Thursday, August 5, 2010

My latest post on

Southern plantations weren't so "romantic" for blacks

As you drive down I-75 in Georgia, bold billboards advertising "Plantation House" periodically pepper the landscape. Perched just off certain exit ramps are the plantation houses themselves: wide, white and fronted by columns. They're like a dream — aren't they?

Across the antebellum South, such plantation homes are the site of much tourist romanticization. The stately mansions conjure up the idea of lost causes, genteel living, dashing men with accents that flow like honey and alabaster-skinned women in ornate dresses.

But this vision of history is too easily divorced from the lives of the enslaved black people who made it possible.

Over the years, at least two white women have gushed to me: "I would just love to go back to that time!" Presumably, these women did not consider that for them to be "Scarlett" of Gone With the Wind, I would have to be a darkie working in the fields. My family would have to live in bondage as chattel — our very lives dependent on the whims of our masters. Life in the antebellum period wasn't simply colorful and romantic, it was dependent on free labor and the dehumanization of people of color.

As an African-American descendant of slaves, when I read Gone With the Wind, I didn't think about how grand it would be to be Scarlett O'Hara — I wondered how awful it must have been to be Mammy. As an amateur genealogist, I have seen my ancestors listed in documents as property, just like the fine china and horses on the Southern farms where they lived. Once you've seen that, it's hard to perceive the way the South still venerates its old culture as somehow benign.

Far too few plantation home tours for tourists even mention the lives of enslaved black people at all. Guides cloak history by using euphemisms like "servants," or by focusing on architecture and interesting tidbits about the lives of the plantations' white owners. A 2009 study of 20 North Carolina plantation homes by East Carolina University, for example, found that seven didn't mention slavery at all and only three made efforts to reflect the experiences of black people who lived and worked on the land. Read more...


Kit Whitfield said...

Hello! Usually a lurker, but a big admirer of your blog...

As a white non-American, the analogy that always occurs to me is Nazi Germany. I mean, the antebellum South might have had pretty outfits and all, but the Nazis were snappy dressers too, and nobody thinks they were romantic. Or at least, it's not considered anything like as socially acceptable; I fear there may be some scumbags kicking around who do buy into the myth, but they don't seem as numerous and people aren't expected to indulge them as innocent fantasists. It's generally accepted that Nazi sympathisers are endorsing a regime founded upon evil - and that pointing this out is not an insult to modern Germany, but simply a necessary recognition of truth that's essential to the moral foundation of modern Germany.

But both were states equally founded on the romanticisation of one's own culture and the vicious suppression of another people or peoples. I see very little moral difference between the two - but how much difference in how they're remembered!

Is it inappropriate to say I'm sorry for what your ancestors went through? It must be very painful to see them listed as possessions like that...

Julia said...

It's interesting you say that because I've been thinking back to my high school history classes lately, and the contrast between how the Holocaust was taught (viewing gruesome footage of camps, solemn "we must know history not to repeat it" speeches from teachers, emphasis on the horror and shame of it all) and how the fact of slavery was taught (reason for civil war, yay for the North being such liberal freedom-for-all types, no discussion at all of human cost and legacy of impacts or "never again" speeches). The disconnect is extraordinary.

Oh, yes, the "good" slave owners, what benevolent beings they were. Amazing how white people want to believe it's possible to be good while also doing atrocious things.

DaisyDeadhead said...

That is some thread over there.

I was *disinvited* to the local Southern Homes Tour for always asking who BUILT the houses, since the owners/proprietors would say "the family built the house in 1794" or whatever... and I would get this image of, well, you know, Big Daddy or somebody like that, on top of the house, hammering nails... (insert Dennis Hopper voice:) WRONG!!!! I hardly think so!

I'd say, "but the slaves physically built it, right?" and correct them. It pissed everybody off. (They want to believe Big Daddy was up there on the roof!)

Some time ago, I took a tour in Charleston, SC, which was really exemplary, even named the slaves (usually they only had a first name) who had designed many of the oldest, beautiful historic homes. But that is the only place I ever heard anyone admit WHO had actually DESIGNED THEM TOO.

We can't mention this enough... as the thread comments also make clear. Thanks for writing this.

B said...

You do a great job of bringing your point into concise relief.

I was one of those jackasses once, sighing into my copy of GWTW and cursing my bad luck for being born far too late to partake in all the flouncy fun of the antebellum period. I loved Scarlett's headstrong attitude, but I also loved Mammy's capable ways and no-bullshit personality. I found the scene where she calls a group of freedmen in Atlanta "trash" to be hard to accept, and so my affection for the story and the time began to fall away. To me, it's hard to romanticise such a complex period of unspeakable brutality contrasted with...what even was it? How cool it was to be rich and white? Scarlett = 19th century Paris Hilton. I don't have a very cohesive response but wanted to share my own experience with the romance-novel South. Oh, and: the fantasy fell apart for me in my early teens, when social responsibility began to rank higher than summertime daydreams. What's the excuse of those fools running the plantations today for keeping the farce alive?


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