This past year I had the pleasure of traveling through the rolling and verdant hills of Tennessee; and while I was there I visited one of the many plantations that dot the American South. Noble magnolia trees encapsulated the grand brick and white columned building. Statues and fountains festooned its grounds. It was a vision of pastoral beauty and deep traditions.
In touring the inside of the main house our guide regaled us with stories of the old south and of its enduring legacy. Period furniture laced the halls and reception rooms of the main floor and portrait paintings of the white family who originally owned and ran this plantation were carefully hung above each of the many fireplaces.
Then our guide, a polite white woman with a genteel, southern accent, took us to the back of the house. There, in a small room off the kitchen, were black and white photographs of the family and their slaves. In a fashion typical of the time, there was the mistress of the house sitting piously and upright, with hands folded neatly on her lap. Beside her stood her husband, handsome, stoic and dressed in Confederate finery. In the foreground sat two white children, and in the back, an old, black lady in a sullen grey and white dress stood holding a white infant, presumably the child of the master and mistress of the plantation. It was her face I will never forget.
She stood there with a face that was carved from sorrow and hopeless resignation. I could not help but wonder if she herself was forced to give up her own children. In her eyes all of the horrors of the African slave trade were revealed. The beatings, the rapes, the dehumanization, the murders and the abject violence visited upon millions of people, within an economic system of unprecedented exploitation spanning 400 years, stared out at me from that portrait of a land owning, respected southern family.
But our guide did not seem interested in this part of the story. She gave some begrudging attention to my questions about this woman and the other slaves who lived out their lives being treated as property and livestock. At one point, perhaps as a nod to my inquiries, she told of us of a letter the master sent to his wife when he was off fighting in the war. I sat there and listened to her incredulously as she said that he had asked his wife to “remember me to the negroes.” She explained, with pride, that this demonstrated that he cared about their slaves, implying they had a good life there in bondage and forced servitude. I thought, could someone in this day and age seriously have such an utterly sanitized and romanticized vision of this horrific past?
She went on to tell us of how the plantation is currently rented out for weddings and other elegant affairs, presumably without the benefit of forced labor. I was reminded of other halls of cruelty, exploitation and murder, of the concentration camps in Germany or the internment camps created for Japanese citizens during the second World War. Would these places be suitable for well heeled events too?
Surrounded by the opulence of European art and architecture, under the shade of giant magnolia trees, I left there feeling bereft of my humanity.
To be fair, not all plantations in the south paint such rosy and romanticized pictures of slavery. In Florida, I visited just such a plantation. There among the ubiquitous Spanish moss laden trees, far from the main house, stood rows of slave quarters. They had not been restored, but this was for a reason. This plantation did not wish to portray slavery from the glossy and overtly racist Margaret Mitchell point of view. Here the slave quarters stood starkly as sentries, guarding the sacred history of the voiceless slave. The main house was empty of furniture. This was appropriate. No glory or opulence could shield its dark history of pain. The gift store, unlike the one in the Tennessee plantation which was filled with local jams and jellies, was filled with books about slavery, many written by former slaves.
This is the history that needs to be told. It is a history that demands that these plantations be treated as they should, as vestiges to horror and shame. Without emphasis on this hideous brutality the south, and the rest of the nation for that matter, will continue to churn out a persistent racism of the Paula Deen variety. A racism that underpins institutional persecution and justifies the ongoing state violence being perpetrated on black and brown bodies. A racism lost in the fantasy of the happy slave and the honorable slave owner. None such kind ever truly existed except in the minds of the powerful. These plantations should be reviled for the atrocities they housed, not revered in a romanticized mythology. They should be visited with sorrow and solemn remembrance, not with novel, fleeting interest. The ugly and persistent maw of racism deserves this kind of attention and justice.
And the haunting eyes of that nameless slave in a portrait in a plantation in Tennessee should see nothing less.
Kenn Orphan 2013