I recently visited the stunning city of Charleston, South Carolina for the first time. I was drawn there by stories of cobblestone streets and oak-filled parks, and the parts of American history that can only be found in the Deep South.
I love being in new places because it wakes up my senses. The brain has to work hard to process the new information, our awareness is heightened as our senses are operating on all cylinders — and this helps keep our brain healthy.
But even more important, experiencing different cultures can help us understand and appreciate them better. This is the gift this trip to Charleston gave me: perspective.
I knew the location had deep historical significance. The first shots in the American Civil War were fired on Fort Sumter, just off the coast of Charleston. There are 34 National Historical Landmarks that have played critical roles in the American Revolution, Civil War, and the birth and fight for civil rights.
I could read about all of those in books. But what I realized by being there is that reading or watching a documentary can’t compare to experiencing it firsthand, especially a beautiful and storied destination like Charleston.
We stood in a cramped slave home on plantation grounds and listened to a Gullah historian tell tales about life working on the farm. She sang us a slave spiritual song and explained how the lyrics were often secret messages to other slaves working nearby about a pending escape.
Walking the harbor pier, we learned that 40 percent of West African slaves brought to America passed through that port.
We stood outside the courthouse where Thurgood Marshall argued the groundbreaking Briggs v. Elliott case, challenging the “separate but equal” doctrine.
All of these humbling experiences helped broaden my perspective better than any book ever could.
Coincidentally during my visit, I participated in an industry diversity, equity and inclusion committee call while sitting on the courtroom steps. One of the committee members, Sheila Neal from Visit Detroit, told a story about how her grandmother once took her to their family cemetery in Starkville, MS, and introduced her to family members and pointed out relatives who had been lynched.
Sheila stated, “It was a chilling but eye-opening experience that helped propel my love for history, and passion for equity and Black people”.
Sheila’s story is another example of how powerful it can be to visit something in-person. I’m sure she will never forget that experience.
February is Black History Month (recognized primarily in the US and Canada), and I understand even more why it’s important to know, learn and tell these stories from our history.
One of the most powerful tools we have to break down walls between us is curiosity, and learning more about each other and building empathy. What if we committed to do one thing this month to better understand a culture or perspective other than our own?
Let’s keep traveling to places with deep historical significance and commit to learning that history, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel.
And while you’re there, maybe read Dear White Friends by Melvin J. Gravely II, PhD, a powerful book written as a series of letters from a Black man to his white friend, explaining Black perspectives.
Mark Twain’s remarks also continue to resonate: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
Let’s begin by going there.
Adapted from a 2022 article for The Meeting Professional