I see the gorgeous house – old chimneys, pillars, wavy-glass windows. AND I see the brown hands that made every brick, turned every piece of wood, set every pane of glass into its frame.
I see the lane to the house, sometimes lined with trees, sometimes with boxwoods. AND I see the backs of men twisted and turned for an ax blade and bent over grub hoes to clear the forest that became the line of that lane.
I see the gardens, lush and verdant after spring rain. AND I see the women in long skirts, babies on their knees as they pull weeds and prune hedges with their fingers.
I will not – cannot – deny the beauty that is the plantation landscape of my home. These houses and the people who owned them have shaped everything about geographic, financial, and social aspects of Virginia life, even here in 2016, and they are lovely works of architecture, stately and intricate. To deny that is to deny the skill of the enslaved workers who shaped the land and built the structures. To deny that is to try to paint plantation owners as only one-dimensional and horrible people – as horrible as their actions and choices were in immense and tiny ways. No, I will sit with the complexity that is a plantation – physical beauty and cultural oppression – and I will honor both.
AND I will not use the word plantation with any nostalgia. I will not look at these places and harken back to “better days.” I will not twist plantation to something quaint and then name a shopping center after these places.
AND I will not call these places farms or estates if they are the large land-holdings of the elite, as if pigs were the major financial producer in their origin or as if the current owners receive none of the fruits of that slave labor. I will not seek to impugn or bring shame, but nor will I use language to obfuscate history. We do enough of that already.
When I see a plantation, I see the big house first because that is the way the landscapes were designed, and I am a human being. I note the shape of the columns and the size of the house. I try to guess at the age by the language of architecture that I have absorbed but never learned to articulate.
But quickly, my eyes scan the fields beside the big house. I am looking for a summer kitchen, a smokehouse, even a privy. But mostly I am looking – praying as I search – that slave quarters are still standing. Mostly, they are not.
Even here, on our place, which was too small to be a plantation, by technical terms, but where at least 13 people were enslaved, all the outbuildings are standing – summer kitchen, smokehouse, wagon shed, privy – but the slave quarter is now a pile of rubble grown over my grass. Whether it was torn down by intention or fallen down by neglect is of no matter, it is gone.
So I crave the places where slave residences are still standing because here, in some most significant way, they speak to the lives of the people who built that big house, who cleared that land, who tended the children who had children, who had children, who had children who now own that space. I ache to see those places because they claim the memory of the whole truth of the plantation life.
So when I see a Virginia plantation, I see the sunlight and the rain, the arcs of tree branches, the hollows of old road beds, and I watch the carriages ride by and catch a memory of a white hand at a window. But mostly, I’m looking for bare brown feet and the callouses on brown palms. I’m hoping to catch the sweep of a cotton skirt as it moves from summer kitchen to dining room. I’m hoping – praying – that the story I reach into most with all of my Virginia heart is the story of love and suffering, talent and forced labor, art and artifice.
What do you see when you see a plantation?
I grew up on the Bremo Plantations, where my father was the manager. You can see more pictures of these places, including images of the standing slave quarters, on this page. Please note that the Bremo Plantations are privately owned and are not open to the public.