In The Half Has Never Been Told, Ed Baptist calls plantations slave labor camps. The first two words hardly require explanation, but the third might. Given slaves often moved from plantation to plantation and owner to owner, the impermanence implied in calling the place a camp makes perfect sense to me. Furthermore, most slaves did not live in those beautiful houses but rather in shacks and cabins somewhere conveniently out of sight and easy to forget. We wrote the dictionary to hide the facts from ourselves. If we think of a gulag or a concentration camp on reading the phrase, we ought to. I usually open jeremiads about white Americans’ unwillingness to face up to their history and its continuances and echoes in the present with lines like this. I probably write too many of them; the world keeps on giving me cause for more. Today I have something different to write about. Via the New York Times Magazine, I learn of a plantation in Louisiana transformed into a museum.
I’ve gone to such a place twice, both in Virginia. Neither Monticello nor Mount Vernon told me much about the slaves who built them. In this I understand that I had the typical experience, at least as of a decade or so back. A mostly white crowd goes and sees the house and grounds. We marvel at the luxury. Docents tell us about the paint on the walls. They point out where Jefferson knocked a hole in the floor of his foyer so the weights for his clock could go down as far as they needed to. You spend a few dollars to get in and a few more at the gift shop, making your offering at the patriotic shrine. I confess that I don’t find either visit that memorable, save that Monticello still had a few panes of nineteenth century glass that explained to me why in old books people always open the window to get a look at something outside. I think that the slaves came up in passing at Monticello, with the docent waving off vaguely toward their quarters, but one goes to such a place to learn about the white dead president rather than the black dead slaves that gave them the wealth to fund their careers. Less famous plantations run to much the same experience. You can rent them out for weddings or parties.
This plantation has been preserved differently. You can tell just from looking at who came to the December 7 opening:
Roughly half of the visitors were black, for starters, an anomaly on plantation tours in the Deep South. And while there were plenty of genteel New Orleanians eager for a peek at the antiques inside the property’s Creole mansion, they were outnumbered by professors, historians, preservationists, artists, graduate students, gospel singers and men and women from Senegal dressed in traditional West African garb: flowing boubous of intricate embroidery and bright, saturated colors. If opinions on the restoration varied, visitors were in agreement that they had never seen anything quite like it. Built largely in secret and under decidedly unorthodox circumstances, the Whitney had been turned into a museum dedicated to telling the story of slavery — the first of its kind in the United States.
An exhibit on the North American slave trade inside the visitors’ center, for instance, is lent particular resonance by its proximity, just a few steps away outside its door, to seven cabins that once housed slaves. From their weathered cypress frames, a dusty path, lined with hulking iron kettles that were used by slaves to boil sugar cane, leads to a grassy clearing dominated by a slave jail — an approach designed so that a visitor’s most memorable glimpse of the white shutters and stately columns of the property’s 220-year-old “Big House” will come through the rusted bars of the squat, rectangular cell. A number of memorials also dot the grounds, including a series of angled granite walls engraved with the names of the 107,000 slaves who spent their lives in Louisiana before 1820.
If we built a museum to another country’s sins, as we have done, this would all go without saying. We take it for granted that the Holocaust Museum in Washington looks like a murder factory on the inside. We do just the opposite for plantations. The owner and historian kept their attention on the big picture. The museum has a statue of
a black angel embracing a dead infant, the centerpiece of a memorial honoring the 2,200 enslaved children who died in the parish in the 40 years leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863
We don’t demand subtlety of the Holocaust Museum, which gives you a passport with the name of a victim when you walk in and invites you to look up his or her fate when you finish the tour. I regret that I didn’t open mine until out of the building and so didn’t know what I had in my hands.
While the exhibits naturally focus on the labors and victimization of slaves, the museum also proposes to grasp firmly the third rail of slavery in historical memory: slave resistance. To commemorate the largest slave revolt in American history, which claimed two white lives and for which white Americans claimed ninety-five black lives in turn, they have a memorial planned. The whites who put down the uprising also put the heads of slaves on spikes down the road as a lesson to others. The museum will offer a chance to take a different lesson from the same example:
“It’ll be optional, O.K.? Not for the kids,” said Cummings, who commissioned Woodrow Nash, an African-American sculptor he met at Jazz Fest, to make 60 heads out of ceramic, which will be set atop stainless-steel rods on the lagoon’s small island. “But just in case you’re worried about people getting distracted by the pretty house over there, the last thing you’ll see before leaving here will be 60 beheaded slaves.”
The memorial had lately become a source of controversy among locals, who were concerned that it would be too disturbing.
“It is disturbing,” Cummings said as he pulled out past Whitney’s gate. “But you know what else? It happened. It happened right here on this road.”
This is doing it right. I wish more of us did.
Addendum: Something I should make clearer. I can’t speak just how well Monticello and Mount Vernon do at presenting slavery currently. I was to each place only once, and both some years ago. I visited Monticello in 1998 or 1999, so a bit longer ago than I recalled before doing the math. Sorry. Mount Vernon came a few years before that. I’ve learned that Monticello does better now.