Where in world...?

An old friend phoned the other day. He never phones. But this time he just had to know: "What are you doing living in Florence?"
He thought I was in Florence, Italy. I told him it was Florence, Massachusetts.
Here are some answers -- my occasional wanderings through Florence, MA and the surrounding Pioneer Valley.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Marguerite Roby and Disaster Tourism

Thinking about the new sights seen in the past week, I was struck by my accidental disaster tourism. Springfield and Monson were my destinations to reaffirm or start new relationships with others, but along the way I was reminded of the early summer tornado. When we look up a definition of disaster tourism we find it described as traveling to see a scene of devastation. Much like rubbernecking when there is an accident on the road, the premise of disaster tourism is to glimpse how chance has chosen someone else, while allowing us to continue along our way, with the wreckage as the memorial to caprice.

Some people are eager disaster tourists. Many years ago a co-worker of mine could not stop talking about how much she wanted to see earthquake aftermath and wreckage after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that shook the San Francisco Bay Area. We were there for a work-related matter, and unlike me, she had no relatives with frightening stories about how the tremors felt. It upset me to hear her giddy eagerness, but I never said a word because I was unsure about what made me uneasy. Seeing the attic room's roof ripped away in Springfield, leaving the contents of the room intact, unnerved me because chance is clearly on proud display there. The chair left standing reminded me of a chair in my parents' living room, making it even worse.

Awareness and self-reflection are useful in these cases. Strangely, I found myself remembering the travel narrative by Marguerite Roby, My Adventures in the Congo (1911). Let's just say that she suffered from the opposite of my own situation, and was a bit closer to my former co-worker's mindset. The narrative features this frontispiece, which sets the pace for how she chooses to view the post-Leopold II Belgian Congo:
Sheesh. It makes sense, then, that her narrative reaffirms white privilege. Her passage from Europe to Africa is secured by working as a children's maid, suggesting a reason for why her lowered status vis-a-vis other English speakers would be redeemed by her narrative's ongoing complaints and notice of her problematic black porters. According to The Dial review (June 1, 1912), Roby wilfully chooses to look away from the effects of King Leopold's Free Congo State atrocities. The reviewer writes, "She saw no mutilations in her short journey on the edge of the rubber district; she interviewed Belgian officials for her information, and attributes the mutilations to native customs (doubtless a contributory factor)" (432). If you are familiar with Roger Casement's exposé of King Leopold's exploitation of the Belgian Congo, this view will be difficult to endorse. I found it perplexing and almost laughable at times, as I recall.

Roby's endorsement of white privilege in the aftermath of King Leopold's excesses becomes problematic when we consider the fact she is a bicycling female. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the bicycling female is a feminist, a critical thinker challenging white male privilege. While she is traveling under her own physical power, she still must have black porters to haul all her stuff, political and cosmetic. You don't see a tiny little pannier on the back of that bike, do you?

It's no wonder she couldn't see very clearly, in addition to the ongoing fever (and the perfect outfits) that must have blurred her judgment.

Many thanks to Googlebooks for these images.

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