Southern Hospitality and the Politics of African American Belonging: An Analysis of North Carolina Tourism Brochure Photographs

Article excerpt


In the now classic book The Middle West, James "Pete" Shortridge described his work as "unconventional geography." Distancing himself from the scientific method, which still had a powerful hold on American human geography at the time, he offered a "humanistic" or interpretive analysis of the Midwest (Shortridge 1989, p. xiii). In contrast to the tradition of treating regions as tightly bound cultural areas with a single, essential character, Shortridge studied the Midwest as a constantly shifting idea open to any number of different and sometimes competing meanings and interpretations. In his words, the Midwest represented a "place of idealism and democratic temperament" for some, "but to others bland, materialistic, and conservative" (Shortridge 1989, p. I). He drew from imagery in novels, political cartoons, advertisements, and later photography to uncover important historical changes in what the region symbolized to Midwesterners and the rest of the United States. (1) Among his many accomplishments, Shortridge demonstrated the importance of cultural perception and representation to regional analysis and how regionalization is characterized by tension and contradiction.

In the more than twenty years since the publication of The Middle West, what began as an "unconventional" approach has become a standard methodology among many geographers. Current research emphasizes the socially constructed nature of regional identity, and there is now a well-established tradition of analyzing the texts, images, and discourses that work to define the identity and meaning of regions (e.g., Blake 1995; Entrikin 1996; Alderman and Good 1997; Paasi 2003; Mains 2004; Schlemper 2004; Dittmer 2006; Aiken 2009). Scholars increasingly recognize that representing the world is not neutral, but inherently ideological and selective. It is a social practice that makes certain people, places, and perspectives appear legitimate while rendering others invisible and seemingly unimportant. There is also recognition that these cultural representations, no matter how seemingly innocent or trite they may appear, are embedded within wider power relations and identity struggles. As the product of uneven social relations, they participate in reproducing and resisting patterns of cultural dominance and marginalization (Barnes and Duncan 1992; Lutz and Collins 1993; Shurmer-Smith 2002; Kneale 2003).

It is the relationship between regional identity, the politics of representation, and social inequality that interests us and guides the writing of this paper. In particular, we are interested in examining tourism marketing as a platform for constructing socially selective images of the American South and assessing, conceptually and empirically, the visibility of African Americans within these promotional images. (2) The regional images communicated to tourists are more than mere advertisements. They seek to encapsulate the culture and history of the South, why it matters, and for whom it matters. Scholars have observed in other regional contexts that tourism promotions often reflect a privileged white male gaze that obscures, if not completely ignores, the experiences of minorities while also perpetuating racist stereotypes. When minorities are depicted, they are often shown as servants and entertainers rather than tourists, clearly limiting their identity both as legitimate members of host communities and as welcomed visitors (Pritchard and Morgan 2000; Martin 2004; Buzinde et al. 2006; Klemm and Burton 2006). Representations such as these, as Kevin Dunn (2003, p. 162) would argue, are politically important and reflect an "uneven cultural distribution of citizenship" that places serious constraints on the minority struggle for empowerment and belonging.

Few studies have examined patterns of racial bias in the marketing of southern tourism destinations (but see Mellinger 1994). This is surprising given the growing market importance of minority tourism, which generated 19% of domestic travel spending in the U. …


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