Harlem Worship as Tourist Commodity

Over at Slate, Jeremy Stahl has written a fabulous piece — Inside the Bizarre Tourist Trade at Harlem’s Sunday Church Services — that will greatly interest cultural anthropologists.  The article hits on several hot button concepts for culturals — tourism, commoditization, race, authenticity, tradition, identity, ritual, gazing, etc.  Sensing these issues, Stahl is reluctant:

  • Though I was uncomfortable at the prospect of joining other underdressed white gawkers observing how “locals” pray, I reluctantly decided to go.
  • I have always considered prayer an intensely serious and personal act—even when conducted publicly—so witnessing the spectacle of 100-plus tourists watching over a religious ceremony from an observer’s gallery was disconcerting.

It also appears that no Harlem service is complete without an incongruous Yankees fan: “The first five pews were taken up by about 50 well-dressed black parishioners and one exuberant white worshiper in a Derek Jeter jersey. The middle and back rows were packed with tourists, mostly from Europe.”

To their credit, some of the tourists seemed troubled by their participation in this trade.  Some parishioners are troubled as well: “It’s Like a Safari, and We’re the Zebras.” Ouch.

None of this would surprise the sociologist Daniel Bell, who wrote about this sort of thing in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), or the critical theorist Frederic Jameson, who describes this postmodern milieu in “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.”

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