Inheriting the Plantation

After reading this thoughtful piece on leading tours at plantations, I reflected on my experience of visiting Boone Hall plantation in South Carolina. The site is unsettlingly pleasant, betraying what it actually represents: the horrors of slavery, not the tranquility and beauty of nature. It’s tagline, which an historical marker of our nation’s awful past shouldn’t really have, is this: “America’s most photographed plantation…come see why.” The gross marketing goes on from there:

In 1743, the son of Major John Boone planted live oak trees, arranging them in two evenly spaced rows. This spectacular approach to his home symbolizes southern heritage and will take root in your memory for many years to come. It would take two centuries for the massive, moss-draped branches to meet overhead, forming today’s natural corridor and a scene that NBC Daytime television says is “a must see stop on any trip to Charleston, S.C.”

Ah yes, come delude yourselves with a romantic vision of Southern ancestry, preserving for you your fragile, feeble sense of self and permitting your persistent ignorance about slavery’s pivotal role in America’s construction. Instagram these beautiful oak trees, and don’t think of how human beings may have been hung from them or tortured near them, for that would mean reckoning with your true “southern heritage.” And why would we ever do such an uncouth thing?

In reflecting on my experience there, I wanted to check this bitter tone and subject it to my own ignorance at the time. I remember wandering the slave quarters (a euphemism, of course) and thinking, “this really isn’t so bad.” And I was searching for such a softening all over the plantation’s grounds, unwittingly attempting to absolve myself of any ancestral guilt and looking to justify the slaveowners in some way, to believe that they couldn’t really be so callous, that slavery couldn’t really be so atrocious. After all, they were caught up in the mood of their time, and that mood no longer touches us, so no one suffers any blame. We’re all free.

Simply put, I carried the ubiquity of American racism into an anxiety I didn’t know was consuming me as I was there. Like the visitors described by Margaret Biser in her piece, I wanted to nod my way to dismissing the true magnitude and endurance of slavery’s evil. Not from any intentional malice like some of her more vociferous apologists, but from the same motivation: confirming my worldview and identity and preserving the sanctity and legitimacy of both. Though I wasn’t exhibiting any robust aggression, my tacit deference to the legacy of white supremacy is equally deplorable, and just as complicit in the problem Biser magnifies. My beliefs weren’t deeply held, but they were deeply internalized; fortunately, I found ways to light up those foundational beliefs, those we all inherit in a shared culture.

As for what I’ve done since such elucidation? Still a work in progress. But that would be a great start for us all.

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