Using former slave plantations as wedding venues is a desecration of memory. So when the Whitney Plantation became the first US plantation museum dedicated to slavery, I knew I had to pay a visit.
By NOO SARO-WIWA
Picture the scene: Fort Sumter National Monument in Charleston, South Carolina, one of the most sacred memorials of the US civil war. I and 300 of my closest friends are knocking back Hennessy and dancing to Bruno Mars’s 24K Magic. I’m twirling around the flagpole of the Star-Spangled Banner while one of my friends straddles the old firing canon and giggles at the phallic visual metaphor. Others are spray painting the wall plaque so that ‘Fort Sumter’ now reads as Fort Sumthin’ Sumthin’, and as appalled onlookers clench their jaws, we yell to them, “It’s in the past. Move on!”
An overblown scenario? Yes. But it matches the distaste I feel whenever I hear about people holding weddings or picnics at former American slave plantations. These are places where some of the worst human rights abuses were committed – a Nazi holocaust to the power of ten. Treating such venues as a backdrop to the ‘best day of your life’ seems a bizarre desecration of the memory of the slaves who suffered there.
So I was pleased when The Whitney Plantation in Louisiana opened in 2014, the first ever American plantation museum dedicated to the memory of its slaves. Visitors don’t come here to take picnics, get hitched or pose joyfully next to the charming antebellum architecture. They come to remember the victims of one of the largest and sustained atrocities of the last 600 years. In a country that is determined to bury its slave history, the Whitney Museum is a long-overdue development.
A few months after this restored sugar plantation was opened to the public, I decided to pay a visit. My friend Chinelo and I drove to the town of Wallace, 35 miles west of New Orleans. Whitney’s features were retained as a memorial to the slaves who worked there in the 17th and 18th centuries. Visitors can view wooden cabin slave quarters and the slave jail, as well as the 220-year-old “Big House” with its stately columns and verandas. A few dozen outdoor walls are engraved with the names of the 107,000 slaves who lived in Louisiana prior to 1820, and their testimonies. The inscriptions do not make for easy reading. I found this one particularly chilling:
“Ma ma never worked in the fields. She had a baby every year. She had twins one time, so the old master taken care of her. She brought him more money having children than she could working in the field. None of us had the same father. They would pick out the biggest nigger and tell her they wanted a kid by him. She had to stay with him until she did get one.”
The inscriptions, despite being only a year old, were already fading in the heat and humidity, which burned down on me. Slaking rivulets of sweat off my forehead, I was dying to go back indoors. But I owed it to the memories of those slaves to read about their suffering — especially since many Americans would rather such memories evaporated in that sun forever.
The Whitney focuses on commemorating slave children in particular. It has combed through the records, found the name of every baby born on this plantation, and inscribed them on memory plaques. The plaques resemble military memorials, the kind that have always commemorated soldiers with respectful gravity. Except the children’s names on these Whitney plaques are incomplete. The lucky ones have two forenames (often French Creole) and an exact birthdate. Others have ‘mulatresse’ or ‘negro’ next to their name, but no record of when they entered this world. Then there are those with neither a name nor birthdate: blanks who died aged “around 18 months”. I look for a child who shares my birthday. His name is Patrice, born March 24 1846.
There is also a church, and scattered inside it are effigies of the black slave kids. Some are standing, others sitting cross-legged and unsmiling, as if waiting for death. Almost life size, their stillness is a pointed contrast to the enchanted fidgetiness one expects from children. Another effigy outside depicts a winged, female angel carrying a baby to heaven, delivering it from its hell on earth. Death as salvation.
Chinelo and I have just finished the guided tour, where our young African-American guide told us about life on the plantation. With matter-of-fact candour, she shows us the museum’s artefacts, such as the iron kettles used by slaves to boil sugar cane. She paints a mental picture of the boiling sugar as it bubbled and sputtering onto the slaves’ bare flesh. They did all this under the same sun that is now burning down on us. All we have to do is stand and listen. It’s the least we can do, but we’re on the verge of fainting.
Some of the local residents of Wallace town are descendants of the Haydel family, which once owned the Whitney Plantation. How have they reacted to the museum? Very few have visited, our guide tells me. Their disapproval is channelled, she says, through negative online comments.
The Whitney’s owner is John Cummings, an enigmatic, white, retired lawyer who poured $8 million of his own money into the project and hired Ibrahima Seck, a Senegalese historian, as research director. When asked about his motives for building the museum, Cummings never explicitly mentions the historical wrongs of slavery. Perhaps he knows better than to utter those trigger words. Defensiveness and wilful amnesia are the foundation of the American psyche.
That psyche is a complex one, so full of anger towards people who are ultimately victims. For one, I have never understood why slaves, despite their commercial value, were treated as expendable goods and sometimes tossed overboard alive during the Atlantic crossings. I made this point in my book, Looking For Transwonderland. After reading my work, the British historian AN Wilson sent me this email:
“… your bafflement about ill-treatment of slaves/surely the salesman would keep merchandise in good nick? Etc. V good point which has often baffled me. The Greeks and Anglo-Saxons who were happy with the idea of slavery did not maltreat their slaves. If you’d been taught maths by your teacher-slave, eaten nice meals cooked by your motherly slave, you’d cherish them. But with later eras, even before the abolitionists got going, Christians must have KNOWN it was wrong, and they half wanted the slaves to die just to be rid of them. I was horrified by reading accounts of [John] Hawkins’s first slave-transactions, buying or stealing slaves from Portuguese ships and dumping sick as well as dead in the sea – as if he wanted rid of the shaming purchase/theft…. Just a thought. The wasteful-of-resources as well as immoral treatment by the Nazis of their Slavic and Jewish slaves suggests a similar half-awareness that they were doing wrong.”
Which is why so many Americans want to forget. They’ve worked hard to turn their wilful amnesia into genuine amnesia. Slavery has lost its place in the equation. They perceive African-American social-ills as part of an inevitable continuum of failure that began in Africa itself. Chinelo and I, both of us Nigerian by birth, know this isn’t true. Those Louisiana slaves share our ancestors, and we see the collapse in their descendants’ social fabric, a fabric that’s so different from our side of the Atlantic. We see it in the McDonald’s on New Orleans’s main drag where the old, the infirm and the mentally unwell hobble around talking to themselves, and dull-eyed staff issue zombified customer-service hellos.
We also see the corporate greed that created these social-ills: on the morning we picked up our rental car in downtown New Orleans, a blonde, middle-aged lady manned the counter, answering a phone that rang so frequently she found little time to deal with our paperwork. She paused for a second and exhaled, blowing one of her curls out of her face as she glimpsed the lengthening line of customers. What I thought was a temporary flurry of activity turned out to be a standard work day for this lady. She was doing the job of three people, for the salary of one.
Even in the 21st century, the American wealth creation model was doing what it has always done: wringing productivity out of its workers to the point of exhaustion.