I know I’ve brought up the topic of race before (here and here). I’m sorry if that bothers some of you, but I live and travel (primarily) in the South, where the legacy of slavery, the Civil War, and Jim Crow are still just right below the surface of modern life. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting some relic of that horrific era, kept alive in the name of “pride”: in street names, parks and battlefields; flying over government buildings and proudly displayed on bumper stickers and T-shirts.
It’s for this reason I’ve never wanted to visit a plantation. Sure, they’re grand and beautiful. But I can’t get past the fact that all that grandeur and beauty were created and maintained by the forced labor of African-Americans. The expensive art and priceless antiques that decorate these mansions were bought with a fortune stolen from the people who did the actual work.
However, as we were preparing to leave New Orleans, a few people in my group wanted to see at least one before we left Louisiana, and Houmas (pronounced HOME-us) House was relatively close to our route. So, after stating my objections for the record, I went along. We paid $10 to see the grounds (to see the house would have cost another $12) and tromped in, cameras loaded.
Yes, I was upset (but not surprised) that not one plaque, brochure, or display addressed the fact of who did the original work of planting, watering, and weeding the acres of lovely gardens (not to mention working the sugar cane fields that made its owners a fortune). It bothered me that the place doesn’t give back to the African-American community in any way (come on; couldn’t they at least donate a percentage of their profits to a scholarship fund or something?).
But I have to admit, the sheer beauty of the place won me over. It was just too gorgeous to stay mad at. The grounds were dominated by enormous, ancient Live Oaks, their crooked, drooping branches covered in tiny ferns, trailing Spanish moss like hair. Around each bend in the path, another scene: a mossy-brick courtyard surrounded by Satsumas heavy with fruit. The thick, sweet perfume of Confederate jasmine. Arbors covered in dense walls of wisteria. Curving rows of cabbage and turnip sprouts nestled in dark, fertile earth. The sounds of chirping birds and the spray of towering fountains. See my gallery here.
So in an effort to reconcile this cognitive dissonance – of feeling so happy in a place with such a sad history – I decided to make this place, in my mind, a kind of graveyard: a beautifully tended, peaceful place to honor the dead. The corpse I imagine beneath it: racism.
I know it’s not true, really. But it’s what I pray for with all my heart:
May racism, and all hate, be buried beneath flowering gardens. Blessed Be.