“There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves,” Toni Morrison once said, explaining why she wrote Beloved, in an observation that inspired the Bench by the Road Project, which creates small memorials to African-American history. “There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist… the book had to.”
Decades after Morrison’s call and nine years after the founding of the Bench by the Road Project, a large museum commemorating the horrible realities of slavery has finally been built. Its origin story is fascinating and bizarre.
John Cummings, an eccentric, wealthy white trial layer in New Orleans has financed the first plantation-based, major slavery museum in American history — on the Whitney Plantation, where scenes from Quentin Tarantino’s alternate-history revenge flick Django Unchained were filmed. Now this plantation, which once housed human chattel, has again become the site of a challenge to the historical narrative.
The Times Magazine‘s David Amsden has written a captivating and important piece about Cummings’ efforts, which were undertaken in partnership with his research director Ibrahima Seck. Together they worked to build the museum which has essentially become the first and only of its kind in the country.
As a descendant of Irish laborers, he has no direct ties to slaveholders; still, in a departure from the views held by many Southern whites, Cummings considered the issue a personal one. “If ‘guilt’ is the best word to use, then yes, I feel guilt,” he said. “I mean, you start understanding that the wealth of this part of the world — wealth that has benefited me — was created by some half a million black people who just passed us by. How is it that we don’t acknowledge this?”
There are plenty of plantation museums that mention or don’t mention slavery (hi, Ani DiFranco), but many of them are washed over by nostalgia and cater to white tourists. Not so, Whitney Plantation, which has so far ushered in mixed-race groups, including a mixed-race group of relatives descended from a slave owner’s brother. A tour of the grounds will soon include a sculpture field of ceramic beheaded slaves to commemorate the brutal suppression of an uprising.
The memorial had lately become a source of controversy among locals, who were concerned that it would be too disturbing. “It is disturbing,” Cummings said as he pulled out past Whitney’s gate. “But you know what else? It happened. It happened right here on this road.”
I was talking to a group of teachers recently about the paradox of getting students to examine their own nation’s historical atrocities. It was a conversation made up of generalizations, but our conclusions went like this: Here in the United States, we study and memorialize the Holocaust with a great deal of attention (though often ignore the bad treatment our government gave survivors). Yet our own native genocides remain passed over by national scrutiny in many respects.
For instance, we insist still, in many places, that our Civil War was not about slavery but about states’ rights (it wasn’t). And as Toni Morrison noted, we have no major national memorials to slavery. Robert E. Lee’s horse has his own memorial, mind you, but slavery does not. And the reaction to the film Selma shows that many Americans are not ready for a narrative about black history that doesn’t foreground white experiences.
Meanwhile in Europe, polls indicate that citizenry say they are tired of constantly being made to atone for the Holocaust. But when Americans visit, they find their European counterparts love to talk about, and condemn, American racism. “Why should I be made to atone for something I had nothing to do with?” is a common refrain from people who benefit from the privileges that their country’s history of oppression conferred upon them and their families. The impetus behind these conflicting attitudes is what displaces guilt across borders. It shouldn’t, but often does, require a rare kind of intelligence and perhaps a weird variety of self-confidence to straightforwardly acknowledge the true past of what has occurred in ones very homeland.
It’s strange and a little bit sad that it took a private citizen’s fortune and willpower to create a monument like this. But perhaps the off-the-radar aspect of Cummings’ efforts allowed the museum to avoid some of the snags that a major government project would have unfortunately encountered. The effort started years ago but finished this winter just as the Black Lives Matter movement was growing louder, demanding to be heard.
One hopes the fact that Whitney Plantation’s museum has been built, largely to the approval of historians — and has now been given the blessing of a major Times Magazine profile — will create a ripple effect and encourage more people to research the particulars of’ local histories regarding slavery. From the slave trade, to plantations, to lynchings, to redlining, civil rights, and police violence, our denial of history too often correlates with a denial of justice in the present day.