Ruminations

The Modern Plantation Economy

Slavery is not a part of the Nottoway narrative. This grand plantation palace, built 150 years ago with the money earned from cotton and sugar crops harvested by black "property," continues to prosper today by denying the harsh realities of the slaves who lived and died here. The overjoyed white brides and grooms who frequent this destination wedding site do not pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to feel guilty. They pay for gentility, for glory, for the comforts of their all-white guest list. 

Most of the homes on the historic River Road, which runs between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, have white-washed their "histories," artfully made the sad, bad slavery stories disappear. Oak Alley, a few miles upriver, has rebuilt its decrepit slave quarters and turned them into a kitsch saloon. It also offers comfortable bed and breakfast accommodations, and could certainly be persuaded to stage your wedding, though it is not as luxurious as Nottoway. 

Laura's House, a Creole plantation on the same stretch of fertile land along the Mississippi River, has made a name for itself by actually offering visitors information about the slave experience. But even this tour, which my family partook in, is not perfectly transparent.

Each of these plantations, despite their differences, are engaging in what is known as "darkness tourism." Darkness tourism is any kind of tourist activity that prominently features horror or atrocity, whether it is natural or manmade. The killing fields of the Khmer Rouge and the museum commemorating the atomic bomb at Hiroshima are both examples of darkness tourism. In Louisiana, darkness tourism sometimes seems to be the only tourism, what with its sinister and stunning plantations, and the "Katrina Tours" that take visitors into the most decrepit wards, still in ruins almost a decade after the Hurricane. 

Nottoway chooses to pretend it is not darkness tourism at all, but rather an education in architecture, landscape design, and the lives of the once-mighty family that built it. Laura's House, meanwhile, addresses slavery but in a way that is manageable for even the most sensitive visitor. This tour, in the words of tourism scholar E. Arnold Modlin, Jr., acknowledges slavery but perpetuates "meta-myths" and "production myths" about the past. 

These myths include the statements that slavery "was different here," or that slaves at this particular site were "happy," "educated," and even "part of the family." One of the most popular of these myths is the oft-repeated refrain that free black men, sometimes former slaves, owned black slaves themselves. This statement is so deeply ingrained in our understanding of slave history that it is hard to even recognize as myth, for though it is technically true, it is a way of subtly justifying the actions of whites of that era, suggesting it was "the way things were," as opposed to actions deliberately undertaken. 

Modlin also writes about the ways museum docents, for these plantations are privately-owned museums, create empathy for the white members of these historic households by telling the stories of their private lives. The lives of slaves on the plantation, by contrast, are told in the abstract, without personal details or profiles of exceptional individuals. The decision to tell these one-sided stories is supported by another common myth: that there just isn't enough information about the blacks who lived here. This flies in the face of many determined archaeologists and historians who have successfully recovered numerous artifacts and stories about the lives of slaves. 

Walking through these quarters, breathing in the sweet dust of history, listening to the tour guide discuss the spirits that haunt these halls, I can't help but think of a play I saw last summer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Two Trains Running, written by August Wilson, was so boring and so long (3+ hours), I walked out, but not before I heard the famous speech about "stacking niggers."

A black man in the play explains that the white man built the United States off the free forced labor of black slaves. "White folks got to stacking... Stacked up close to 50 million n-----s." The monologue continues, with the character in question almost bemoaning the end of the white man's stacking, which he believes is the reason he is unemployed. 

But on today's plantations, it is clear that whites are still "stacking n-----s." These privately-owned tourist destinations make at least 20 dollars off each visitor (the cost of a one-hour tour), who have come to see the pulchritudinous plantations black slaves built, while simultaneously denying the existence of black slaves altogether. 

Many scholars, including Modlin, have argued for a more responsible scholarship at plantation homes that are open to the public, arguing that these institutions, though privately-held, are responsible to their visitors to present a fair and reasonably broad understanding of Southern antebellum life, slave and all. My experiences on River Road, however, suggest that this honesty, this unflinching presentation of the facts, will never be achieved as long as these homes are owned by individuals with dollar signs in their eyes and white-washed weddings on their front porches. 

While I do not wish to discourage the visitation of these homes, rich with beauty and sordid history, it is important that each of us engages in tourism responsibly. Until these homes are owned by the state, with proceeds going to maintenance and scholarship funds for African Americans and not plumping private pockets, we must spend wisely. 

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