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Why the White South Is Still in Denial About Slavery

On a trip through the South, Civil War culture is presented as "authentic." They just leave out the slavery part.

The menu at the Cabin was long, one of those unwieldy, laminated mega-menus that grace the tables of roadside diners and chalets everywhere, and reflected a classic attention to theme (gumbo burger, gumbo omelet, gumbo). If the menu had been covered in tinfoil, I would’ve had a late-summer tan by the time I reached the dessert page. When our waiter approached, I asked — in what I imagined was a small act of clever, Yankee defiance — if the gumbo was any good.

My friend Gabbie and I had come directly from a tour of a former sugar plantation down the road, in Vacherie, La., called  Oak Alley, and I had a crook in my neck. Up until that morning, whenever I heard the word “plantation,” I’d thought “slavery.” When I’d booked the tour, I had done so in the spirit of a visitor to Dachau or Wounded Knee. But the tour itself was given in the spirit of a visit to the home of a tasteful, Southern movie star. Our guide, in a tone equal parts admiring and envious, devoted 90 minutes to the armoires, linens and chamber pots of the home, but almost no time to the people who built, creased and cleaned them. The words “slave” and “slavery” were never mentioned.

“I guess the white people in antebellum drag getting misty about ‘the Golden Age of the South’ might have been our first clue,” Gabbie observed.

We did hear the word “servant” on the tour, two or three times, in the telling of what were meant to be amusing anecdotes about the idiosyncrasies of the servants’ owners. Our guide was dressed in an elaborate, sky-blue ball gown, and chirped about what fun it was for her to “go back in time and live like Scarlett O’Hara for a day.”

As Gabbie read from the menu in her best Vivien Leigh, her eyes began to widen. She dropped the drawl and informed me that the Cabin had been serving busloads of visitors to Louisiana’s plantation country for more than 30 years on the strength of its reputation for authenticity, which the menu explained thusly: “Our goal is to preserve some of the local farming history, serve meals typical of the River Road tradition, and make your visit a relaxed and memorable one. The Cabin Restaurant began as one of the 10 original slave dwellings of the Monroe Plantation. Through the efforts, ideas, the love, sweat and patience of friends and family, you are able to enjoy a small sampling of Southern Louisiana history.”

The love, sweat and patience of actual participants in the “local farming history,” the original builders and tenants of the Cabin, were not dwelt upon or mentioned in the menu’s text, but their contribution to the restaurant’s ambience was subtly alluded to. As the waiter brought our food I read: “In the grand dining room, the roof is supported by four massive beams … placed so that the room resembles a Garconnier (the visiting bachelor’s quarters on a river road plantation.)”

And we put our menus down. I’ve enjoyed almost every spoonful of gumbo I’ve had over the years, whether in expensive restaurants, coffee shops or train stations, but I might have had my last one contemplating the events witnessed by the roof beams of a “visiting bachelor’s quarters” on a 19th-century sugar plantation.

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When the Civil War ended, there were no truth and reconciliation commissions formed to process memories, no Nuremberg Trials to enable reflection, no Great Emancipator to free the future from the past — only ghosts and the ravenous politics of memory. The need for national reckoning was quickly subordinated to the political imperative of reunification, and on both sides of the Mason Dixon line, forgetting became more valuable than remembering.

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