Plantations as Complex Historic Places

Plantations as Complex Historic Places

Slave Cabin at Laura Plantation

A couple of weeks ago, I heard a speaker give a moving, powerful talk about how geographic spaces can be places of both traumatic memory and redemption.  I was so inspired by her talk, encouraged to think deeply about the historic places I know (including the place I live) as places of history harm and historic healing.

Then, when an audience member asked this speaker what she thought about plantations, her tone shifted. Suddenly she was adamant where before she had been tender but strong.  She said, “Well, first, let’s begin by calling them slave labor camps . . . and let’s talk about people getting married on a plantation.  Why would anyone ever do that?”

Some members of the crowd cheered. Some of us sat quiet. I bristled, and it’s taken me a few weeks to think through part of why I was put off.

I was put off not because I don’t think she was right about plantations about being places of slave labor and not because I haven’t struggled with my own wedding at a plantation and not because I want to pretend that plantations are simply idyllic places of white-oriented nostalgia.  As I’ve said before, plantations are the geographic locations of massive historic harm – I’m not denying that. . . but I do think when we try to compare them to places like concentration camps we are missing the mark and denying the complexity of these spaces for everyone who has a tie to them.

A few years ago, my friend Michael Twitty wrote a moving piece about Ani DiFranco’s plan to have a workshop at a plantation and her subsequent decision to cancel that workshop.  In that piece he makes a powerful point about how these places were not only places of torture and oppression but were also the birthplace of a rich and vibrant culture:

Hear me now. The Southern Plantation has yet to be acknowledged as the birthplace for a community and a culture that has changed the world.  Roots music, pop music, world music…started there.  The plantation quarters, its fields, its brush harbor/hush harbor churches..the streets of Southern cities…Congo Square….America’s indigenous arts–jazz, blues, and all of their creative spawn was right there–way down South in Dixie.  I celebrate the food that was created there–the grandness of the Southern and Creole/Cajun traditions and beyond–and how hands of color cooked their way to renown.  Our aesthetics–our foodways–our music–our spirituality–our everything—owes a great deal to the civilization in chains–and Ani DiFranco–this African American culinary historian–this interpreter of enslaved people’s lives–salutes your intentions–and when you form that sacred circle–you can bet  I want to be there with you–as you salute the ancestors and the generations waiting to be born who will live in the fertility of your footsteps.

Plantations are places rich with history – painful, awful history, yes, but also beautiful, profound, life-giving history . . . for white and black folks.

I grew up on one of these places.  It is still – despite the pain I see built into the land and carved into the landscape – the most peaceful, restful place I know.  I’m not sure how I know this, but I’m confident that the spirits of the people who were enslaved there are at rest. . . that they live now in peace.  So while I am always aggrieved by what happened to them, while I visit that place with eyes open and heart broken, I take joy there, still.  So there’s this piece – that the people who lived there – white people for sure but probably some black people, too – found these places beautiful, even as they were brutal horrific places, too.

So when we want to decry them as only places of misery, we aren’t honoring any of the people who lived there, the ones who lived there by choice and the ones who had no choice.  To really remember slavery, to really own that history and heal from it, we have to recognize that ALL of that story needs to be told. We need to understand the ways those places and that practice link people together across generations.  We need to hold the beauty of the landscape, the joy of the people, the brutality of the institution, and the strength and suffering of the individuals together.

What I’d love to see on plantations is the whole story told – the stories of the black families and the stories of the white families, the stories of celebrations and the stories of humiliations, the stories of weddings and the stories of whippings because this history has harmed ALL OF US, the perpetrators and the oppressed. It has scarred us, wounded us, damaged us as individuals and as a nation, and we need to recognize the way we have all been shaped by these plantations. We need to see them as their own historical landscapes, as places unique in the history of the world . . . as places that need to be remembered not in some rose-colored nostalgia of history that whitewashes it to pure or drops into the pit of only horror.

We need to live into the traditions of West African griots and American Indian storytellers, the laughter that comes during Irish wakes and the songs of horns dancing before caskets in New Orleans.  We need all of the story, the complex, rich, proud, hard story so that we can reclaim these places of trauma as places of healing and hope, so that we can keep them with us for the stories they teach us about ourselves and the cautions they give us about who we have been and who we can become.

What do you think about plantations? Are they slave labor camps? Appropriate places to have weddings?  I’d really love to hear your thoughts here because I’m still thinking through.


  • I fully embrace the term “slave labor camp” for large plantations with scores or even thousands of enslaved workers. It is particularly accurate for the industrial scale production of cotton and other crops in the Deep South in first half of the 19th c. I don’t use the term for a family farm with a few enslaved field workers and a few others working in the house, and the white slave-holders working beside them–simply because it isn’t accurate, and using the term indiscriminately drains it of its power. The word “plantation” also has to be interrogated, as a historical term not one of sentiment or outrage. In Maryland (the place where I have studied slavery in detail), the word was used even for miserably impoverished farms where buildings were small and decrepit and where both white and black were struggling just to get by. Brutal acts, such as separating parents from children, might actually have been worse in those conditions, because of the personal, face-to-face relations between the powerful and the powerless. So when I say “slave labor camp,” invoking Nazi-occupied Europe and the Soviet Gulag, I want that comparison to be forceful and real. And I want other language to describe other experiences of the enslaved, recognizing the other human shapes of suffering, of surviving, and of living. I particularly don’t want to use terms that obliterate the powerful agency of enslaved people, many of whom of course wanted to marry and to love and live and in many cases found ways to do all those things. Slavery was not a uniform experience in all times and places, and enslaved people did not respond uniformly to the conditions they were trapped in. Suggesting that they did, or (worse) should have, strikes me as dehumanizing and deeply insulting to both the enslaved and their descendants.

    • Andi Cumbo-Floyd

      So well-said, Susan. . . too often we make see slavery – and enslaved people – as monoliths, huge numbers that obliterate the humanity of these individuals, and so yes, your call for precise terms is wise.

      Here in Virginia, plantations are most often those large farms owned by the most elite enslavers, places where at least 75 or 100 people were held in bondage. But the term is also used, as you mentioned, for any place where people were enslaved. . . so maybe there’s value in setting forth the various landscapes of slavery. Maybe someone has done that already?

  • Like labelling President Thomas Jefferson a rapist, the term “slave labor camp”, is hard to swallow. In my circles, I often hear the term “slave labor camp” used but it is not a term that I embrace because it exudes anger. I seek permission from owners to spend nights in extant slave dwellings. If I tossed that term around, I am certain that the 100 plus property owners would not have granted me the permission that I sought. My intent is to insert the stories of the enslaved into the places where there are not and should be. Those who lived in “big houses” on the plantations were always the minorities on those properties. The stories of the enslaved majority is often not the focus or sometime not even included in the interpretation of some of the sites that are open to visitation. They were the plantations then and they are plantations now. Just as it was the Civil War then not the “War Between the States” or the “War of Northern Aggression”.

    As we evolve, there will always be those who will assign titles and words. I am still getting acquainted with the terms “enslaved” and “enslavers”.

    • I think we have to embrace the fact that Sally Hemings was 14 when she had her first baby by Thomas Jefferson which means she was most likely 13 when he started having sex with her. A child. So that information would classify him as a rapist as many were. We have to stop soft stroking the truth and be real about the whole ordeal.

      • Andi Cumbo-Floyd

        Oh, I agree, Maria, and while I can’t speak for Joe, I expect he does, too.

  • Allison Thomas

    Andi, thank you so much for initiating these conversations. Much food for thought. I wish I could come to your writing workshop the end of July — next one I hope!

    • Andi Cumbo-Floyd

      Thanks, Allison, and thanks for helping me think through things. . . and yes, next year . . . and I’m even thinking of doing a retreat just for people writing about the history and legacy of slavery. . . I’ll keep you posted.