I’ve visited a vast majority of the United States throughout my life, but it wasn’t until this past winter break that I finally spent time in Tennessee and Georgia. This specific part of the country is known for a history steeped in slavery, and I was eager to take an ethical plantation tour that didn’t whitewash the violence and glorify the property owners embedded in this history.
I wanted an experience that didn’t shy away from the ugly parts of humanity. I wanted to learn, challenge my belief system, and avoid the sanitized narrative that so often accompanies the grandiose plantation landscape.
Tours that offer this kind of experience — rejecting the dominant narrative and embracing the controversial, misunderstood, oppressed, or silenced story instead — are what I refer to as “alternative” tours. Broadly speaking, these tours highlight a spectrum of unheard stories and voices ranging from homelessness and migration to Indigenous knowledge and LGBTQI+ experiences.
We decided to visit Belle Meade in Nashville, Tennessee, which offers the one-hour Journey to Jubilee Tour. As noted on Belle Meade’s website, “Journey to Jubilee explores the stories of the African-Americans who were brought to, and born at, Belle Meade from 1807 through the years following Emancipation.”
Though it’s not the property’s most popular tour — that honor goes to the Mansion Tour, which focuses on the family and their privileged life — the Journey to Jubilee Tour is an honest, unfiltered presentation of plantation life. It is a refreshing alternative to a common narrative.
And, for me, it provided an opportunity to experience for myself the elements of a successful alternative tour.
Not only does the Journey to Jubilee Tour offer the unfiltered story of the Belle Meade plantation, but it is very clear to guests what the experience is going to be about. The web page to book the tour explicitly states “Our goal for this tour is that adults speak freely and honestly about the violent reality of slavery.”
This message was reinforced right away by our guide, who clearly noted the purpose of the tour as well as what it was not. He suggested that anyone wanting to learn about the owners’ social life and home furnishings were welcome to join the Mansion Tour, which departed at the same time.
Clarifying the purpose and expectations right away sets the tone for the entire experience. Not only does this offer people a chance to graciously leave if the tour isn’t right for them, but it also helps people establish an open mindset, seeding the space for a high-quality traveler experience.
Alternative tours are alternative for a reason: The stories they surface have been pushed into the deep, dark corners of society in general and tourism specifically for a long time. As such, it’s important to provide context for why they are important and how they differ from the dominant narrative.
Our tour guide at Belle Meade explained the difference between the Journey to Jubilee Tour and the Mansion Tour. He also emphasized the importance of staying on track with the alternative tour’s narrative so that it wasn’t derailed back toward the whitewashed narrative shared on other tours.
Our guide explained the development of the tour and how it evolved from an interest among staff to an exhibit on the property in 2007 (which still exists) to a full-fledged walking tour in 2018. This isn’t something that was built in a day; deep archives have informed the presentation of the exhibit and the tour.
This context is important for understanding why alternative tours like this are necessary in challenging the common sanitized narrative — even if they take a lot of work to appropriately and properly curate.
Disclose Relationship to Subject
I found it really curious that our Journey to Jubilee guide was a white man, and I asked him why he felt it was appropriate to be a guide for this tour. At Belle Meade, there are four people who lead this tour; my guide was working on his master’s degree in archival studies and has been working at the property for many years. He told me his passion is to ensure stories that have been silenced and whitewashed for so long are shared. He was very clear with our tour group that everything he shared was mined through archival materials, and he clearly cited his sources and provided evidence for all information provided throughout the tour.
In other words, our guide was acting as a microphone to share enslaved people’s stories and had gone to great lengths not to insert himself or his perspective into the experience (though no one can ever fully remove themselves or their identity from a situation). He clearly explained his relationship to the subject matter but was not a part of the story. Disclosing the relationship to the subject matter should be standard practice for any guide leading any alternative tour.
That said, it is a bit of a conundrum: The people who should be telling these silenced stories are not always available to share them. As noted in this article about ethical plantation tours, though: “White people can do this work,” says (Brigette Janea) Jones about curating an experience that amplifies Black voices. “But Black people should be doing it.” (Jones is the director of equitable partnerships at Belle Meade.)
Invite People Into the Conversation
Note that the booking page for the Journey to Jubilee tour encourages guests to “speak freely and honestly.” This is really important, because alternative tours should not be a one-way regurgitation of facts but rather a dialogue.
A lot of the information that surfaces during alternative tours is new information for guests: It challenges their preconceived notions, causes discomfort, and likely brings questions and thoughts to mind they’ve never had a chance to consider before. These are all relevant reactions, and people should be encouraged to explore them rather than shut down.
Our guide stated this intention when introducing the tour, and he also noted that buffer time is built into the tour, should conversations go over the allotted one-hour tour slot. Unfortunately, not many folks in our group asked questions or were interested in engaging in conversation, but the guide paused frequently and with enough time for questions and feedback, had they arisen.
Making space for this kind of engagement versus adopting a one-way dialogue elevates all tour experiences, but it’s particularly important on alternative tours. This is one of the many tactics for integrating the “slow” mindset into a tour.
Encourage Ongoing Learning
While alternative tours are a great introduction to non-dominant narratives, they certainly aren’t the full story. There’s a lot more information out there that offers context and additional insight into all sorts of narratives, but travelers might not know where to look next. Or, they might feel overwhelmed if they dive off the deep end into Google, in part because they don’t know what they’re looking for.
Help travelers keep that sense of curiosity alive with suggested reading, podcasts, movies, etc. Perhaps there are museums or even other tours in the area that provide additional context.
Guides should encourage ongoing learning at the conclusion of their tours, but use websites and social media platforms to catalog this information so guests can refer back to it at any time.
Don’t Stop at the Tour
One of the things I was most concerned about regarding the Journey to Jubilee Tour was that, even though it was an alternative tour, my tour fee was profiting Belle Meade ... and that was it. I felt conflicted about this so I asked about reparations on the tour and then followed up for clarification with an email. Belle Meade provides scholarship and internship opportunities through local historically Black colleges, and it provides financial support to the National Museum of African American Music and the John Early Museum Magnet School. There are other community projects in the works as well.
This is all to say that an alternative tour isn’t the end-all-be-all solution for addressing the pervasive, systemic problems caused by the actions and words reinforced by the dominant culture. Many social impact tour companies pay, train, and provide support to the marginalized communities they amplify through alternative tours, and that’s a great example of how these experiences can have long-term, meaningful ripple effects.
Knowing how Belle Meade supports the local Black community matters, and this should be shared with guests in some way. Making this information available isn’t an act of self-congratulation. Rather, it shows that organizations have sincerely thought through the importance and impact of highlighting and empowering both historically marginalized communities and their stories.