I Visited A Former Plantation To Understand Why People Get Married There. All I Saw Was PainHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, racism, African American history, Confederacy, tourism, public history, plantations
Clint Smith’s debut nonfiction book, How the Word Is Passed, explores how different sites across the country reckon with, or fail to reckon with, their relationship to the history of slavery.
Over the past four years, in the process of researching for my book How the Word Is Passed, I have traveled across the United States to explore how different historical sites reckon with, or fail to reckon with, their relationships to American slavery — which places were directly confronting their history, which were running from it, and which were doing something in between. I visited a mix of plantations, prisons, cemeteries, museums, memorials, houses, historical landmarks, and cities. And I began this process by looking first in the place where I was born and raised.
In my home state of Louisiana, plantations, with a few exceptions, are part of the landscape not as sites of reckoning, but as spaces of celebration, ahistoricism, or both. When I was in elementary school in New Orleans in the mid-1990s, my class took a field trip to one of the plantations in southern Louisiana, though I’m unable to remember which one. I can recall the amorphous shadow of the event but cannot hold it in my hands. What I did remember of the trip, though, was that my mother joined as a chaperone. So, after having recently visited a few plantations on my own, I decided to ask my mother what she remembered of our shared field trip, to see if her memory might help put some of the scattered pieces of my own together.
My mother’s face is baptized in brown freckles. Her eyes often tell the story before her mouth does, as she is animated by deep passion on a range of topics. What you should know about my mother is that she gives the people she loves everything that she has, and she never stops moving. So, when we spoke about the trip, I followed her around the kitchen while she cooked: onions being chopped, water being boiled, sausages being sliced. I asked her questions while she instructed me to slide some chopped celery into a pot, mince the garlic into smaller pieces, or change the temperature of the heat on the stove.
She told me that she remembered the tour of the plantation was “clearly from a white perspective” as she put rice into the nearby pot. “And we spent a lot of time on the elegance of the house and the grounds…but there wasn't a lot of talk about enslaved people.”
She told me how they showed us the slave quarters, but beyond that, enslaved people were barely mentioned. “There was no talk of ‘this is who did the work,’ and ‘this is how people were treated; this is how they were separated from their families.’ It was just sort of like, ‘these are where the workers live.’” As she spoke, small fragments began coming back to me.
During the trip, my mother said she challenged the guide’s framing of the tour — why they talked about the slave cabins as if they were some sort of cottage for extended family and why enslaved people were not more central to what was being discussed about the property. “I wanted to be there to guard against — maybe not guard against but to be privy to — the conversation as it was presented to my child and to these other children and to the community of children. And yet, I didn't act on it in a way [I’m proud of],” she said, crossing the kitchen with a bell pepper in tow. “Again, I still was of that mindset of not making people uncomfortable, and I was clearly making the tour guide uncomfortable by throwing her off her game. So, it was some mixture of not wanting to be disruptive to the school field trip and not wanting the lady, the nice lady, to be uncomfortable. And so I just let it go, but it was definitely on my mind.”
It was a big point of regret for my mother, that she wished she had pushed the conversation further even if it had risked an awkward exchange.
In Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites, historian Julia Rose wrote of how in 1999, around the time when my mother and I would have gone on this field trip, she had asked the director of the Magnolia Mound Plantation in Baton Rouge for information about the enslaved community who once lived and worked there. The director responded, “There isn’t any.”