Whitney Plantation, the first plantation museum to make the lives of the enslaved community the central focus of the site, to depict the truth of their lives and honor their contributions. This is what I read in the February 26, 2015 New York Times article. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/magazine/building-the-first-slave-museum-in-america.html?_r=1
A jambalaya of emotions was stirred within me.
How exciting, remarkable and inspiring! At last, truth is told, hidden history is brought to the fore, and people, whose lives and work were invisible, are seen. The past is not sugarcoated, the depths of the sin of slavery are out in the open. Perhaps this is a stimulus for serious, wide-spread conversation about the living legacy of slavery that burdens this country. I wanted to jump on a plane, fly to New Orleans, and visit Whitney Plantation immediately. I wanted to walk on the ground of this bold institution right now.
But on the heels of exhilaration came shame and disappointment. I am the descendant of 50 – 60 land- and slaveholding Virginia families just on my mother’s side. Thousands of Americans are the proud offspring of those First Families. Furthermore, I know I am cousin to hundreds, probably thousands, of African Americans whose roots in slavery go back to half the counties of Virginia. Why haven’t we – me, my European American cousins, any of my white relatives – taken the slightest step to turn ancestral properties into historic sites that focus on the people who actually built up the wealth, social status and political power our forebears enjoyed? How sad that most of us have stayed in the mainstream of American liberal thinking by making sure a few buildings have been restored, a few interpretive panels put up, the occasional talk given, but have not had the courage to put the past of slavery and its modern manifestations out in the open, in big letters, with neon signs, and then talked together about what it all means.
My emotions tempered and cooled. I recognized that some of my cousins and people who are friends of my families have made efforts. We launched the organization Coming to the Table – a handful of us, at least. We wrote Inheriting the Trade and Gather at the Table, we made “Traces of the Trade,” and we take our works on tour, talking about the history and its legacy wherever we can get an audience together. We started BitterSweet – a committee of us did – and we encourage others to read our posts and contribute to our blog. We have held reunions or joined our linked descendants’ reunions – a few of us, at least. One of our “old home places,” Monticello, is in the midst of restoring the plantation landscape and buildings to more authentically display the relationship between the little houses and outbuildings and the mansion. http://www.monticello.org/site/visit/revealing-mountaintop-project-new-perspectives-monticello-0 It has also had a national touring exhibit about slavery and the enslaved families of the plantation. Another family historic property, Poplar Forest, is starting to follow in the same footsteps. http://www.poplarforest.org/jefferson/plantation-life/#.VSG-KbfD_GI
Perhaps I should be hopeful. A national museum of African American History and Culture will open soon in Washington, DC, and it will contain a reconstructed slave cabin, giving visitors a way to have some level of physical experience with the reality of slavery. The historic plantation site down the road from my present home is increasing its efforts to bring on board college students to research and interpret the lives of the enslaved families of the past and collect the oral histories of their descendant community still living in the vicinity.
I should be hopeful; I am hopeful. But I am impatient, too. I want change now. I want my whole linked family to be able to point to museums, sculptures, exhibits, paintings, photographs, historic sites, living history re-enactments, books – whole libraries even, movies and TV documentaries, that put our whole story about enslavement at the center of things. And then I want all that history to be integrated, to be our collective, shared, unified American history. I am an impatient woman. Whitney Plantation makes me want this new history of our profound “linkedness” right now!
More stories about Whitney Plantation can be found at
Whitney Plantation http://www.whitneyplantation.com/
Washington Post March 11, 2015 http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/house-divided/wp/2015/03/11/slave-museum-opens-on-louisiana-plantation/
New York Times February 26, 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/magazine/building-the-first-slave-museum-in-america.html?_r=1
Wall Street Journal December 7, 2014 http://www.wsj.com/video/whitney-plantation-museum-to-focus-on-slavery/E69FA1BD-4B6C-4345-BADA-80035A0AED0D.html
New Orleans Advocate Oct 14, 2014 http://www.theneworleansadvocate.com/news/10475371-123/no-lawyer-transforms-whitney-plantation
New York Times July 15, 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/26/arts/design/a-restored-louisiana-plantation-and-its-lifeblood.html?_r=0