Content warning: description of life under enslavement
In February, my partner and I took our first-ever trip to New Orleans, Louisiana during the city’s festive Mardi Gras season. It was an incredible experience, but the most impactful part of our visit by far was our day trip to the Whitney Plantation. Located about an hour’s drive outside New Orleans in the heart of Louisiana’s “Plantation Country,” the Whitney Plantation opened in 2014 as the only plantation in the state to center the experiences of the Black people enslaved there.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, all plantations should be memorial sites honoring the victims and survivors of slavery. Yet the vast majority continue to be operated as a fun and glamorous excursion to see Spanish moss while drinking mint juleps and drooling over the stately verandas. At such plantations, the reality of slavery is depicted at best as an unfortunate footnote.
As a white person growing up in the Western U.S., I had a somewhat perfunctory education on slavery in my K-12 schooling, but I had certainly never set foot on an actual plantation. Doing so, in particular at the Whitney, was a profoundly sobering, haunting experience of being on hallowed ground, the aching trauma still thick in the air as evidenced by the surviving artifacts, from the austere wooden slave cabins to the heavy, basin-like sugar kettles to the rusting shackles and chains on display in the adjoining museum.
During my plantation tour, I learned some crucial lessons that I humbly submit, especially for the education of non-Black people, in remembrance of those enslaved. It is only by excavating these truths that American society can begin a truth and reconciliation process toward the ultimate dismantling of white supremacy.
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Learning about the realities of slavery remains an optional experience in America.
My partner and I booked a tour bus company to take us from the French Quarter, where we were staying, to the Whitney Plantation. We realized when we boarded the bus that the left-hand side of the seats were reserved for Whitney visitors, while the right-hand seats were for those going to Oak Alley Plantation. The owners of Oak Alley, as one of the most famous plantations in the South and the backdrop to several films, describe it in terms starkly different from the Whitney: “[a] tranquil retreat in the heart of Plantation Country,” its website gushes. It even has lodging and a restaurant.
As our bus tour guide tried to engage us by telling jokes and providing facts about the local flora and fauna, I meditated on how the two sides of the bus had purchased very different experiences. Those of us going to the Whitney seemed to be more quiet and reflective, preparing for a pilgrimage to commemorate hundreds of years of trauma and terror. Meanwhile, some French tourists near us were talking and laughing loudly; predictably, they got off the bus at Oak Alley.
The bus was an apt metaphor for learning about slavery in America: if you don’t want to, especially as a non-Black person, you’re not forced to confront it.
It is crucial to center the narratives of those who were enslaved.
As our bus entered the grounds, I felt an immediate sense of looming, sinister claustrophobia as I thought about how I would be leaving again in a few short hours—a luxury that those enslaved here never had.
While our group awaited the beginning of our tour, an employee handed out lanyards to everyone, each one representing a person who had been enslaved as a child and/or teenager, with the person’s name and quotes about their life in their own words. These quotes were extracted from longer narratives that had been collected from formerly enslaved people during the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) from 1936-1940. It didn’t escape me that the person I was given, Carlyle Stewart, bore the same last name as my maternal grandmother.
More of these quotes surrounded on us on thick memorial walls as we read off the names and recollections of people describing what their lives had been like under slavery. There were also statues of enslaved children around the plantation, some sitting on the front porches of the slave cabins, as another powerful reminder of the people who were forced to live, toil, and die on the grounds. I was grateful for this method of education, which let our group draw wisdom from the perspectives of those who were subjected to enslavement rather than from a detached or apologist white perspective.
Taken together, these representations highlight the voices of those brutalized by enslavement in a way that distills the sharp and chilling reality of slavery unlike anything I’ve ever encountered. After this, imagining my bus mates enjoying their day sipping mint juleps at Oak Alley made me even sicker and more outraged.
Slavery in the Deep South was a death sentence.
The Whitney taught me that “being sold downriver” to the Deep South was particularly terrifying because the average life expectancy of an enslaved person there was only about ten years. This is due to the fact that harvesting Louisiana sugarcane was even more physically debilitating than the cotton grown in states like Virginia. Our tour guide explained to us that it was in the enslavers’ financial interest to take out insurance policies on the people they enslaved and collect on the insurance after they worked a person to death, which would enable the enslaver to enslave someone new and still save money. Those worked to death would often be thrown into a ditch to the side of the crops as everyone else was forced to continue working. This fact struck my partner particularly hard as a Jewish person ever mindful of the lessons from the Holocaust.
Gaining these details as part of our education on slavery, while standing on the very soil where it happened, further reaffirmed my belief that all plantations should be memorials to mass murder, rape, and torture, and the fact that they aren’t is part of the proof of how much work white people have ahead of us in working to eradicate white supremacy.
There is a deep history of African resistance and Southern Black resilience.
My visit to the museum on the Whitney grounds enriched my knowledge about the ways that Black people have always fought back against white terrorism and done all they could to maintain their dignity, whether it was rising up in revolt on an estimated 10% of slave ship voyages during the Middle Passage, escaping from plantations and forming communities with nearby Native American tribes who lived in the swamps and bayous of Louisiana, or gathering to sell goods on “free days” and practicing their ancestral religious practices in Congo Square in New Orleans.
I learned that white Christian enslavers routinely justified enslavement to the people they held captive through, in part, distorting Christianity. Enslavers would maintain that it was acceptable for them to deny Black people the opportunity to learn how to read or write because the Bible said reading and writing was only for white people. Because those they enslaved would typically not be able to read it for themselves to counter the lies, there was little to no accountability.
Upon emancipation, when Black literacy rates began to climb, many Black families rejected the French Catholicism that had been used to justify their torture in Louisiana. In the process, Black Southern churches were born. Others continued to practice Vodoun or Santería, resulting in rich Black spiritual traditions that continue to anchor New Orleans today.
White America continues to honor enslavers with monuments while keeping hidden the history of enslaved people’s lives.
Anyone who lives in the U.S. or who has ever read a newspaper article about the ongoing efforts to take down Confederate monuments should be well-aware that white America continues to endorse and celebrate white supremacy. This is true whether it’s Andrew Jackson Square in New Orleans, Christopher Columbus Park where I live in Boston, or the Jefferson Memorial in D.C.
The Whitney Plantation is such a jarring contrast from “business as usual” because it refuses to forget Black Americans’ ancestors. It doesn’t whitewash or downplay or romanticize or suggest that maybe Sally Hemings was okay with being Thomas Jefferson’s “mistress,” as if someone enslaved could be considered to have the agency to consent to a sexual relationship with the wealthy and powerful man who enslaved her. Instead it treats the lives of Black Americans as worthy of their own monument, a monument recognizing slavery for the crime against humanity that it was, while explicitly making connections between that historical context and the oppression it paved the way for, from Jim Crow to our current age of mass incarceration.
As a white person taking all of this in within the larger context of being on vacation in New Orleans, the insights I gained at the Whitney were fresh on my mind as I compared the surviving artifacts, museum displays, and my tour guide’s expert narration with the “education” on slavery I received in the French Quarter. I learned at the Whitney that there were more than 50 slave markets in the French Quarter, as New Orleans was the epicenter of the U.S. slave trade. Yet I was able to walk all over the French Quarter’s streets and hardly see any memorials to this history whatsoever. Exchange Alley, a street referencing all the human beings sold there, still bears this name in 2018, with no plaque or memorial—just hipster cafes and fairy lights.
“Imagine a plaque outside The Omni Hotel, acknowledging the history of slave auctions on site, and whether locals would still sneak in to take a dip,” writes New Orleans podcaster producer Laine Kaplan-Levenson. “If there were 50 other plaques downtown to mark these places of the slave trade, imagine what else we might think about.”
As someone who used to teach college classes on intersectional feminism and the writing of Black feminists, I thought I knew a fair amount before I traveled to the Whitney Plantation. But now I’ve listened at a deeper soul level, going beyond what could ever be learned in a book. Witnessing with all my senses and a broken-open heart. Let’s keep witnessing. Non-Black people, especially white people, let’s hold ourselves accountable. And then, let’s take actionable steps on behalf of racial justice.
[Featured Image: A close up photo of fingers holding a stalk of wheat. Source: pexels.com]