Essays

A tale of two plantations

When we visited New Orleans in November of 2016 people often asked my sister and I where we came from. "Canada," I said. "Ah. Cold up there," was usually the response or "This must seem like summer to you." I explained how it was nearly as warm in parts of Canada as it was in New Orleans. People nodded while looking over my shoulder, not listening. Nobody talked about the U.S. federal election results.

 

We visited two plantations: the Whitney and the Randall. The Whitney is the only (and relatively new) museum in the United States that describes plantation life from the enslaved people's perspective with as many names, artifacts and stories as possible.

 

We saw enclosures where men and women were penned before they were sold.  On the windows of the 'big house' were bars intended to keep white owners safe from their slaves. We looked at a line of round table-sized rusted bowls from which the enslaved, including children, spooned hot sugar syrup from one to another as it was boiled down.

An hour further along the Mississippi we stayed at a converted plantation where the Randall family was one of the biggest sugar producers in the world. We stayed in little white cabins that surrounded the property; ours had flowered curtains and carved wooden headboards and petit-point china just like my grandmother's.

In the big house, called the mansion, guests were like us: white, slightly wrinkled and well-off. Two tables away at breakfast were a group of women in their 60s talking about their tour.

"I took a little walk--"

"It was so cold--"

"Turned the corner and it was all black."

(a chorus) Oh! Ohhh . . .

(a beat)

"Black on black, you know. I was so scared."

"The tour guide told you not to go there."

Our guide at the Randall mansion was a strapping white man named Luke who turned out to be a decent historian--he even knew where a slave burial ground lay far from us underneath the sugar cane fields. He often referred to history as 'it was what it was.'

"Imagine the year 1859," Luke said. "Nearly 170 years ago. Imagine what was going on for the plantation owners. They don't know for sure that war is coming, but they think it might. How does anyone know for sure a war is coming?

"What are they worried about?" he asked. "The Union boats are going up and down the river so they're worried about the Yankees. The slaves have heard how things are going and their owners fear they will revolt and kill them. They know their world is ending. What do they do?

"They consider moving, but where?

"They consider arming. What else? I'm just pickin' your brains here."

He also asked our tour what other plantations people had visited. No one mentioned the Whitney. No one else seemed to heard of it. Later that day my sister and I accidentally drove our rented car into a black neighbourhood in Placqueville--a similar experience can occur on some Canadian roads when you make a turn and realize you're on a First Nations reserve. No sidewalks. Houses with peeling paint. Junked cars in the front yard. People sit on their stoops and kids play basketball. I remembered the breakfast conversation I had overheard and wondered, as if I had been infected by a conversational virus, what would happen if our car broke down. Soon, though, we were back on the main streets deciding where to find a decent place for lunch.

On the highway back to New Orleans we passed a trailer with a sign on it that said GOD HAS MORE TRAGEDIES THAN GOVERNMENT HAS SOLUTIONS. In Louisiana, the week after Donald Trump's election, that seemed about right.

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