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...