Saturday, 26 October 2013

Deep South Pt 7: The Ghosts of the Past, or the Legacy of Slavery

[I spent the last three days of my tour visiting plantations, where I learned a great deal about how historic sites interpret slavery. On my last day, there was a ‘showdown’ between Evergreen Plantation and Houmas House, the former of which explained slavery in more detail than I had ever heard before on a historic site, while the latter presented such ignorance I was insulted. The legacy of slavery is a fractured one.]

“Thursday 29th August – For three nights, my parents and I stayed in a small cottage at Oak Alley (left), perhaps the most famous plantation in the South. Type in ‘plantation’ into Google and this is the main one that appears. It was beautiful, with a long alley of oak trees leading to the ‘big house’, and it was worth rising early to see the morning light hit the trees. This morning we had a tour by a lady (dressed as a Southern belle of course) who told us some stories of the family who lived there. It was a very ‘polished’ tour and yet again her remarks about slavery were few and confined to the end of the tour. “We recognise that without the sacrifice of the slaves this wealth would have never have been possible. Please visit the reconstructed slave cabins behind the house.” The way she said this was as though their ‘sacrifice’ was heroic, as though it was worth it? And why does the history of slavery need to be separated from the house? People should learn about slavery in the house because enslaved Africans were an integral part of its history. Simply, the house was run by slaves and it would have collapsed without them. This history should not and cannot be separated. All this requires us to do is think about slavery for a minute or two, then move on. Recognizing their sacrifice is an empty turn of phrase to get out of telling the whole story." 

“Friday 30th August – After an early start we arrived at Evergreen Plantation (right), where most of Django Unchained was filmed. (The ‘big house’ served as Big Daddy’s home where the Brittle brothers worked). I was a little hesitant about going to this one at first but luckily my Dad made an executive decision and it turned out to be one of the best places to visit. In Charleston, the slave cabins at Boone Hall survived mainly because they were made out of brick, but at Evergreen the slave cabins are wooden and still survive today. The ‘big house’ was beautiful and quite small, since the front of the house is quite deceiving. The tour was an hour and a half long, and we spent about half that time exploring the 22 ORIGINAL slave cabins. Because of the Louisiana heat, the slaves at Evergreen worked from sunrise to 10.30am, then 4.30pm to dusk. During the hottest part of the day, they could hunt or tend to their own gardens. Each cabin housed 2 or 3 families, which is actually quite a small number compared to many other plantations. Large bells adorned the property to summon the field slaves at any time.

In the afternoon, we drove to Houmas House Plantation (below), a completely different experience altogether. While Evergreen had been respectful and balanced about the experiences of the enslaved population, Houmas House ignored them entirely. I had expected this, as the leaflet advertising the house did not mention slavery at all. The largest plantation house in Louisiana, it was known as the “sugar palace” in the nineteenth century. It is difficult to grasp how much wealth it acquired, but this should help somewhat: in 1811, the house was sold for $300,000, and in the late 1840s it was sold again for $1 million. I can’t even comprehend that amount of money. We had a tour of the house by again, a woman dressed as a Southern Belle; I have never paid so much attention to the language she used to describe things. She would lead us into the bedroom and say “this is an c18th mahogany bed, and whoever made it in the morning would have a real hard job because it was so high.” Similarly, she would say “this is the dining room. Someone would have set the table and prepare the numerous courses before the family were called.” The word slave, or even servant was not mentioned once. This is frankly, astounding and quite an achievement. I know it can depend on the tour guide, but you can get a certain feel to a place where you know nostalgia for the antebellum period is more important than historical fact. At the end of the tour, I asked her about slavery. The guide looked at me carefully before answering, and said “maybe around 1000.” When I pressed her further about it, she replied there wasn’t much information that had survived about slavery, but she clearly did not know much about it and did not want to know. To make matters worse, she then had the audacity to say that “slaves were better off than Northern factory workers” because they were fed, clothed and provided with medical care. Now, I'm just starting out as a historian of slavery, I don’t know everything and I don’t pretend to. But this was just plain wrong. I tried to speak to her with an open mind, but I couldn’t help remembering the museum director in Natchez who told me quite clearly of the nostalgic attitude he knew I would find here. Unfortunately, he was proved right. In the nineteenth century, slaves were meant to be seen and not heard. Today, we cannot let them fade into the background, we have to hear their stories regardless of whether a plantation has the ruins of slave quarters or not. The House did not even recognise the fact that slaves lived, worked and died there: recognizing something is the first step, but even then recognition is the not the same as acknowledgement, respect, or understanding why or what happened. The legacy of slavery is divisive, proving that the racial and social cracks after the Civil War have not healed. I present no solution, only to offer the idea that we have to talk through our difficult periods of history in order to seal those cracks. A fractured society does not present much hope.

[When I returned home, I posted a review on TripAdvisor about the House. I created an account mainly because I wanted to write about the amazing museums I went to, but I thought I would write something about this particular plantation. I mentioned my disappointment at the lack of information about slavery, and less than 12 hours later I received a private reply. “Did the house advertise it was a place to learn about slavery or did you assume you would learn about it because you were in the South?” This reply, more than anything, proves how some people are so touchy and defensive about this issue. How unwilling they are to accept the truth. I replied calmly that I had kept an open mind about all the places I visited – I travelled to sites where African Americans held slaves, where white people were held as indentured servants in similar conditions to slavery, places where black slaves were treated remarkably fairly for the time, etc. I expected to learn about slavery at Houmas because slavery existed there. I have received no reply since.] 

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