To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. –Adorno
Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins. Is such a hope justified? Do the Sorrow Songs sing true? –Du Bois
On the Great River Road that runs along the Mississippi River there is a stretch called Plantation Alley between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. This section of the river had over 300 sugarcane plantations in the middle of the 19th century. Today the Great River Road is actually a complex series of small roads crossing the Mississippi again and again. Those roads are dotted with oil refineries and the occasional small town, but where the roads run along the river front they are dominated by old plantation homes. The antebellum structures attract throngs of visitors, in tour buses and rental cars, searching for an authentic Plantation Adventure and to experience true Southern Splendor. Plantations, it seems, are family friendly fun, providing a window into the rich history and culture of the South. This is an unsettling sales pitch.
While driving to Lafayette, Louisiana, we decided to stop at the Laura Plantation, where their award as “2007’s Best Louisiana Attraction” is prominently displayed. We chose the Laura Plantation because it was billed as a more serious tour, focused on the history of the plantation rather than costumed play acting and antique fetishism that is apparently rife at other plantations. We arrived in time for the last tour of the day and drifted into the gift shop to buy tickets. We paid our money and were advised to use the toilets before we began. The shop was filled with memorabilia from the plantation itself, from Plantation Alley and the Great River Road, as well as an ambiguous but discernible thing we can call Southern Heritage. As we waited for the tour to begin, watching the other visitors and browsing the extensive collection of inessential collectibles, it was strange to see that no one displayed any signs of discomfort in this setting or with the history about which we were queuing up to learn.
Our tour began with the plantation house and a history of the Du Parc family who built it in 1805. We were told about Creole culture and how it was altered by the US purchase of the Louisiana Territory, which brought pressures to become more anglophone. The dramas of the plantation family are documented in great detail, culminating in the story of Laura for whom the plantation is named. We spend nearly an hour of the 70 minute tour pouring over the everyday lives of the plantation owners, seeing their sleeping quarters and engraved silver, hearing stories of their personal tragedies and petty family quarrels. Finally, we left the main house and went to the field where the topic of the tour changed, linked by a story of a young Laura encountering a black labourer who asked to draw water from the plantation’s well. In the story, Laura is upset to see that the man’s face is badly scared and upon asking about it learns that the man was enslaved on the plantation when he was young and his face was scarred as punishment after he attempted to escape. The story stops there. Laura had apparently forgotten this man who was enslaved by her family, as our tour guide seemed to forget the ending or purpose of the anecdote. With that we are briefly introduced to a few of the people who were enslaved here, reading their description from a document detailing the plantation owner’s possessions, including 17 African people held in bondage.
The only wider context we were given was a distinction between the French law that was applied to enslaved people before the US gained possession of Louisiana. We were asked if anyone had any questions about slavery. There was silence among our group of strangers. I am not sure if this was a silence of disinterest or discomfort.
Before the silence grew more awkward or telling than it already was we were hurried along to the preserved “slave cabin” where the enslaved made their lives on the plantation. We sat briefly to learn about the folk tales the enslaved carried with them from their homes, one of which we know now as Br’er Rabbit. Our guide suggested we should be grateful for this small cultural gift. She then mentioned that the cabins were used as workers’ homes until the 1970s and invited us to look around while she locked up. Again, there was no context, no discussion of the conditions in which the enslaved made their lives, nor any consideration of the “workers” who continued to make their lives in these small dismal shacks for a hundred years after the end of slavery in the United States. The tour was finished. We were invited to peruse the gift shop and use the toilet again before continuing our journey down Plantation Alley.
In a way this is the most pedestrian thing I did at ISA this year. The routine of the historical tour is familiar. As a boy growing up in Colorado I visited mining ghost towns in the Rocky Mountains and was treated to wild west shows in recreated prairie settlements. I even crawled on hands and knees through reproductions of cliff dwellings as I was told a very partial story of the native people who lived in the canyons of Colorado. Yet, at Laura Plantation there was something uncanny – a haunting silence in the sugarcane fields that still stretch out behind the old house. I suspect all of Plantation Alley, perhaps the whole of the United States, is afflicted with this amnesia.
When we heard the story of the plantation family no detail was too small to be included. Yet, the lives of of those who worked their fields, those hundreds of human beings working in bondage, and later working out of desperation in scarcely distinguishable conditions, are hardly mentioned. Those women, men and children who were abducted, enslaved, sold as objects, beaten, exploited, humiliated, mutilated, raped, and murdered exist at Laura Plantation as less than ghosts. Their lives make barely a sound, like the wind chimes sounding at the far end of the field, they are not allowed to intrude upon the White world they built and which brutalised them so completely.
I struggle now as I did then to understand this amnesia. How is the story of those unnamed and violated human beings not the story that we tell on Plantation Alley? How is the story of the Du Parc family, and the hundreds of other slave owners along this river, not a story of murderous inhumanity and exploitation? (There is a special tour at Laura Plantation that one take by arrangement that focuses on the lives of the enslaved)
Someone has well said, we may easily forgive those who injure us, but it is hard to forgive those whom we injure. The greatest injury this side of death, which one human being can inflict on another, is to enslave him, to blot out his personality, degrade his manhood, and sink him to the condition of a beast of burden; and just this has been done here during more than two centuries. –Douglas
There is some part of an answer in Frederick Douglas’ insight that the divisions that made slavery and later apartheid policies possible in the United States are built upon the denigration of the personality of the victims of injustice. In the script of Southern Heritage and Plantation Life there is unspoken contempt for the enslaved who built these houses and the fortunes of those grand old families, just as their is an unspoken contempt for the free men and women who found themselves working the same plantations after emancipation, often times in even greater material deprivation. This unspoken but clearly apparent contempt is one way that White America reveals why it resents Black America – it reveals the violence, greed, hypocrisy and inhumanity of White America with too much intensity.
But I still feel ill at ease. I find myself wanting to have some answer to this amnesia, some cure that could bring about a more profound reckoning with what these luxurious Southern mansions actually represent. Embarrassingly, I cannot help feeling like Matthew McConaughey choking up in the closing scene of A Time to Kill, entreating a hostile jury to imagine that the brutal attack at the centre of the film was committed against a white child rather than a black one. This emotional response is empty – the amnesia that afflicts Plantation Alley will not be remedied by entreating White Americans to see black bodies as human bodies. The forgetting at work here is deeper, more complex.
Moving from my ludicrous Hollywood fantasy, I cannot help remembering another tour taken years earlier. While on holiday, my companion and I were driving through Germany. We stopped at the Neuengamme concentration camp outside of Hamburg. This was a minor camp built at the site of a former brickworks, it also served as a hub for 80 other smaller camps in the region. From 1938 to 1945 over 100,000 prisoners were held at the camp, with the vast majority put to work making bricks and digging canals that supported Nazi economic and military efforts. In the end it was estimated that half of the camps prisoners died from extermination through labour. In 2004 the site was turned into a memorial. It is a somber space and the exhibits focus on the brutality of the camps and the role of this minor installation in the broader campaign of extermination aimed at Jews and other minorities across Germany and Europe. It is a rather unremarkable but nonetheless effective memorial to the Holocaust, a typical example of how these events are remembered.
After visiting Laura Plantation I try to imagine what Neuengamme would look like if it were subject to a similar amnesia. Imagine a tour of the camp that begins with the history of the site as an institution of German industry, which tells the tale of the officials charged with turning the disused factory into a work camp, which lingers on the lives of the guards and administrators, which preserves their personal affects like minor museum pieces, which celebrates the achievements of German culture. Imagine a concentration camp advertised as a tourist attraction – award winning even – with a gift shop and collectible Nazi propaganda for sale alongside contemporary German Heritage wares. Imagine that the systemic imprisonment, exploitation, abuse and murder of the mostly Jewish human beings held at the camp was presented as an after thought, with a guide who tells you of a few of the people who were brutalised before asking, “Does anyone have any questions about the Holocaust?”
The very idea is perverse, even writing about this imagined version of Neuengamme turns my stomach. We are habituated so that we identify with Jewish suffering in the camps, we have a clear narrative of guilt and responsibility, which makes this an unthinkable presentation of human tragedy.
So, how is it that this presentation of suffering is still thinkable on the banks of the Mississippi?
Frederick Douglas first used the phrase “color line” but it is more famously associated with W.E.B. Du Bois, who claimed it was the problem that defined the 20th century. I wonder how that problem has shifted now that we find ourselves in the 21st century. Naively, I am surprised that the color line can operate so fully on Louisiana’s Plantation Alley, especially given the broader narratives we have about emancipation, decolonisation, and the holocaust. Pondering on this I stumbled on a piece by Du Bois titled “The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto” where there is perhaps a point of departure for considering this question. In the article Du Bois suggests that the problem of the color line is not unique to the United States or to the relations between white and black peoples, rather he responds to his experience of the devastation of the Warsaw ghetto by affirming that the problem of the color line is fundamentally a problem of how we draw distinctions that justify domination, it is a problem of oppression. Yet, he refuses to suggest that the color line identifies a singular and universal problem. An insight given strong grounding by considering what is forgotten at the Laura Plantation versus what is memorialised at the Neuengamme camp.
Without having found an answer to the question that haunts me, I leave with only a reminder against forgetting. The amnesia at Laura Plantation is not unique to that particular sugarcane field, nor is it unique to the South, but rather it is a condition that plagues us all, especially those who do not want to forgive those we have wronged so profoundly. Yet, the amnesia is a forgetting of a specific injustice, such that broad denunciations of evil mean little. For example, as the camps across Germany become memorials to both European atrocity and historical Jewish suffering, another series of camps is almost completely forgotten. After the Civil War, the US government set up camps for those who had escaped slavery during the war. These camps were called contraband camps, as it seems Northern soldiers struggled to see black human beings as more than objects and property. These camps were often dirty and dangerous, while the people collected there were often forced into military service and manual labour. And these camps were never liberated but rather emptied out after the war as the formerly enslaved were sent back to work on plantations, on the land of white men, freed in law but still oppressed – promised equality still to come, promised land and tools still undelivered. The strides made in understanding one experience of oppression do not necessarily transfer to others, as the promise to “never forget” is actually a shorthand for “we will never forget some oppression”. The problem of the 21st century might in part be accepting that the color line criss-crosses our world in ways that are difficult and painful to see, and that our blindness and unwillingness leaves too many lives forgotten, leaves too many of our brothers and sisters as less than ghosts.