Considering vacation privileges in a new light

Resting where enslaved laborers used to work

lf17-SarahAshman

It’s true: Summer 2018 has officially come and gone, much to our surprise and — especially for my fellow fourth years — despair.

As much as we can try, we can’t hide from this change of season. The evidence is undeniable, surrounding us from every side. First-years are stopping and frantically asking you for directions to Nau-Gibson. HotCakes is offering another two weeks of free lattes, making friends with stressed out students so they know where their loyalties lie when choosing between crowded study spaces come exams. Heck, you might have even whipped out a sweater over this past weekend when the temperatures dropped below 85 degrees.

But still, we all know the real indicator, definitively stating the end of one era and the beginning of another: Instagram.

Where have the pictures of our friends with ice-cream cones, floral farmers markets, sunset series cider on Carter Mountain, study abroad ventures through Europe, Fourth of July bathing suits and sandy cups on the beach gone? They’ve been replaced by devoted Hoo football fans happily tailgating regardless of the score and girls posing for their apple-picking picture. However, before we leave the “summergrams” in the past, I want to search for a few with a whole bunch of likes for us to comment on, if I may.

While rest is needed and vacation time should absolutely be enjoyed as the gift it is, I want to think about the privilege it is to be in some of the spaces we went last summer — namely, Charleston, S.C.

“Yeah, I know,” you may be thinking. “My parents have been reminding me of how fortunate I am to travel while I’m young, with my friends, to beautiful places, yadda-yadda-yadda, since I was old enough to say thank you.”

And to that I would say: good, because it is a privilege to have the financial ability to travel and a community of friends to spend time with. But that’s not the privilege I’m interested in.

No, I’m interested in the privilege to be in a devastating historical site and not know it’s a historical site of action that continues to define America: the privilege of oblivious Instagram photos of the pastel houses of Rainbow Row, shops on Market Street and the fountains of Waterfront Park.

“Privilege” — especially the term “white privilege” — has become a buzzword in our modern moment. People are both naming and denying it, stewarding and abusing it, enforcing it and refusing it exists. A new political scale has practically developed to depict where people fall on their opinion in relation to it.

I want to think about privilege for a moment in the same manner in which Francis E. Kendall discusses it in his 2002 essay “Understanding White Privilege:” that is, as a free ticket from having to think about race in the present or the racial history of the past.

Throughout the 18th and 19th Century, Charleston functioned as a major port city where 40 percent of enslaved Africans were sold into further bondage after their horrific journey through the Middle Passage. Having somehow lived through an unimaginably inhumane transportation across the Atlantic Ocean, half a million west Africans were quarantined on Sullivan’s Island until they recovered from any illness or disease contracted on the ship, then marched into Charleston’s marketplaces, where they were auctioned off on blocks as someone else’s property.

If you’re having a hard time imagining the sheer numbers, imagine about 23 times the entire University — undergrad and graduate — population. I shudder at the thought of what that must have looked like.

Yet, when we go to places like Charleston, we’re not shuddering. We don’t know there is a reason to shudder, because the terrible truth has not been preserved in the landscape. Instead, by far, we experience palm trees and an array of glorified colonial architecture. Instead, we experience the privilege it is to feel unconnected with sites of mass enslavement; the privilege it is to ignore the history because it’s not a part of your lineage.

Within this academic year, the University will be breaking ground on a new memorial for enslaved laborers. We are doing so because we have decided as a University body that it is essential that we know what took place here — that it is essential we realize, remember and honestly confront our past. We are erecting it not to ruin the reputation of the University, but to be forthcoming about its complexities and honor those who suffered under its construction and development.

I want to invite you, my friends and peers, to think with me: how can we be a people who extend this important work to the various places we go? How can we enter into the complexity of popular vacation sites such as Charleston and Hilton Head in South Carolinas, as well as Jamaica and even Caribbean destinations?

How can we long to be informed, to know what has happened and to know who labored against their will in the places we’re going, as more ethical travelers and students of this world?

In his work “The Fire Next Time”, James Baldwin wrote to his young nephew, “I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”

There is nothing wrong with admiring the beauty — and having pure fun — in a seaside city over the summer. However, I can’t help but echo Baldwin’s concern that so many people do not know the historical implications of the places they are visiting. What I hope is that we can prove him undeniably wrong in his observation that we do not want to know.

Sarah Ashman is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at life@cavalierdaily.com

related stories