The Owned Perspective
September 18th, 2020
(published in The Daily Memphian)
(photo: Bouki Fait Gombo, Ibrahima Seck's history of the slave community of Habitation Haydel – the Whitney Plantation)
There’s a French Creole proverb depicting the master/slave relationship in the sugar cane plantations of Louisiana, its origins in Senegalese folktales where so many slaves came from:
“Bouki fait gombo, lapin mangé li.” (He-goat makes the gombo, but rabbit eats it.)
This morning, I got an email from a good friend in Atlanta, Kathie Larkin, remembering a trip Nora and I made with Kathie and her husband Steve to New Orleans a couple of years ago. She wasn’t remembering the wonderful food found in such rich abundance there, or the sense of centuries that drapes the city like the Spanish moss that hangs from its live oaks. Any of us who have visited New Orleans remembers those things.
She was reminding me of a place we visited together that relatively few of us have ever seen. She was reminding me to write about it again as we as a region, we as a country, are taking another look at what we’ve elevated to heroic status, at the monuments we’ve created.
From 1936 to 1938, as part of the WPA and the Federal Writers’ Project, more than 2,000 interviews were conducted with former slaves resulting in the Slave Narratives: A Folk History in the United States. Those former slaves were very old by then, but their memories of dark childhoods were clear.
Most of us have never heard of those narratives.
I saw some of those memories engraved in stone, and stood where they were made, surrounded by a reality I had not truly acknowledged before, finding the past alive in the present like nowhere I have been before.
On the wall in front of me, I saw the words of Julia Woodrich, born a slave in Louisiana in 1851, talking about her mother: “My ma had fifteen children and none of them had the same pa. You see, every time she was sold, she had to take another man. Her had fifteen children after she was sold de last time.”
Julia’s mother was profitable property, and Julia would have some memories of her as a child – if her mother was sold, she would been in the bargain – but at age ten she would have been considered an adult slave, put to work accordingly, and worth $25,000-plus in today’s money.
On a sugar cane plantation, she would have had a life expectancy of ten adult years.
The Conaways and the Larkins were visiting one of the plantations along the Mississippi on the River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge – a stretch of 50 miles or so of antebellum ascension fronted by massive columns at the end of ancient live oak alleys. This short stretch is said to have produced more wealth from its sugar than all of the plantations north pulled from their cotton.
But this plantation – Whitney Plantation – is unique among those open to the public. This is the only one anywhere dedicated to the history of slaves and telling the story from their point of view.
Here you see where they came from – some of the culture stolen from them that somehow survived in bits and pieces of our language, food and religion – some of the brutal business of human beings as property measured in profit and productivity – some of the horror of grinding cane into sugar and grinding people into the swamp surrounding that cane.
Here are the two-room cabins they lived in, eight to ten to a side in the growing season, double that in the grinding season – October through December, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Here is the hell on earth that owners upriver evoked to make their slaves work harder by threatening to “sell them down the river.”
Here are monuments to history we don’t acknowledge in our Southern parks and on our Southern courthouse lawns and along our Southern boulevards. These aren’t statues of romanticized leaders of some ersatz lost cause placed on pedestals; these are memories of the marginalized and brutalized people who made those leaders rich, marked and remembered on the ground they died on, ground in which they were placed largely unknown and unmarked.
Whitney Plantation is in St. John the Baptist Parish and is a very different kind of holy ground if you’re looking for it. Revelation, confession, and even redemption have been planted here. The harvest is up to us.
This is a very different kind of plantation experience if you’re looking for it.
This tour ends at the master’s house instead of beginning there, and leaves you with a fuller understanding of how it was built and how life was lived in and around it.
As we take a hard look at America today, we must still ask how we are building it and at whose expense.
I’m a Memphian, and measuring how far we’ve come still depends on who holds the rule.
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