Up Close and Personal with Isaac Farris on African Diaspora Tourism

Isaac_FarrisIsaac Farris heads up The King Center in Atlanta, Georgia where he is the President and CEO.  Established in 1968 by Coretta Scott King, The King Center is a world-renown historic site and the official, living memorial dedicated to the advancement of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of America’s greatest nonviolent movement for justice, equality and peace. The nephew of Dr. King, Farris has been with the King center for a number of years.  ADT caught up with him to talk about his travels along the African Diaspora Heritage Trails.

1) ADT: The King Center is a foremost historic site in the nation, and the leading tourist attraction in Georgia and Atlanta.  Tell us about the make-up of the visitors.

Farris: There are about 1 million visitors a year to the King Center from people all over the world. From 55 to 60 per cent are of African descent. The others are non-blacks, coming from all over the US and as far away as China, Germany and Russia.  So the legacy of what the center stands for is shared by the world. The King Center is dedicated to educating these people from all over the world who are hungry and curious, about Dr. King’s life, work and his philosophy and methods of nonviolence and social change.

2) ADT: What do you think is the importance of people, especially young people visiting historic sites like the King Center, as opposed to just reading about them?

Farris:   There is clearly an advantage to see, touch and feel things related to history. Visiting sites that you read about in books and study in classrooms makes them real to you. It somewhat brings the history alive and keeps it foremost in your mind.  Also, technology today is a supplement to just reading about things. When you can’t visit places, you can sometimes experience them vicariously via internet.

3) ADT: We know that things like music festivals, Caribbean carnivals, all kinds of art shows and sporting events are a part of African Diaspora Tourism. What role do you think events like these play in learning about the culture and heritage of people of African descent? Do you usually attend and participate in such events?

Farris:  Yes, I attend different types of events related to black heritage when I can. I think that these types of events are educational while at the same time enjoyable. Cultural and heritage events offer people the opportunity to obtain insights about the African Diaspora in a different way- at a level where they can receive them, and sometimes this is more lasting while certainly enjoyable.

4) ADT: African Diaspora history is everyone’s history, and learning about it will open up dialog about the horrors of slavery. How difficult do you think this will be and what do you think are some of the best ways to get the general population interested in learning about our history and culture heritage?

Farris:     I think that this will be challenging as people are very resistant to change and new ideas and ways of doing things. I believe that there must be some type of affirmative action oriented plan to make this happen. Many non-African Americans don’t feel that black history is a part of their history, so I feel that this is somewhat of a distant reality. But it should still be a goal.  It will probably happen inch-by-inch similar to the institution of the King Holiday, which came about in different states, one at a time and slowly, more and more people began to accept it.  In the same manner, I have faith that black history will be more fully integrated in schools’ curriculums as it is slowly began to take place. Also, the revitalizing and preserving of historic sites and things related to black history is gradually beginning to happen all around the world.  And the aspects of slavery must be included in the African Diaspora history and dealt with, no matter how difficult it will be to come to grips with and reconcile.

5) How significant do you think the impact of sustainable tourism will be in helping countries of the African Diaspora, like the Caribbean islands, in terms of economics and helping to develop black heritage sites there?

Farris : I feel that sustainable tourism plays a very important role in helping the economy in developing countries.  And culture heritage sites are a very significant part of that.  If monies are allocated for the development of such sites, then tourists will come. In turn, tourism will be helping to support these economies.   Tourists must however acknowledge their roles and go a little further than the all-inclusive resorts and be willing to go out into communities to visit heritage sites and patronize the locals. When the data and numbers are shown as a profit to bankers, it becomes a win-win situation for everyone.

6) ADT: In your travels throughout the places of the African Diaspora, what has been your most memorable site or experience and why?

Farris :  I would have to say Robbins Island in South Africa. Visiting the island and the prison where Nelson Mandela was kept has impressed me the most because of what he went through and the legacy he left. I identified with this because in so many ways he was like my uncle. Even though he was not killed, he sacrificed his life in a different way but was victorious in accomplishing what he set out to do. My uncle lost his life, but in the same manner he achieved his goals of freedom and equality for his people. Both are a part of the same legacy.  Visiting the prison created an emotional connection for me. I feel that Robbins Island is not only very meaningful for me, but also for the world. Just like the significance of the King Center as a very important world historic site, Robbins Island should be a place of reflection for everyone who visits about how far we have come in terms of human relations.

In closing Farris said that he will continue to do his part in educating people about the King Center and Dr. King’s legacy of non-violence. Even though he said that he does not see himself as a role model in promoting African Diaspora Tourism in general, he does feel that his travel in places of the African Diaspora and the work that is being done at the king Center can serve to help encourage others to take part in cultural and heritage endeavors, especially those in leadership positions.  Farris has participated as a presenter in Bermuda’s African Diaspora Heritage Conference where he explained how the King Center has progressed in such a way to serve as a model on how historic sites can have an impact on culture tourism. Farris said that the conference was an excellent opportunity for learning more about heritage development and networking with other professionals in the industry.  When asked if he would be attending the World Cup this year, he said that he would try and he hasn’t ruled it out.