These activist tour guides are helping visitors discover the hidden histories of cities — and avoid the meaningless tourist traps.
Hot whatever summer™ is here, and many folks are excitedly planning the travel adventures that they missed during the bleakest moments of the pandemic. We want to see — and feel like we’re part of — the big world again. But while a lot of destinations benefit financially from tourism, for locals, having a bunch of clueless visitors trampling around your city can be disheartening. No one wants to be that tourist, disrespecting locals and their homes just to snap some Instagram pics and check landmarks off a to-see list. Plus, when we travel without acknowledging the people who helped make these places what they are today and the indigenous communities that have largely been erased, we miss out on the opportunity to experience a place authentically and discover the underground spots that are way cooler than the tourist traps. The good news: Activist tour guides around the country are helping visitors see the hidden histories of America’s most loved cities.
Lola Jean Darling, a 39-year-old hattukholba (trans woman) in Bulbancha — a.k.a. New Orleans — offers walking tours that center the Indigenous roots of the city. Bulbancha, which generally translates to “place of many tongues,” is one of the original names for New Orleans, because it was the gathering place for many different Indigenous tribes. Darling is a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, and she says she doesn’t really consider the tours she offers her job, per say; rather, they’re just part of how she lives her life. That’s reflected in how each walk comes to be. There’s no formal schedule or booking system; sometimes Darling proactively plans walks and partners with local groups to spread the word, but people interested in a tour can also direct message her on social media to arrange something.
“It's a ritual,” Darling tells me, noting that the walks help her connect her own personal and community history to the present day. “The walks are a way I can engage not only with my community here in Bulbancha, but with my history and heritage. Walking the same grounds my ancestors have walked; connecting their stories to my own. It's one of the ways I fulfill my role as hattukholba in the current context.”
But she also sees the tours as a kind of activism. By offering these walks, Darling is actively working against the oppressive forces that erase the Indigenous history of Bulbancha and the tragic practices of white settler colonists. “Taking control of the narrative is an act of revolution,” Darling says. And, like all revolutionary work, it is fraught with many meanings. “I wish telling folx about the history of my people wasn't fighting indigenous erasure,” she says. “I wish the story of meeting our African cousins and the beautiful melding of our cultures wasn't mired in tragedy and oppression.” Darling leads these tours, then, to engage everyone who walks with her in the radical act of rethinking our assumptions about Bulbancha and the many peoples who have lived there throughout history.
The folks who walk with Darling get a sober, but inspiring, message: “When I speak about yaknifalama [the land back movement] and indigenous struggle, I am including descendants of African slavery, as well,” she says. “We are the people who belong to this land. That's why decolonization for us is so important, because we are the only ones who can truly lead progress and revolution on Turtle Island [the name for North America that some Indigenous people use], and it must be outside of European systems and standards. We must revive the forbidden traditions and build new ones in the face of the behemoth that is the continuing European colonialism.”
Understanding the complexity of a city often means exploring histories of oppression, some of which we may have heard of but don’t yet fully understand. Michael Venturiello, the founder and lead tour guide at Christopher Street Tours in New York City, helps to provide that understanding. Venturiello initially started giving queer history tours of the city because he was writing a historical novel about Stonewall and really wanted to take a tour that centered the uprising. There wasn’t one, so Venturiello created it. “Our mission is to share stories and uplift voices from those that paved the way before us,” he says. He fulfills that mission by offering a history tour of Greenwich Village, a drag history tour, and a bar tour — all led by LGBTQ+ folks — as well as a queer history YouTube channel and other online resources. For Venturiello, it’s particularly important to educate people of every generation about queer history, so he offers free tours for LGBTQ+ youth.
The education Venturiello gives folks is not abstract — these tours don’t offer just a new way to look at NYC; they also serve as road maps for how we can all participate in queer liberation. “When I first thought about activism, I felt excluded because I'm more introverted at heart and didn't feel comfortable shouting at protests,” Venturiello says. “But no matter who you are, you have talents and skills that can be used toward the movement. Queer liberation movements, presently and historically, are made up of so many different kinds of people who offer various skills and talents.”
Activist tour guides, then, not only offer a new perspective on specific destinations, but also help us orient ourselves in history and provide historical examples of how to participate in justice movements. For example, “Chicago has always been a center for labor union organizing activity and has led the way on many important advancements,” Julia Berkowitz, an electrician who leads labor history tours of Chicago through the Illinois Labor History Society, tells Mic. “So many working people and unemployed [people] are totally disconnected from the history and sacrifices that have been made.” Understanding the labor movements of the past can help us all address the need to answer broader questions of racial and gender oppression at the workplace and how unions can take a lead role in this, she adds.
I haven’t had the honor of taking Berkowitz’s tour in person, but learning more about Chicago labor history on my own not only made me realize there’s a lot I don’t know about the Windy City, but also gave me a better idea of how leftist movements work in concert. “Many people don’t know how much the labor movement overlaps with the civil rights movement,” Berkowitz says, mentioning Reverend Addie Wyatt as an example. Wyatt was the Black woman leader of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (a union representing meatpacking workers), who was able to secure paid maternity leave in union contracts back in the 1940s, Berkowitz says. Not only is this an amazing early feat that I was personally ignorant of, but it also demonstrates a truly intersectional approach to history that lays bare where class, race, and gender liberation movements all come together.
These activist-led tours are a win-win for travelers. They offer a multidimensional approach to history that’s hard to find in books — or at least books that feel accessible — and they do so in an actually enjoyable way, that feels nothing like school. You can listen to Lola Jean Darling wax poetic about queer Indigenous sex while sipping a daiquiri on a beautiful day in Bulbancha’s French Quarter. You can check out Chicago’s famous Bean sculpture and the Jane Addams Hull-House — arguably the first punk house in history — on the same day. And you can go be out and proud on New York’s Christopher Street while acknowledging all the people who came before us and made it possible. So on your next trip, skip the tourist traps and support the local activists who make radical history come alive and a radical future possible.