On February 28, 2015, the last day of Black History Month 2015 (or Black Future Month as the #blacklivesmatter and #FergusonNext movement dubbed it), I met with friends and colleagues to visit Whitney Plantation and Slave Museum in Wallace, LA. Below are reflections, mostly unfinished and speculative, on what the (re)production of African-American and Atlantic African diaspora history and amplification/replication of the voices of the enslaved at Whitney means for how we understand time, space, and memory in histories of slavery.
When you walk in, you enter the Whitney through the shop. There is an exhibit on the right, a bookstore near the back. A young man, born in Wallace, checks you in and takes your money.
I’m eager so I don’t linger. In hindsight, I barely registered a bookstore existed. I followed Seck through the back door and the day is idyllic. Too cool in the shade but perfect in the sun. Glittering sun. A tour guide sits with a group in the grass near one of the shallow waterways that cut through the property. There is a bridge over it. I find out later the tour guide is speaking with a group of teenagers about the plantation and its history.
The first place we enter isn’t the Big House or the slave quarters. It’s the church. Built in 1867 by freedwomen and men, the church building was donated to the plantation and slave museum (it is called both in media and press) by the congregation of First Antioch Baptist Church of Paulina, LA. Whitney’s financier, John Cummings, had the historically Afro-Louisianan church moved to the new location and restored to its original condition, complete with a working bell. We stopped a moment to ring it before Seck escorted us into the heart of the church.
When you open the door to enter the nave, the children greet you.
They aren’t looking at you. They are attentive to whatever is happening on the pulpit or in the pews. But they are close. If you were laughing in delight at hearing the church bell ring out across the landscape (as I was), your laughter immediately cuts off.
These images don’t do them justice. Designed and sculpted by Woodrow Nash, the terra-cotta figures are terrible and beautiful all at once. Some appear to smile, others scowl. Some have braids or cornrows, a few have locs or twists. A handful are in color, their overalls and dresses painted in striking blues and browns that radiate against the wood of the pews, the walls of the church. None of them have eyes.
Each statue represents a person. Most represent one of the thirty odd men and women who experienced slavery in Louisiana as a child and was interviewed by Works Progress Administration investigators in the 1930s as an elder. A handful represent a child who labored at the plantation site at some point in its history, a child with a story we now know.
Each child has a name. They have identities and histories. They are neither nameless nor voiceless, as so many subaltern historical subjects are, particularly in histories of slavery. They have already spoken. The statues and everything they represent also give lie to the presumption that the enslaved left no stories, no words worth mentioning or remembering. Or believing.
By choosing to engage the visitors through a historically African-American church filled with statues of enslaved children, Ibrahima Seck, the Director of Research, does more than memorialize the original interviewees and enslaved members of the Haydel/Whitney Plantation site. Seck and the Whitney staff force us to enter the plantation by walking past, watching, and being watched by enslaved themselves. The figures act as artifacts of and portals into the words and lives of residents of Louisiana who experienced slavery, who engaged Writers’ Project interviewers as experts in their own lives. Confronted with their familiars, we are challenged to take them seriously as the only experts that matter. As intellectuals in their own right and masters of their own words and worlds.
This is the visitor’s introduction to the Whitney Plantation and Slave Museum.
When you encounter excerpts from the WPA interviews on the next stop in the tour, along the Wall of Honor, you are ready to hear what they have to say. When Julie Woodrich tells the tourist about her owner, who would come to the quarters and fetch her sister to have her take a bath and comb her hair then “take her down in the quarter all night,” there is nothing to do but “listen” and realize this was a ritual of intimate violence and it was a ritual witnessed by a child. What does it mean that a child must bear witness? What rests in the silences between what Woodrich tells us and what she does not?
The church doesn’t prepare you for the stories but it does prepare you for the possibility of listening harder to what isn’t said, what is unexpected, what rests in one or two words in an inventory. Constance de nación Congo. Moussa is Mandingo. What labor is hidden below the declaration of these as identities, a shout so loud slaveowners, notaries, judges, and lawyers were forced to recognize the same, write the force of that will down in the slave register as “Samba, Poulard Nation.” Walking the Wall of Honor, reading nation after nation of African or Africanized identity named, claimed, and demanded, you are well prepared to consider the facts–Louisiana became African well before it became French, Spanish, or Anglo-American and the only “nations” who could possibly make a stronger claim of ownership and heritage on the Gulf Coast are the Native peoples of the Gulf South.
You are less prepared for Field of Angels and the rigor of dying.
What labor is that? To be born and then unborn? To die within the first three years of life? To represent, on an inventory, a loss of property and a Christian name (and therefore also a baptism and perhaps a “good” master)? What labor is it to be a lost socialization into a broader violence–and a broader tribe?
There are no African names in the Field of Angels. But there are corpses.
At Whitney, time is meta. Everything happens in layers. A jail built in Pennsylvania in 1868 which may or may not have held slaves sits adjacent to the slave quarters. The plaque explains something about the bars, about their shape and texture, something easily forgotten in a memory of black terror. The jail is red, resplendent against the plantation grounds, and placed so it is the first thing you see as you turn the corner down the lane which leads you past the cabins of the enslaved. It is center stage. The cabins flank it it on one side, the rest of the grounds spread before you on the other, some buildings undeveloped. Sugar kettles mark time, dotting the landscape in a gentle metronomic curve that follows the path to the jail’s doorstep.
You can see the jail through the trees, bare this time of year but they must have been beautiful once.
You can see the jail from yards away. Where it is located, you could have smelled African flesh as it burned and popped when it pressed against the flat steel bars and pebbled walls of the cell. The prison that may or may not have actually held black people in its thrall—and yet how could it not have, Philadelphia being what it was at one point, a place with one of the largest free black populations in the country? Does it matter, then, that the black people imprisoned in the structure may or may not have been slaves? What is freedom in a world of slaves? What is incarceration?
This is the geography and chronology the Whitney Plantation works with. To replicate, to render the terror of bondage legible required curators and creators to travel across time and space, to tesseract black singularity. To bring a Pennsylvania prison built, more than likely, after emancipation, into physical confrontation with slave cabins literally dabbles in blackness as a racialized assemblage and paints it on the landscape. It rejects linear time and biopolitics; in doing so it questions the utility of both to unpacking an ontology of blackness. What is it to be black and diasporic but the confrontation between terror and the home space and the potential of finding a home? What is it but the shadow of incarceration in and at a home space where life carries on alongside plantation products (sugar) in formation and limbs intertwined on beds?
In the main house there’s a parlor, a living room. The center piece is a table. Placed on top is what appears to be an instrument–a version of the kora, the Mande ancestor of the banjo.
Its placement is lazy, almost casual. An enslaved or free musician of color just so happened to leave it behind, some time ago, some when that is not now.
But this is deliberate. And in case it isn’t clear to you yet, it is clear now—even here, in the Big House, there is no refuge from the influence of Africa and Africans. In the slave quarters, there was literally no distance between the terror of the prison, the violence of subjection, the chattel principle at the heart of bondage, and the home space of the quarter, the intimacy of the bedroom, and the private or unprivate lives of the enslaved.
Here, in the Big House, a space which created whiteness just as it created mastery, the kora radiates with the beached anger of musicians of African descent who played for white, black, and multiracial audiences. Who also played for themselves, took pleasure and refuge in the music, imprinted their defiance on each song. Musicians who earned money for their talent, a rabbit hole of underground economic labor connected to a legion of hunters, coopers, blacksmiths, masons, midwives, herbalists, laundresses, cooks, seamstresses, nurses, child care workers, and spiritual leaders who plied their trade to earn a little something extra in coin or knowledge or autonomy. This underground economy of skill, pleasure, and intelligence remained largely inaccessible to slaveowners and whites at large.
In curated tableaux–a kora on a table in a creole mansion on a slave plantation on the River Road in Louisiana—Africans and people of African descent speak across the gap and tell us how they created space for insurgent thought and organized toward insurgent action.
You will remember, the Whitney curators seem to be saying, who built this land, who sang on it. Who dreamed–even as the Haydels sat in their parlor, fanning away mosquitoes.
Whitney Plantation website: http://whitneyplantation.com/
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.