Are We There Yet? An Interracial Family Visits a Southern Plantation

The evening I touched down in New Orleans, about to embark on a soul-searching family trip to various sugar plantations, the Darren Wilson decision was reached in Ferguson. I was sitting at a down home barbeque restaurant with my mixed-race sister, Black mother and her white boyfriend of nine years. I mean, we were the friggin’ picture of post-racial prosperity, and yet every one of us was slapped back to reality in one timely Google search. We are avid mealtime Googlers. If we had set the table ourselves it would look something like, from left to right: salad fork, dinner fork, dinner plate, water glass, wine glass, napkin, soup spoon, knife, iPhone. Conversation consists of getting into heated debates that more or less end in Googling the answer; either that, or eavesdropping on the neighboring table and picking up where they left off.

I’ve never been to a protest. Well, I went to one teensy Occupy protest in Amherst while I was at Hampshire, and I did one of those bogus walk-outs in high school so I could drink booze and smoke cigarettes and to feel like part of something cool. But really, as an active participant, no. I’m not proud of this, but I never felt compelled to participate in one — until that night. There was a fury brewing in me that I had never experienced before and I wanted to take to the streets and burn some shit down. Fortunately, I did not have the opportunity to commit arson that night because I was having “family time.” But I’d never felt this before; like somebody was shaking me by the shoulders and saying “you’ve got to do something!” Of course, we were set to embark on a road trip where not only would I have to swallow this rage, but I would be confined to a car, and taking quaint tours of old timey plantations where if I decided to get stir crazy, I would surely be thrown out.

For the next five days we would have circular conversations surrounding the blatant and unending ignorance blinging from our phones via Facebook. As we rolled by the sugar cane fields on the road to Natchez, hugging the border of the Mississippi River, one of us would periodically look up from our screen to announce yet another mind-melting post from some distant white “friend” who felt the need to comment on one of our posts.

“You guys,” my mother groaned, “You will not believe what Christen White just said to me.”

“Her name is Christen White? Oh God, what did she say?”

“This woman… god help her… had the nerve to tell me this has something — anything — to do with Black-on-Black violence. Oh oh oh oh, here’s a quote: ‘nine times out of ten, it’s black men who are killing each other.'”

“Where the fuck did she get that statistic? Oh, Mom, you have to ask her where she heard that. No wait, I got it, I got it. I’m gonna tell her.”

Normally, I don’t make a habit of getting into arguments with people on the Internet, but when people who are normally ideologically aligned with me decide to make their ignorance and thinly veiled paternalism known without invitation, I just… erghhhh. This, of course, goes against what I believe in: that people’s minds can only be changed when you coddle them through it. But goddamn was this particular person irritating. My mother’s boyfriend remained relatively stoic throughout the ride. He really enjoys trees, and the trees along the Mississippi are quite haunting and majestic at the same time.

Photo by Keris Salmon

Photo by Keris Salmon

We were able to take a break from our seething and Instagramming when we arrived at Evergreen Plantation in Edgard, Louisiana. An active sugar plantation to this day, our tour guide walked us beneath canopies of 200-year-old oaks with low-hanging Spanish moss that resembled antique lace. We were walked through the “big house”— incidentally the same exterior used to film some scenes in Django Unchained. Particularly, one of my favorite scenes (I know) in which a slave woman asks of her master, “You want us to treat him [Django] like white folks?” I don’t know, that one just had me rolling — but I digress.

Burnt orange rooms with hardwood floors led us to marble hallways accented with wicker furniture sporting palm-patterned pillows. The rooms were tastefully designed with Victorian and Edwardian antiques that were perfectly preserved. We were told that our tour guide does not know the cost of upkeep on the meticulously kempt grounds because whatever it is it doesn’t matter: “The owners are oil heirs. This is just a hobby.” Quite a hobby.

We were walked to the slave quarters, some still standing, others restored. They were basic shacks, between three and five to a room. Although tiny, they were bigger than I thought they would be. We were told of the French colonial slave-keeping laws, which were apparently more humane than those of American, British or Spanish colonial laws. When we were told that the slaves were encouraged to be married, that young girls must be sold along with their mothers and kept from work until the age of fourteen, and eventually buried alongside their masters in the Catholic cemetery, we caught ourselves doing that raised-eyebrow, pompous nod of surprise until we were able to remind each other that these people, however less oppressed than their neighbors, were still fucking slaves. It seems that even back then, darker skinned folks were being handed a bone and told to be grateful for what they had.

When we arrived at the Dunleith Plantation in Natchez, Mississippi, it was almost dinnertime. We got properly soused on red wine, ate some food (I can’t recall what) and I fell face-first into my pillow, expecting to wake to a sprawling historical plantation much like Evergreen. One of the first things my mother’s boyfriend noticed upon waking up Thanksgiving Day, was that all of the rooms were named after prominent confederate soldiers. This information he bestowed upon us with didactic self-confidence. I was totally freaked, but he seemed more intrigued than horrified. How apropos that we spend Thanksgiving, arguably the most colonial holiday next to Columbus Day, in the most colonial environment in America. I couldn’t help but think that if indeed this particular plantation had any affiliation with actual confederate soldiers, that was creepy because the ghost of Stonewall Jackson was probably staking out my bedroom door with a sawed-off shotgun while I slept. And, if in fact, this plantation had nothing to do with the confederacy at all, then what the hell were the bed-and-breakfast owners doing naming the rooms in honor of the most racist blight on American history? I wanted to get out of there fast, but we were slated to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner on yet another nearby plantation and nothing was open at the moment so my only hope at eating anything that day was to wait it out, hangry as hell, refreshing my stupid Facebook feed until dinnertime. For the record, it turns out that neither of these places were actually plantations, but plantation-style homes. Nonetheless, they almost certainly employed a cadre of slaves, so the details don’t exactly sway me.

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Photo by Keris Salmon

The next morning, as my mother and her boyfriend ate their breakfast, they approached a couple that had been sitting next to us at dinner the night before. They looked nice enough: older, white, kind of edgy looking. The dude had a kind of Keith Richards thing going on. My mom asked how their dinner was. They said it was fine, and remarked how we were being kind of “rowdy,” most likely referring to our umpteenth heated discussion of the events in Ferguson. And then he asked my Black mother and her white boyfriend, “so… uh, how in the world did you two get hooked up???” My mother, bless her heart, tried with every cell in her brain to rationalize this question. She thought, “maybe he thought I was wearing whacky clothes, and Frank dresses so conservatively.” She does dress very colorfully (pun not intended). But the rest of us took it for what it was, even Frank. And after so many days of suppressed mania, a wave of exhaustion washed over me. The nail in the coffin was when I called my 98-year-old grandmother from the car on our way back to New Orleans. She said, “I just… cannot believe y’all are in Mississippi. Although, I guess times have changed a bit.” Yeah, grandma. A bit.

Photo by Keris Salmon

Photo by Keris Salmon

Two days after returning to New York, the cop who murdered Eric Garner was absolved of any indictment. But instead of rage, or anxiety, I felt tired. Tired from travel, perhaps, but also just wiped. Worn down by the concurrent weight of history unraveling behind me and the present unfolding before me, I felt paralyzed. History is repeating itself too soon, it seems. It’s déjà vu all over again, and the only tools we have to address it are our voices. That weekend, I was in the streets, but not to rage or burn. I was there to mourn, or rather, to wait. Because at this stage of grief, my only burning and desperate question is: Are we there yet?

Hannah Hodson is a 22-year old Brooklyn-bred writer and actor. She graduated Hampshire College with a very valuable BA in Theatre and Black Studies. She currently resides in DUMBO, Brooklyn, where she admires the view while writing poetry about gentrification, climate change, race, class and other heavy stuff, but tries to keep a positive outlook on it all. She recently met Abbi and Ilana from Broad City (IRL), and has photos to prove it. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter, for her thoughts on Beyonce.

Hannah has written 37 articles for us.

20 Comments

    • It kinda depended upon where in the French colonies. In the Caribbean the Code Noir was basically ignored for example. And like any law in existence, enforcement isn’t done by magical all seeing fairies.

      Still how lenient Creole slavery seems in comparison to Anglo slavery in general, and not just the antebellum area where some slave holders where known to personally breed and sell their own, claiming another person as property can never be lessened by any code just some codes made manumission more obtainable.

      We all know trying to own a human is bad not matter how you dress it up there’s no denying that.

  1. “And, if in fact, this plantation had nothing to do with the confederacy at all, then what the hell were the bed-and-breakfast owners doing naming the rooms in honor of the most racist blight on American history?”

    Retro-naming like this (if it was) seems worse than even neglecting to change something that was already like that. Like there’s an extra level of belligerence involved.

    I also really hope Christen White was her real name.

  2. If you’d found us in New Orleans that night you could have witnessed some more white fuckery. We ended up at the First District precinct station where Adolph Archie was murdered. Some of us went inside, some outside.

    Myself and another white woman were standing next three women of color. “Somehow” the NOPD cops managed to forcibly push every woman of color while never laying a hand on either of us white women.

    thank you for your words and your story. feeling inheriting southern whiteness and what it means.

  3. There’s so much I want to say, so many things I’ve reflected upon and realised as person whose from where I’m from. Who has delved into the history of slavery in the New World, because it shaped this country from the very beginning and I’d not be the apostle of history that am without going into it.

    But I’m not sure this is the time or the place for those things.

    Other than: It’s disturbing, but not surprising to realise a big nasty thread between that past and America’s present is a denial of black humanity. It’s not like in the 140 plus years since the Emancipation Proclamation the nation collectively took their shears to it.

    And how much this nation likes to look back at slave owners as blood thirsty unconscionable monsters without a shred of the humanity they denied their slaves. It’s kinda like how white middle america views racism. Something that they’re not capable of but really that boy if had been more respectful to that officer he’d be alive.

    It’s those little denials, those little “understood truths” that make up the monstrosity of denying a person’s humanity, of denying that their life matters.

    For or to me the true horror of slavery wasn’t illustrated by brutal physical violence but systemic denial of humanity. That did and still does make me sick to my stomach and clammy with the realisation that it never fucking ended. The campaign to deny black humanity continued and helped oligarchs stay in power by keeping the masses separate hating on and destroying each other.

    Still does.

    This is a disjointed mess, but there’s so just much.

  4. The part where you’re all in the car full of rage about ferguson and your moms boyfriend is looking out the window and you write on how much he likes the trees and how the trees are nice to look at out there is such a powerful image. How easy it is to look away and see the trees instead of the roots, the horrific fact of a plantation attempting to be subdued by stories of how the French were slightly less awful than the other slave masters, how dazzlingly and menacingly distracting it all could be if you let it.

    This is truly great

    • So, does it make the past better to dwell in righteous indignation all the time? I’d rather focus on the trees but I’m just a “white” horticulturist from the West. There are jackass-people of every color and creed…why vilify trees and marginalize someone who chooses to focus on something positive and beautiful? Wait, let’s keep looking at the same sad bullshit over and over…our complaints will surely bring positive change. Like attracts like and there are no roots of evil…just the past events you continue to focus on while maintaining a stagnant, angry present.

      • I. Wow. I think something you’re not getting is that these past events are *personal* and they hurt *personally* for some people. These past events have resulted in collective trauma, because you can’t just let go of history or cultural connections or community. It’s easy for someone who is white, and even someone like me who is a non-black person of color to be able to “move on” and not dwell on the past, because that experience is disconnected from us in a way that it isn’t for other people.

        If you don’t see evil in this world, if you don’t see institutionalized, systemic racism in this world, you’re not looking. You might think you are, but you are fundamentally missing a piece of the puzzle if you can read about someone’s pain and confusion as they visit sites of past injustice as the same injustice continues in the headlines today, and then say there are no roots of evil involved.

        “Stagnant, angry present” Anger gets stuff done. Devaluing people of color’s, and especially women of color’s, and most especially black women’s thoughts and feelings by calling them angry is an age-old racist tactic, and it’s not okay. Anger is a human emotion, a valid one, and a completely logical one in the face of the racism this country was built on and continues to perpetuate.

        Please do some more reading about institutionalized racism, and try to have some sympathy. Realize that you get to see this in a different way than others are forced to. You get to live in the world in a different way than others are forced to. At the very least, recognize that the author is clearly expressing deep emotion and pain, and that this kind of comment only exists to tear her down, as well as anyone who empathizes with what she’s talking about.

        If nothing else – if you can’t say anything nice, please don’t say anything at all.

      • What part of this is STILL going on today don’t you fucking understand, you disrespectful, spoiled, hostile, childish, sociopathic racist moron!?!? Thanks to the CONTINUED RACISM that came out of RACE-BASED SLAVERY that was UNIQUE to the Western Hemisphere- you know the institution that utterly dehumanized and demonized ALL people of African descent, their children, and their children’s children for perpetuity so they could be enslaved forever – African people could be enslaved at any time, anywhere, by anyone, no matter who they were, how much money they had, what they did, where they lived, and ESPECIALLY no matter what they said. Example? Solomon Northup. Black people are STILL being dehumanized, but now instead of being deemed to only be slaves fit for INEXCUSABLY inhumane and brutal chattel slavery, we’re deemed to only be criminals fit for DEATH or INEXCUSABLY inhumane and brutal prisons where we are relegated to yet ANOTHER kind of slavery. Example? Tamir Rice, a 12 year old baby. When those benefiting from a system of oppression don’t fight to change it, they are COMPLICIT. So instead of having the sheer AUDACITY to tell people of African descent how WE should handle the racial oppression brutally forced onto us by YOUR people, YOU need to fix state-sanctioned white supremacy in the U.S. THAT is your job. That is the ONLY reasonable position YOU have to play when it comes to white supremacy: stopping it. It is NOT your job or place to open your fucking arrogant, callous, know-nothing mouth, to tell ME or any other black person HOW to respond to systemic racism – EVER. Never ever in a million fucking years will it be your place. You need STFU about what black people are doing and deal with racism. NOW.

        To the moderators, if any: Good god, don’t you ever delete messages from racist trolls like this?

  5. Thank you – this is beautifully written.

    One thing I don’t understand in N. America is when (white) people talk about Colonial style.

    Seriously, do they also go into stores and ask for Nazi-style or Khmer Rouge-style?? WTF??

  6. Thank you so much for sharing this story. Your writing is beautiful.

    Also, I’m sorry that the people you encountered were so insensitive to the lasting scars of slavery. When I visited Terezin with my family, I didn’t have to think about the locals and other visitors saying thoughtless things while we confronted a painful and important part of our history as Jews. Maybe us white Americans could use that mindset to treat Black Americans better when we discuss these parts of history. In my experience, visiting places of historical pain and injustice is really draining, and it must take a lot of courage when everyone else is celebrating that history. I hope you were able to take the time to do some self care after the trip, and are able to take a good break for the holidays.

  7. “…I had much rather starve in England, a free woman, than be a slave for the best man that ever breathed upon the American continent.” – Ellen Craft, a runaway slave who fled to all the way to England to get the fuck away from the total racist society in America. None of the societies established by European colonizers in the Western Hemisphere were societies with slavery – they were TOTAL RACIST, SLAVE SOCIETIES. Especially America. The race-based chattel slavery system Europeans created and profit from to this day was created by the complete denial of the humanity of Africans and it was instituted at all levels of society and government. “Race” was a political category that determined CITIZENSHIP STATUS by PHYSICAL APPEARANCE and being of African descent and the “black race” meant you could never have access to full citizenship and full legal rights and that you could be enslaved at anytime, anywhere, no matter who you were. Example? People like Prince Abdul-Rahman and Solomon Northup. Slavery in America was so corrupt, vile, and brutal that it POISONED the parental bonds that people USUALLY have with their children to the point that white men felt justified in changing the laws of inheritance to PERPETUALLY ENSLAVE their OWN CHILDREN. Race-based chattel slavery allowed them to dehumanize THEIR OWN OFFSPRING and impose the most horrendous crimes upon them without any consideration and mercy: whipping them, torturing them, selling them for profit. The inexcusably cruel, utterly dehumanizing, lifelong, hereditary, and perpetual race-based slavery inflicted upon Africans and their descendants by Europeans in the West was NEVER humane. EVER. The entire basis of slavery in “The New World” WAS completely and utter dehumanization that you could NEVER escape whether you were free or slave. There WERE no “good” slave masters. On any level ever. There were UNTOLD amounts of slave revolts and resistance movements of African people CONSTANTLY trying to free themselves. People of African descent were not viewed as humans or citizens and often times they STILL aren’t, thanks to the continued racism created by slavery. Slavery [and the globalized white supremacy that sprung from it] was and is an abomination and a crime against humanity that STILL hasn’t been fully dealt with.

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