the history of plantations is not a white memento

September 13, 2019
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Last weekend, a story broke from the Washington Post about how Plantations were only now starting to explain the true history of their origins (which are, obviously, entrenched in the enslavement of Africans). The Post piece explains how at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s central Virginia estate, slaves built and tilled the lands, and how tour guides are now ensuring that is part of the story, despite complaints from white visitors who feel these things should not be discussed. This thought falls in line with the even more disgusting practice of plantations being the backdrops for white people’s ceremonial events.

Although the term “plantation” has transformed for white folks over the years, we as Black folks must continue to push back and call a thing that thing. Plantations were — and in many places, including the U.S., still are — enslavement camps. In 1619, captured Africans were forced into labor by white colonial settlers in Jamestown, kicking off the transatlantic slave trade as a system in America. They were not indentured servants, as many have tried to spin it. They did not want to be here, nor be here doing the labor they were required to do without consent. They were enslaved — and no transformation of these plantations into beautiful venues can erase their heinous pasts.

Slave Cabins, Oak Alley Plantation, Louisiana.

Nowadays, plantations have become a backdrop — as tourist attractions and as venue space for everything from birthday parties to elaborate weddings. Among the most famous couples to be married on a plantation is Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively, who in 2012 were married at the Boone Hall plantation in South Carolina. On the plantation grounds where they were married there still sit, to this day, nine-slave cabins in an area known as “Slave Street.” 

I want to be very clear when I say this and I hope it may offend you to the point that you check yourself: Keep your raggedy white weddings off plantations. And if you have a problem with the history about them being taught, keep your ass off of them too. No one is going to play the alt-history game any longer with white folks who have forever been able to escape responsibility for events that run in their DNA. Your people did what they did to my people on those plantations, and for that, we should NEVER stop talking about it. Furthermore, if it disgusts you so much, you should work to never have it happen again.

For Black folks, plantations have never left us. Although many of the actual plantations have been turned into something else, the spirit of the plantation and its ties to forced labor, is still very much alive in the American prison system. Prison farms existed for over 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Black folks in prison were forced to pick cotton, while singing songs throughout the workday, much like their ancestors. It wasn’t until the 1980s that a federal judge ended this practice of prison farms, which coincides with harsher laws around the country and the boom of prisons in America. 

James Hopkinson’s Plantation. Planting sweet potatoes. African American men and women hoe and plow the earth while others cut piles of sweet potatoes for planting. One man sits in a horse-drawn cart. (photo: Henry P. Moore, circa 1862/63)

I still cringe every time I hear the word plantation. There’s something so sinister about how easy it rolls off the tongue of folks who have no connection to the pain those lands hold. Those grounds should be sacred, and reparated to those who worked them so hard. Plantations aren’t just fields of labor. They are burial grounds. For centuries, lives were beaten and lost on those fields. Those fields should be owned by us, for our use and benefit, for the preservation of our history and to give those ancestors some peace.

We are at a time in 2019 when domestic white terrorism is FINALLY acknowledged as a thing, the very same domestic white terrorism that began on these very plantations 400 years ago. If white people are pissed off being reminded of their ancestry, they should change the current state of mimicking that heinous past rather than running from THEIR truth. Plantations history is as American as apple pie. The same way any white monument or tourist attraction tells its history is the same way any Black tourist attraction should. That first means admitting that plantations should not belong to you. 

As more and more plantations continue to be converted into botanical gardens and venues, we must fight to preserve this history, and make sure the truth of its origins continues to be told. We have had enough of our history taken from us — and I’ll be damned if we let the final resting place of many of our ancestors become a memento at a wedding anniversary.