In recent years, Whitney Plantation has been transformed into a site for the memory of African enslavement in American and Atlantic history. The New Yorker recently produced a video that combines images of the stunning Louisiana landscape with commentary from Dr. Ibrahima Seck, Director of Research at the plantation. Both Dr. Seck and the New Yorker note that preserving this site of bound labor and diasporic life is not “designed to make people feel guilt or to make people feel shame.” What then is such a site designed to make people feel?

via LA Times: "A statue of a child slave is among the displays at Whitney Plantation in Wallace, La." (Jim Cummings)
via LA Times: “A statue of a child slave is among the displays at Whitney Plantation in Wallace, La.” (Jim Cummings)

Two of my colleagues here, Kami Fletcher and Jessica Marie Johnson, have written thoughtful, illuminating essays on sites of memory and have helped me explore that question. Kami, examining the challenge that business interests pose to historical memory, notes that moving slave cabins from their site in Botetourt County, Virginia, would produce a kind of forced forgetting. Such sites should exist, she points out, to provide a fuller understanding of the past and to allow people to forge connections to history. Jessica, walking readers through her visit to the Whitney plantation, highlights the intellectual and emotional power of the site’s efforts to reproduce fully both slavery and enslaved people as they existed on the plantation. The museum calls visitors to remember black bondage by experiencing the domestic spaces in which it was continually made and remade. Each author makes clear that at each site, feeling history is as important as knowing it.

In telling “the story of slavery,” organizers of Whitney Plantation offer some similar points about the value of that story. Dr. Seck notes the aim of the museum is to preserve not only the memory, but also the existence of the enslaved, to “tell their story, [to] bring them back to life.” He is also invested in using the site to promote social justice: through the history of slavery presented at the plantation, we might understand and address contemporary problems. There’s something appealing in this idea that history, particularly the history of slavery, can have tangible political results. It seems to me to be tied to a hope that history might reach a kind of conclusion, a desire to produce a finished product, or a hope that the past has an end. In pulling away from the idea that the Whitney Plantation should evoke feelings of guilt or shame, Dr. Seck acknowledges that history does evoke feelings, which tend not to have conclusions or tangible ends.

And so, again, what are those feelings, or what should they be? I recently had a conversation in class about Cape Coast Castle as a site of memory. My students connected that site to ongoing debates about historical memory surrounding Yale’s Calhoun College, South Carolina’s State House, the Jefferson Davis Statue at University of Texas, and Byrd Stadium at University of Maryland. As we talked, I told my students that I want them to know the past in its complexity and that memorials rarely encourage that. But I wasn’t sure how to convey to them the challenge of our feeling things about the past, and I didn’t know for sure how I might, or whether I should, try to mold those feelings. Thinking about Whitney Plantation and the work of my fellow bloggers has helped me move toward answers to those questions. I don’t want students to feel guilt or shame because I think those emotions can obscure a sense of historical contingency and can discourage the project of understanding how and why the past happened the way that it did. But I do want students to feel sadness and disgust as we talk about lost opportunities, lost lives, and historical horrors. I want them to feel anger at injustice. I want them to feel empowerment through stories of struggle and progress. I want them to feel excitement and happiness with the opportunities history gives us, as limited as they are, to grasp what is still such a broad array of human experience. And ultimately, I’d like students to recognize and understand that we are all connected to the past, and I’d like them to feel something of that connection.

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Christopher Bonner

Christopher Bonner is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. He specializes in African American history, particularly black protest in the early United States. He is at work on a manuscript titled “The Price of Citizenship,” which examines black activists’ efforts to construct American citizenship before the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. Follow him on Twitter @63cjb.

Comments on “The Bonds of History

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    Insightful and fascinating post, Dr. Bonner.

    Your references to what kind of memories connect to specific historical sites, and especially how that operates in history classrooms, brought me back to Jonathan Holloway’s invocation of the intersection of history and memory in Jim Crow Wisdom. “Lying. Forgetting. The archive. The imagination. All are part of the process of fashioning collective memory and identify,” Holloway observes in the Introduction (p. 11). “Black collective memory is a memory of the forgotten, a memory of those whose very presence made the rest of the country white, a memory of those struggling against a denial of their citizenship so that others would know how to claim their stake in America.” Holloway’s descriptions about memory’s intellectual life, as I read it in light of your post, connects powerfully to the affective space you describe creating in the classroom for students to feel history, as it were, in real time. On our best days as professors and students, that can make for powerful, transformative encounters with the past.

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