuries. Miles is particularly fascinated by the handed-down stories of the so-called “flying Africans.”
Perhaps the most powerful and enduring myth in African-American folklore, the “flying Africans” story goes back to an 1803 slave uprising at Ibo Landing on St. Simons Island. Miles explains how the story’s embellishment into a kind of “unexplainable fable” has inspired generations of enslaved and formerly enslaved people and their descendants.
“The flying African story is evidence not only of a collective resistant spirit that relies on spirituality as well as creativity for its reenactment,” she says. “But it’s also evidence of a living oral tradition in which the great themes of black life – bondage, freedom, multifaceted and complex identity and the insistence on dignity – are expressed.”
If you’re not familiar with the Ibo Landing story, it involves a slave revolt whose ending is the mythical transportation of the slaves back to an African home across the water.
“The suite of flying African stories told by former slaves on the Georgia coast leaves open an interpretation of the Ibo Landing event as well as other conflicts between masters and slaves as moments that defied reason, as moments in which the oppressed could resist and, through resistance, be transported,” she says.
Thankfully, she reports that tour guides on St. Simons Island relate the Ibo Landing story with remarkable dedication to the facts and honor for the lives of those stolen and lost.
Taken as a whole, Miles’ talk challenges the owners and operators of tour companies to do better. And it makes us realize the power that each of us has when we tell stories.
Miles’ book is called “Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era” published by the University of North Carolina Press.
If you’d like to hear other talks from the “Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture” symposium, click this link. I will continue to post more of these presentations as the year advances.
(Image by Donovan Nelson / Valentine Museum of Art)