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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.

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WASHINGTON — President Reagan said Thursday that he has decided not to visit the site of a Nazi concentration camp during his trip to Europe next month because he wants to focus on peace rather than the past. He added that he believes West Germany’s present sense of collective guilt for the Holocaust of World War II, in which millions of Jews were killed, is “unnecessary.” — The Los Angeles Times, March 2, 1985

During a tour of Houmas House, another Louisiana River Road plantation, as our guide told a story about the acquisition of a particularly expensive set of silver by the proprietors of the estate, we wandered to a window, and noticed a ramshackle structure in the distance, maybe 70 yards away. Unmarked, unrenovated, unattended, a dilapidated cottage with a small front porch, half reclaimed by grass. A former slave cabin? Our guide said yes, and that plans to renovate the structure were in the works. She added that we were free to go out and take a look, once the tour was over.

Later that day, at  Destrehan, a former sugar plantation a few miles down, the guide neglected to mention that it was the site of the largest slave revolt in American history.

When I asked Angela da Silva, a professor of black history at Lindenwood University, and owner of the St. Louis-based National Black Tourism Network, for her thoughts, she said, “Jesus coming down off the cross couldn’t get me to stay in some gentrified slave cabin with a jacuzzi in it. The misery and pain that happened in those cabins … This is about shame. People who own these places want the history to go away. But it won’t go away. And until we as black people insist on the story being told, no one has any incentive to change their business model.”

Da Silva grew up just a few miles from the Baker plantation in Missouri, where her family worked as slaves from 1837 until the end of the war. She learned almost nothing in school about slavery, she says, but her grandmother told her stories that she remembers to this day. As she spoke about sleeping in the same bed with her grandmother until she was 10, and waking up in the middle of the night to ask questions about her ancestors and life on the plantation, her voice softened, and she cleared her throat. I could hear her slow, full breathing over the phone.

“Once you got here, we were all the same. Isn’t that remarkable? But we also know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.”  –U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann

Slavery is rarely mentioned on any private plantation tour. Proprietors typically insist that innovative architecture and interesting design justify their focus on the “Big Houses,” but that argument can be awfully hard to fathom. Leaving aside obvious exceptions like Monticello, surely the most notable thing about most plantations is not who lived there, who designed them or what they look like. A beautiful home made beautiful by slaves is not important for its beauty. To elevate aesthetic elements over history in the public presentation of slave estates is to demote people once inventoried like candlesticks to a status even lower than that of things. It’s an obscenity.

There is a small  museum on the site of the I.G. Farben Building in Germany (a building that, it should be noted, is considered an architectural masterpiece), the former headquarters of the company responsible for enslaving hundreds of thousands of prisoners at its notorious “factories.” It’s dedicated to the memory of a former prisoner, and exhibits photos and documents from Farben’s disgraceful past. Tour guides at Auschwitz itself do not include the commandant’s extravagant house on their schedule. The point isn’t that American slavery is the exact moral or material equivalent of the Holocaust, but that our country’s “original sin” has not been fully, culturally processed.

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