Celebrating Black history around the world

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DESTINATION 1: PARIS, FRANCE

Traditionally, cultural tours of the City of Light prioritise nationalist monuments like The Eiffel Tower, Louvre, and Versailles. Such a rigid focus distorts the capital’s diverse history, from the 1930s, where it became a haven for African American creatives, to the present day, where approximately 5 million people of colour reside in Paris. Independent tourism agencies such as Walking the Spirit and Black Paris Tours have long challenged the exclusionary narratives visitors are normally fed, instead highlighting the significant role the Black community has played in shaping the city’s modern culture.

In the process, they have shone a light on forgotten locations from the Chateau Rouge, a bustling urban centre now dubbed ‘little Africa’, to the glamorous Montmartre, a district made famous in the jazz age by black icons like Josephine Baker and Ada Smith.

They have shone a light on forgotten locations.

Tourists can also visit the coffeehouses frequented by abolitionists such as the Café de la Régence, a favourite of Marylander Frederick Douglass, or Les Deux Magots, a rendezvous for literati like James Baldwin, Chester Himes, and Richard Wright.

It is no secret France has still got a long way to go before it comes to terms with its past, but there’s no reason that should put visitors off. Black history is a surface the French leisure industry has barely scratched, making it all the more important for tourists to take up this exciting and eye-opening opportunity.

DESTINATION 2: AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS

The municipality which flourished by tapping into the booming sugar trade has a grim, if rarely discussed, underbelly to its allegedly ‘glorious’ past. Though monuments to the seventeenth-century ‘Golden Age’ remain the primary focus of travel and leisure companies, there has recently been a revival of interest in the exploitative practices of the Dutch East India Company which supported the city’s rapid expansion.

In a telling statement earlier this year, Femke Halsema, the city mayor, declared it “time to engrave the great injustice of colonial slavery into our city’s identity”, even offering guidebooks about the global slave trade to every Amsterdammer. Today, tourists can attend Ketikoti, an annual festival commemorating the release of slaves from Suriname, observed in the Netherlands since 2002.

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The internationally renowned Rijksmuseum has also offered its first exhibition educating visitors about the history of slavery, retelling the real-life stories of ten individuals from across the empire.

Tour guides have also brought attention to previously overlooked landmarks like the ‘West India House’, which served as a headquarters for the agrarian West India Company and forms an essential part of Amsterdam’s Black heritage.

Though the polarised reception Halsema’s announcement received perhaps underlines just how far the Venice of the North is from acknowledging the abuses of its past, an increasingly vocal party is nevertheless making the city’s Black history more accessible to visitors than ever before.

DESTINATION 3: DETROIT, AMERICA

One of the best places in the world to learn about Black history – Detroit was at the heart of the American slave trade as well as the abolitionist and Black Power movements. Notorious for its racial tensions, this city has a difficult history, demonstrated again last year by the mass protests against the killing of George Floyd.

One of the best places in the world to learn about Black history.

To learn about this challenging past, visitors can take tours of the underground railroads, which numerous slaves journeyed in the hope of liberation by crossing the Canadian border. Perhaps the most important stop in this regard is the Second Baptist Church, which sheltered over 5,000 fugitive slaves between 1836 to 1865.

Tourists more interested in learning about the transformative effects of Black culture after the emancipation can alternatively visit the Motown Museum, an immersive historical experience set in the stylish ‘Hitsville USA’ property, that served as a recording studio during the 1960s.

Motown Museum, Detroit

Additionally, to learn more about the present, visitors can check out the annual African World Festival at the Wright – a showcase for the work of African American artists, performers, and chefs.

With such a divisive heritage, Detroit, unsurprisingly, is renowned for many of the wrong reasons – such as the 12th Street Riot and the city’s recent
economic collapse. Yet, it remains an essential stop for any tourist interested in learning about how Black American history still has ramifications for today.

Images: Paris and Amsterdam – Gracie Linthwaite, Detroit – Picturegift via Flickr

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