Why we still can't talk about slavery

On a trip through the South, Civil War culture is presented as \"authentic.\" They just leave out the slavery part

Published December 27, 2011 6:00PM (EST)

Oak Alley Plantation     (Richard Sexton/<a href='http://www.oakalleyplantation.com/welcome.html'>Oak Alley Plantation</a>)
Oak Alley Plantation (Richard Sexton/Oak Alley Plantation)

The menu at the Cabin was long, one of those unwieldy, laminated mega-menus that grace the tables of roadside diners and chalets everywhere, and reflected a classic attention to theme (gumbo burger, gumbo omelet, gumbo). If the menu had been covered in tinfoil, I would’ve had a late-summer tan by the time I reached the dessert page. When our waiter approached, I asked -- in what I imagined was a small act of clever, Yankee defiance -- if the gumbo was any good.

My friend Gabbie and I had come directly from a tour of a former sugar plantation down the road, in Vacherie, La., called Oak Alley, and I had a crook in my neck. Up until that morning, whenever I heard the word “plantation,” I’d thought “slavery.” When I’d booked the tour, I had done so in the spirit of a visitor to Dachau or Wounded Knee. But the tour itself was given in the spirit of a visit to the home of a tasteful, Southern movie star. Our guide, in a tone equal parts admiring and envious, devoted 90 minutes to the armoires, linens and chamber pots of the home, but almost no time to the people who built, creased and cleaned them. The words “slave” and “slavery” were never mentioned.

"I guess the white people in antebellum drag getting misty about 'the Golden Age of the South' might have been our first clue," Gabbie observed.

We did hear the word “servant” on the tour, two or three times, in the telling of what were meant to be amusing anecdotes about the idiosyncrasies of the servants’ owners. Our guide was dressed in an elaborate, sky-blue ball gown, and chirped about what fun it was for her to “go back in time and live like Scarlett O’Hara for a day.”

As Gabbie read from the menu in her best Vivien Leigh, her eyes began to widen. She dropped the drawl and informed me that the Cabin had been serving busloads of visitors to Louisiana’s plantation country for more than 30 years on the strength of its reputation for authenticity, which the menu explained thusly: "Our goal is to preserve some of the local farming history, serve meals typical of the River Road tradition, and make your visit a relaxed and memorable one. The Cabin Restaurant began as one of the 10 original slave dwellings of the Monroe Plantation. Through the efforts, ideas, the love, sweat and patience of friends and family, you are able to enjoy a small sampling of Southern Louisiana history.”

The love, sweat and patience of actual participants in the “local farming history,” the original builders and tenants of the Cabin, were not dwelt upon or mentioned in the menu’s text, but their contribution to the restaurant’s ambience was subtly alluded to. As the waiter brought our food I read: “In the grand dining room, the roof is supported by four massive beams ... placed so that the room resembles a Garconnier (the visiting bachelor's quarters on a river road plantation.)”

And we put our menus down. I’ve enjoyed almost every spoonful of gumbo I’ve had over the years, whether in expensive restaurants, coffee shops or train stations, but I might have had my last one contemplating the events witnessed by the roof beams of a "visiting bachelor’s quarters" on a 19th-century sugar plantation.

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When the Civil War ended, there were no truth and reconciliation commissions formed to process memories, no Nuremberg Trials to enable reflection, no Great Emancipator to free the future from the past -- only ghosts and the ravenous politics of memory. The need for national reckoning was quickly subordinated to the political imperative of reunification, and on both sides of the Mason Dixon line, forgetting became more valuable than remembering.

Southern apologists earned sudden fortunes in a gold rush of nostalgic forgetting. Within a year of the war’s end, a Virginia journalist named Edward Pollard published a novel called "The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates," a breathless, self-pitying fantasy, and the first of many to recast the conflict as a tragedy of fraternal strife and regional repression, to blame the Confederate defeat on the overwhelming resources and underhanded tactics of the North, exalt the Confederacy’s most ruthless generals as paragons of honor, revel in stories of freed people run amok, wallow in tearful, postwar family reunions, and pine for the “Golden Age” of hoop- skirts and happy-go-lucky chattel. It depicted slavery as a benign if not beneficial institution, and relegated further discussion on the topic to the offstage realm of “touchy” subjects, where, for perpetual Northern fear of offending delicate Southern sensibilities, it has languished ever since.

Have you ever dreamed of waking up to an antebellum room that would be the envy of Scarlett O’Hara? The fulfillment of just such a dream is the essence of the Edgewood experience. Hosts Dot and Julian Boulware offer eight luxurious and charming guest rooms; six in the main house and two in the former slave’s quarters.” -- Country Collections Magazine.

The scores of histories and plantation novels that followed Pollard’s, many produced by members of what came to be known as the Dunning School (after its founder, Columbia history professor William Archer Dunning), an influential movement of celebrity, revisionist scholars -- a sort of mutton-chopped Heritage Foundation -- helped concoct a broad, new Southern culture of perpetual grievance and nostalgia for a reimagined, antebellum idyll. The primary focus of most Dunning School stories was not the war itself, but Reconstruction, a period that Claude Bowers, an early-20th-century successor to Pollard (and given to similarly Glenn Beck-ian flights of tearful, dissociative rage) called “The Tragic Era." It was a decade, as he saw it, marked by unrestrained Yankee corruption and sadism, which punished the South for secession and forced black suffrage on an already politically neutered white population. Bowers’ books demonized “fanatic” abolitionists and Ulysses S. Grant, exalted the Ku Klux Klan and Andrew Johnson, and sold hundreds of of thousands of copies.

"When a nigger died they let his folks come out the fields to see him afore he died. They buried him the same day, take a big plank and bust it with a ax in the middle enough to bend it back, and put the dead nigger in betwixt it. They'd cart them down to the graveyard on the place and not bury them deep enough that buzzards wouldn't come circlin' round. Niggers mourns now, but in them days they wasn't no time for mournin'. -- Mary Reynolds, former slave, 1936

By 1932, and the publication of "Gone With the Wind" -- the ultimate Lost Cause novel and still the most popular book in America, after the Bible -- Lost Cause literature succeeded in sacrificing the very meaning of the Civil War to the demands of myth-making. (The 1939 movie sealed the deal.) The culture of forgetting had become a national religion.

Seventy years later, movies like "The Help" -- the latest in a long line of tributes to the unsung white heroes of black history, and a gauzy rendering of the civil rights era as a triumph of the human spirit over mean people -- have taken up where "Gone With the Wind" left off.  A direct descendant of Lost Cause culture, modern nostalgia is souvenir nostalgia, a taxidermical, preservation-fetish that isolates parts from wholes, pulls symbols out of context, and shrinks cultural memories to the size of a 9/11 commemorative coin. (Never Forget!) It’s woven into every corner of the culture, high and low, North and South, as pervasive as sleep. And it is a black hole of memory, the place where memory goes to die.

“One woman thought all the slave houses (now guest rooms) should be torn down, because it was an insult and exploiting slavery and so forth. And I replied, very nicely, that I think she would be destroying history.” -- Mary Hill Caperton, manager of the Quarters, a bed and breakfast in Charlottesville, Va.

The Cabin is only one of dozens of former slave quarters around the country that have been gussied-up into hotel rooms or restaurants. It was exceedingly pleasant and brightly lit, full of cheerful, laughing patrons. Astonishingly tall, wholesome-looking children in middle-school basketball jerseys pointed ketchup-dipped fries at their dad’s brows and made gentle jokes about their hairlines. The Doobie Brothers’ “China Grove” bubbled down from speakers in the rafters.

A man with a wide smile appeared next to our table, seemingly out of nowhere, and introduced himself as the restaurant’s manager. We chatted about the proper pronunciation of “crawfish,” and the differences between the gumbos made on the bayou and in New Orleans, and when the subject turned to the Cabin, I asked him how it felt to run a place that used to house slaves. “It’s history, and that’s all there is to it," he said. "It’s not something we dwell on, or push out there for people to see. It is a touchy subject. We just want people to have a nice time when they come here, and to enjoy the food and the history. This is a place where everybody feels welcome.”

He had a point. Gabbie and I seemed to be the only ones in the room not smiling, and for a moment the queasiness of chronic self-doubt, the familiar nausea of the self-ostracized, the vegetarian in the steakhouse, made me wonder if it was us. Were we the ones not seeing straight, arching our eyebrows through a life on the wrong side of the looking glass? And then I wondered why I was flattering myself.

Dead-eyed nostalgia, whether practiced by Tea Partyers, advertising directors or me, in my “heritage” running shoes, typing away on a computer built by indentured servants, can be invisible to us. As invisible as the whip -- the very old, well-used buggy whip -- hanging on the Cabin’s wall must have been to whoever decided it was a good idea to hang it there.

Back then, black and white lived apart, went to different schools and churches, played on different playgrounds, and went to different restaurants, bars, theaters, and soda fountains. But we shared a country and a culture. We were one nation. We were Americans.” --Pat Buchanan

Don’t get me wrong -- I like nostalgia, I miss nostalgia. The kind that involves remembering, anyway: mostly private, typically accidental, not always rosy. When my great-uncle told stories about flying bomber missions over Germany, he didn’t merely recall events -- experiences that he had a complicated affection for -- he wondered about them. His eyes grew pained and befuddled; his chest rose and fell with a fullness no amount of time could diminish. He wasn’t running from himself to an imagined past, he was finding himself in his story, sorting it out, trying to see it clearly.

House (now Speaker) John Boehner recently complained that Barack Obama and congressional Democrats “are snuffing out the America that I grew up in.” --Think Progress, July 1, 2010

Of course childhood nostalgia -- the kind of remembering you do when remembering is new, when memories are full and dramatic because they're few, and weightless -- is different. Mourning hamsters. Idealizing grandparents. Chronicling summers like they're centuries. When I had 12 years to look back on, they were eons. When I had 20 I said, "my whole life" and meant it.

But the past I remembered then wasn't even my own. I sported a ridiculous '50s trench coat and well-thumbed copies of "On the Road" in the '80s the way 20-year-olds in ancient Rome probably carried Euripides in their vintage Greek togas. When you're young, nostalgia isn't about the past, but the future. It's a train in the distance, a sound from the old days hinting at the new. When your own past is too frightening to look at, and the future is terrifyingly unknown, you fake your way through the present. I spent my days wanting something I couldn't name, and because I didn't have memories to attach to that yearning, I yearned for a time before me. I conjured a past and missed it and bought an overcoat I prayed I’d grow into.

Lincoln’s famous “house divided” analogy was a perfect one for a country in crisis, acknowledging as it did the psychic architecture of the nation, a collection of rooms under one roof. But his deep commitment to an authentic, family-like, postwar reconciliation was not matched by his successors. The North’s implementation of Reconstruction, in its moderate and radical forms, amounted to first coddling, then humiliating, a wayward sibling.

After Lincoln’s assassination, Republicans struck an implicit deal with the South, a sort of economic/cultural tradeoff, in which the South was allowed to construct the edifice of the Lost Cause culture in return for letting Northern investors exploit the South's resources. For decades after the war, at cemetery and monument dedications, Blue-Gray reunions and Veterans Day parades, Northern politicians and former generals made a point of describing the conflict in the language of the Lost Cause, praising the chivalry of once-estranged brothers, lauding their former enemy’s fierce dedication to their mission, and rarely acknowledging what that mission had been. The relative postwar silence of the North on the issue of slavery, and the flagrant corruption of newly established Union military governments, helped stoke already flourishing Southern resentment and denial. Instead of beginning a period of reflection, the South spent the late 19th century dressing up in old uniforms and comforting itself with revisionist stories.

The Reconstruction-era South didn't invent dishonesty, but its response to America’s defining trauma has become a foundational lie, supporting an ever-growing edifice of false history. It’s a lie so big no one will forcefully challenge it, a lie that’s too big to fail. In the sesquicentennial year of the Civil War, the "stars and bars" fly over state capitals, proclamations are issued that honor the Confederacy without mentioning slavery, and commuters drive to work on highways named after white supremacists. And appeals to wounded pride and the lost values of imagined pasts are an everyday part of our political culture.

Just like Pollard and Bowers before them, modern-day, Lost Cause-ers like Pat Buchanan reversed the tide of postwar popular opinion about a conflict, this time in Vietnam, by pining loudly for a law-and-order Eden that had been despoiled by protesters. And now the wholly invented fiction of hippies spitting on soldiers returning from Southeast Asia is believed by more Americans than remember what My Lai was.

The same pattern has repeated itself many times, from Morning in America to WMD, from the Swift Boaters to the Tea Party. The decade following the Civil War amounted to a tragic, missed opportunity for the South to engage in a different kind of remembering. Even a little grown-up nostalgia could have gone a good, long way. The illness implied in its suffix, the sickness of the heart that a powerful longing produces, can be as necessary and cleansing as a storm. But of course that’s what the Lost Causers were afraid of, are afraid of still, and have always been quick to nip in the bud.

WASHINGTON — President Reagan said Thursday that he has decided not to visit the site of a Nazi concentration camp during his trip to Europe next month because he wants to focus on peace rather than the past. He added that he believes West Germany's present sense of collective guilt for the Holocaust of World War II, in which millions of Jews were killed, is "unnecessary." -- The Los Angeles Times, March 2, 1985

During a tour of Houmas House, another Louisiana River Road plantation, as our guide told a story about the acquisition of a particularly expensive set of silver by the proprietors of the estate, we wandered to a window, and noticed a ramshackle structure in the distance, maybe 70 yards away. Unmarked, unrenovated, unattended, a dilapidated cottage with a small front porch, half reclaimed by grass. A former slave cabin? Our guide said yes, and that plans to renovate the structure were in the works. She added that we were free to go out and take a look, once the tour was over.

Later that day, at Destrehan, a former sugar plantation a few miles down, the guide neglected to mention that it was the site of the largest slave revolt in American history.

When I asked Angela da Silva, a professor of black history at Lindenwood University, and owner of the St. Louis-based National Black Tourism Network, for her thoughts, she said, “Jesus coming down off the cross couldn’t get me to stay in some gentrified slave cabin with a jacuzzi in it. The misery and pain that happened in those cabins ... This is about shame. People who own these places want the history to go away. But it won’t go away. And until we as black people insist on the story being told, no one has any incentive to change their business model.”

Da Silva grew up just a few miles from the Baker plantation in Missouri, where her family worked as slaves from 1837 until the end of the war. She learned almost nothing in school about slavery, she says, but her grandmother told her stories that she remembers to this day. As she spoke about sleeping in the same bed with her grandmother until she was 10, and waking up in the middle of the night to ask questions about her ancestors and life on the plantation, her voice softened, and she cleared her throat. I could hear her slow, full breathing over the phone.

“Once you got here, we were all the same. Isn’t that remarkable? But we also know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.”  --U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann

Slavery is rarely mentioned on any private plantation tour. Proprietors typically insist that innovative architecture and interesting design justify their focus on the “Big Houses,” but that argument can be awfully hard to fathom. Leaving aside obvious exceptions like Monticello, surely the most notable thing about most plantations is not who lived there, who designed them or what they look like. A beautiful home made beautiful by slaves is not important for its beauty. To elevate aesthetic elements over history in the public presentation of slave estates is to demote people once inventoried like candlesticks to a status even lower than that of things. It’s an obscenity.

There is a small museum on the site of the I.G. Farben Building in Germany (a building that, it should be noted, is considered an architectural masterpiece), the former headquarters of the company responsible for enslaving hundreds of thousands of prisoners at its notorious "factories." It’s dedicated to the memory of a former prisoner, and exhibits photos and documents from Farben’s disgraceful past. Tour guides at Auschwitz itself do not include the commandant’s extravagant house on their schedule. The point isn’t that American slavery is the exact moral or material equivalent of the Holocaust, but that our country’s “original sin” has not been fully, culturally processed.

If America is a family, it’s a family that has tacitly agreed to never speak again -- not with much honesty, anyway -- about the terrible things that went on in its divided house. Slavery has been taught, it has been written about. There can’t be many subjects that rival it as an academic ink-guzzler. But the culture has not digested slavery in a meaningful way, hasn’t absorbed it the way it has World War II or the Kennedy assassination. We don’t feel the connections to it in our bones. It’s hard enough these days to connect with what happened 15 minutes ago, let alone 15 decades, given the endless layers of “classic,” “heirloom,” “traditional” “collectible,” “old school” comfort we’re swaddled in. But isn't it the least we could do? What is the willful forgetting of slavery if not the coverup of a crime, an abdication of responsibility to its victims and to ourselves?

If it's true that we're all breathing Caesar's breath -- that because of the finite amount of perpetually moving molecules on Earth, one or two that he breathed are in each of our exhalations -- then we don't need to dress up in his clothes to connect ourselves to the past, we’re already wearing them. The past is with us always, but we need to live with it, open our eyes and poke around in it, take it all in: the good, the bad and the mythic, if we want to stay connected to the ever-changing present.

By Peter Birkenhead

Peter Birkenhead’s work has appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast, The Week, NY Daily News, The LA Review of Books, U.S. News, MORE, Marie Claire, The Awl, and other publications.

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