Why a Plantation Resort Is Not a Transformative Space
January 2, 2014
This past week, Ani Di Franco became relevant for the first time since the late 1990s in possibly the worst way. Her “Righteous Retreat” was going to be held at Nottoway Plantation, a resort between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that also happened to be a former slave plantation. An internet fracas ensued, as people rightfully criticized the location. Di Franco issued the worst apology I’ve ever read (The Toast’s parody was spot on). In it, she called the criticism about the choice of location “high velocity bitterness,” generally took a smug tone about being a progressive white woman whose choices should not be judged, and compared a music school for impoverished kids in the Cabildo in New Orleans (another slavery site) with a resort catering to rich white people.*
Perhaps the thing that’s most troubling to me is that last bit. I’ve been to the Cabildo, and it’s nothing like going to a plantation. It’s been part of the Louisiana State Museum since 1908; that’s over a century of functioning as a public entity, complete with educational programs and a permanent exhibition that places slavery in context. Just as importantly, as Ani acknowledges, the work that educators do within the Cabildo–like the Roots of Music group she cites–transform the historical building into a space that benefits people rather than actively, intentionally harms them.
I’ve also been to Nottoway, twice, a long time ago. Back in the 1980s, I went on a lot of plantation tours throughout south Louisiana. At the time, I didn’t have a choice: most of the tours were school field trips with my classmates from my predominantly white Catholic school. At the time, I didn’t think about these houses as being built by slaves or that these houses’ existence was a product of the system of slavery: I was a young white kid born in NJ but growing up in LA, and, to me, the plantations were just beautiful houses with unique architecture.
And then, when I was in middle school, my older cousin went on a tour with my family to Nottoway Plantation.
“Don’t you think it’s weird,” she said, “that no one’s mentioned slaves at all?”
She was right. They hadn’t. It had been “servants” throughout the entire tour: servants selected the cypress beams that were resistant to termites; servants worked in the plantation’s sugar cane fields; servants took care of the family; servants took the “whistler’s walk”* from the outdoor kitchens to the family’s dining room.
It was a jolt to 12-year-old me. Suddenly, I felt a lot less comfortable in the beautiful (but, no joke, completely white) ballroom where we were standing. It wasn’t just a house we were touring. It was a place where black people had been exploited, abused, and even killed just so that white people could live in luxury.
Now, this was 25 years ago, and a lot has changed at Nottoway. The website now acknowledges up front that slavery was a part of plantation life, and that John Randolph, the plantation owner who built the house, had a long history of slave ownership (including the 20 slaves who were part of his wife’s dowry). On its history page, the plantation’s current owners describe life for the slaves, from field hands to household workers. But it repeats the idea that John Randolph was an especially nice owner, though it’s sure to point out that he had economic reasons for being relatively less terrible than other slave owners.
Although the plantation no longer hides its past as a site of slavery, it isn’t a transformative space, either. It’s a resort that replicates the kind of luxury the Randolph family enjoyed in the antebellum era. You can stay in the Randolph family’s bedrooms, which are filled with period-specific antiques. You can stay in the overseer’s cottage–yes, the overseer’s cottage–also with some fine antiques. Or the carriage house or the “cottages,” which are designed like modern hotel rooms. The “cottages” are on the site where slave cabins once stood. In them, you can enjoy all the amenities of a first-class resort. You know, just like those slaves did back then.
Staying in a plantation owner’s or overseer’s house with period-centric antiques isn’t transformative; rather, it glorifies a system of owning other human beings by replicating the conditions afforded to the upper classes at the time. Nor do tidy “cottages” with modern amenities represent the kind of conditions slaves lived in. Rather, they mask the horrors that made places like Nottoway possible.
It’s not transformation. It’s erasure. And no one should be comfortable with that.
*As I was writing this, Ani DiFranco apologized again. It’s better, but still not great. Additionally, many of her fans continue to think it’s A-OK to stay at a plantation.
**Strangely, our tour guide didn’t omit a definition of a “whistler’s walk”: To insure that no one stole food or spit in it, slaves had to whistle as they walked from the outdoor kitchens to the plantation house.