For most SXSWers, the annual trip to Austin means tacos, margaritas and wearing out shoe leather trekking up and down six or so blocks of Downtown. Most don’t pay a lot of attention to the city’s people, or its history.

Enter Javier Wallace, academic, entrepreneur and founder at Black Austin Tours, an educational travel company whose objective is to show the city through the lens of Black history, giving voice to those whose stories are frequently left untold. At his conference session, Disrupting Space: Telling Black Stories in Public, he shared a different side of Austin.

Take the most visited attraction in the city. The Texas Capitol building was built by wrongfully incarcerated Black prisoners, yet official guides say nothing of this strand of its history. Nor of the city’s segregation that saw Black residents ghettoised east of the Interstate 95 highway, and then subjected to “environmental racism” as Wallace puts it, via the establishment of landfill sites, incinerators, and power plants close to their homes. The crowds that throng the famous Rainey Street to party and listen to music don’t know that the rustic houses there were formerly homes for Mexican families, long financially displaced from the district.

WEB Javier Wallce 2
Javier Wallace

Wallace’s approach is to use counter storytelling, a tenet of critical race theory, to disrupt and reframe our understanding of tourist attractions and spaces, turning the city into a classroom. His aim is to “insert a voice where the silence existed,” through more authentic and inclusive stories that highlight the experience and contribution of Black people.

Today, many are more conscious of social justice, and will seek out authentic and responsible travel experiences like this. Wallace insists travelers need to do the work themselves, building a deeper understanding of place and people, asking themselves “Who was here before me? Who made it possible for me to enjoy this space? What are the local lives of Black people there? Am I supporting Black businesses? Am I hiring Black guides and vendors?”

Delivering on inclusion and equity is proving to be a powerful theme at this year’s SXSW, with the goal of elevating the voices and experiences of marginalized communities a common thread running through a number of panel sessions. See our upcoming SXSW round up for more on this theme.

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