In the June 2020 issue of Vanity Fair, the profile of Janelle Monáe was intensely inspiring. Included was this halting passage about Southern plantations: Girard Bush, who cowrote and directed the movie Antebellum with Christopher Renz, in which Monáe stars, says,
“It was an incredibly difficult experience for her. These plantations — where people are getting married — these are places that should be considered hallowed ground. It should be Auschwitz. You should walk this ground with that kind of respect for the suffering that took place on that land. She was committed to honoring the ancestors.”
Soon after I read that passage, the Whitney Plantation Facebook page posted this June 24, 2020 statement, “Over 350 people were enslaved at Whitney plantation throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Our tour has always focused on the brutal labor and stolen freedom of those that created vast economic wealth for the enslaving families. We do not glamorize the Big House or the grounds. In addition to our mission to educate visitors in a larger community about slavery and its legacies, our site is a place of memory and reverence. Our on-site memorials list of the names of individuals who were enslaved at Whitney, individuals who were enslaved throughout Louisiana, children who died during enslavement, and a memorial for the revolutionaries of the largest US slave revolt. For these reasons, the Big House has never been nor ever will be a wedding venue. Plantations are sites of immense cruelty and violence. We do not allow any event that would overshadow this reality and disrespect the memory of all those who suffered, labored, and died here.” (Click here to donate to Whitney Plantation.)
Having visited concentration camps in Europe and having a family from South Louisiana, this stark revelation that plantation homes should be treated with the same educational horror of the concentration camps resonated intensely with me. I’m 42 years old, still learning. Still so much to fucking unlearn.
Harrowing plantation history in the U.S. is still being uncovered by archeologists as we speak, even here in Texas. In this piece for the Houston Chronicle, “Hidden in Fort Bend’s upscale Sienna: A rare plantation building where slaves made sugar,” Lisa Gray describes attempts by archeologists, including Joanne Ryan, to preserve “a remnant of slavery’s most brutal crop” — sugar.
“Historian Michael Tadman has shown that slaves on sugar plantations had a lower life expectancy than slaves on other kinds of plantations. Heavy work and inadequate food meant that sugar-plantations slaves were, ‘compared with other working-age slaves in the United States, far less able to resist the common and life-threatening diseases of dirt and poverty,’ he wrote.”
Fuck. Learn the fucking history.
My older, Southern family grapples with the revelations and eradications of a history rewritten so effectively by the Daughters of the Confederacy. The anger and indignation that people I love feel for the sundering of images of false gods and insidious fairy tales that stole the soul and lifeblood of a people and a country.
My grandfather used to make jewelry as a hobby. When I was barely a teenager, he made me a ring with a flat-face on it and I asked him to forge a mini-penny for me to attach to it. “You want Lincoln on your finger?!!” he demanded.
So much to unlearn.
I have stood in the courtroom where they held the Nuremburg trials in the aftermath World War II. I have been to the site where Hitler held his Nuremburg Rally. There, now a museum displays nauseating, anti-semitic propaganda from the era (at least, when I was there 20 years ago). An attempt to preserve a vile history and prevent its repetition. Learn the history.
We have never had a reckoning for the hundreds of years of slavery in the U.S. For the stolen wealth. For the stolen lives. For the torture and the murder and the brutality. For the babies. For their babies. For the lies.
For the subsequent methods through which white America kept and keeps black America enslaved and suppressed and profits from it. To this fucking day.
White America has always glanced over at the Nazis with a fraudulent air of moral superiority.
White America is now choking, gagging on the bullshit. On that bullshit. We were told. We were sold. The bullshit that we bought. Nothing like that could happen here?? Look the fuck around.
We are no different than the Nazis. We are no better. There is no space between the breath they took and the breath we take.
So much to unlearn.
Tear the fucking false gods down. Burn the bullshit to the ground. Preserve the lies and propaganda in a place of telling and learning.
The plantations are hallowed. They are Auschwitz.
Unlearn the lies.
Make it right.
Bring the reckoning.