Living in the south allows us the opportunity to visit plantations where enslaved African-Americans once dwelled. The experience facilitates learning about the struggles of our ancestors, provides a glimpse into their daily lives, and allows us to reflect on the past, present, and future. As descendants, we can take a closer look at ourselves in the grand scheme of the African-American experience. While examining ourselves, we try to consider ways to further develop and contribute more to the African-American community as a whole. We can also explore how far we came, where we are currently, and how far we have to go in an attempt to acquire true spiritual, emotional, financial, and physical freedom.
We recently paid a visit to the San Francisco Plantation in Garyville, Louisiana. Once a sugar plantation, it was established in 1827 by a free man of color named Elisée Rillieux. After the plantation’s establishment, Rillieux sold the estate to Edmond Bozonier Marmillion and his partner Eugène Lartigue for $100,000. Over time, it has been sold several times, and ultimately purchased and restored in 1974 by the Marathon Oil Company.
My mother, our favorite breast cancer survivor, accompanied my daughter and me on this plantation visit as she usually does. We take pride in sharing the learning experience being that we represent three generations of our people. Our tour guide, whose name is omitted from this post, was an older Caucasian lady. She was dressed in a black Victorian-style dress representative of the antebellum period. Although she was very friendly and informative, my opinion is that she didn’t grasp the concept of what we were looking to gain from our plantation tour.
For example, the focus seemed to be on the history of the Big House and the plantation owners. The property has a small section dedicated to the enslaved people. Our tour guide was present during the tour of the Big House; however, she stated that the tour of the slave quarters was “self-guided” because she felt uncomfortable with seeing the “little negro” statues. She further explained that the figures did not have eyes, which was representative of them being considered property and the belief that since the enslaved were property, they lacked souls.
As our guide went on the talk about the slave quarters, my mother and I took note of some of the things that were mentioned regarding the statues. What made our tour guide so uneasy about the figures exactly, I wondered. Did she not realize that the entire plantation visit makes us as African-Americans uncomfortable for several reasons? The tour guide did apologize to me before her departure after recognizing that I was visibly disturbed by some things that she stated when discussing the enslaved. My mother, although not as visibly irritated, had also taken offense. I have chosen not to elaborate on the discussion that took place among us following the completion of the tour other than stating that the three of us (myself, my mother, and my daughter) were able to collectively explore our feelings regarding the experience and learn a great deal from it.
We were not allowed to take pictures of the elaborate interior of the Big House; however, we were allowed to take photos of the Big House’s exterior and the slave quarters.
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Thank you for sharing your pain. I am so sorry for your discomfort. Perhaps you taught the guide something that day that she didn’t know about herself. Perhaps you opened her eyes some even if she didn’t acknowledge it to you. I had an uncomfortable moment (as a white person) that helped open my eyes later on down the road. I pray by you three being present that your guide became more aware and will change as well.
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I know exactly the behavior you are describing here. A lot of people see plantation tours the same way they see “parade of homes” events, where the masses get to tour ritzy real estate and gawk at how cultural elites live. They aren’t there to consider the true cost of the “genteel” lifestyle they are surveying. And many of the guides aren’t either. They see plantations as a place of romance, and slavery as a footnote to consider only if you want a buzzkill. Plantations are basically Downton Abbey to them.
If you have not seen the PBS documentary-series The Abolitionists, you might appreciate their discussion of how Southerners built and perpetuated a mythology of plantation life by maintaining an information gap about the practice of slavery. In many ways, that same information gap persists now, even among people who consider themselves well-informed about period detail (like your tour guide). I have met so many people who falsely believe that slaveholders took excellent care of their slaves because they were valuable property. “You’d never beat a thoroughbred racehorse to death” someone said to me once about slavery. Who think working in a field was hard labor, but being a house slave was a posh gig, even a reward. Who think slavery was basically a form of extreme poverty, and that slaves were merely slaves because they had no economic choice, their knowledge and talents prevented them from having a better life. Who think slaves loved their slaveholders like benevolent parents (as in Gone With The Wind) and that most were not interested in running away or resisting. Growing up in Los Angeles public schools, far away from any empirical evidence about slavery, I even had *teachers* teaching these things as if they were facts.
The largest project of abolitionists was simply to reveal the truth about slavery in the face of all the myth-making about the genteel South. And it was such effective myth-making that some people still believe it hundreds of years later.
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Thank you for commenting and taking the time to share your experience. I will indeed look up the documentary. You have valid points mentioned here, and from my experiences, I would have to say that I agree with your opinion. Thanks again!
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