Kate Roff finds the plantation manors of the US' southern states pose some difficult questions for travellers.
"When do we get to see the slave quarters?" my friend leaned over and whispered to me.
She had a point. Mentions of the Deep South in the US have always conjured up images of sweltering heat and historical hardship to me. Thanks largely to pop culture references, my first thoughts of states like Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi are of the slave trade that plagued the region for most of the 18th and 19th century. High school English favourites To Kill a Mockingbird and Mark Twain's writing, along with films such as the disturbing 12 Years a Slave, the brutal Django Unchained and last year's Mudbound have left us with the overwhelming impression of the cotton belt, where slavery thrived, as a place of racism. So when I decided to take a tour of the plantations that set the scene for so much of what we know of the South I was shocked to discover that the story of racial oppression is not, in fact, the main focus.
Along the Mississippi River, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, lie about seven major plantations open for tours, complete with grand antebellum mansions on full display and slave quarters tucked out of sight. Beginning our tour at one of the homes, we learned all about the family who owned and lived in the "big house"; their French heritage, the sugar cane harvests, their trips into New Orleans for the social season. To be fair, it is an interesting slice of the past, but after a lengthy conversation about one of the daughters' travels to Europe to seek experimental medical treatment for acne I began to suspect the tour guides might have missed the real story.
The slave quarters formed the second part of the tour, and the rumours appear to be true. "Second-class citizens" is a passe euphemism for what some of the estate's slaves (186 of them at the time of the American Civil War) must have encountered. One of the slave children was the son of the manor's "master" and in a different world should have inherited the property along with his white brother — the two boys grew up playing together but that's where the similarities ended. It was also mentioned, almost in passing, that one of the original versions of the folk tale Br'er Rabbit came from the slave and "freedmen" quarters here. I nearly choked. A piece of the country's literary history had been given as much due as an earlier discussion of the costume one of the plantation owners once wore to a masquerade ball. While it was technically covered, the plight of slaves definitely played second fiddle to the landowners' stories.
At first I wondered if it was some sort of awkward attempt at respect, perhaps the current property owners felt uncomfortable profiting from the stories of a tragic past, but as we continued we found that other plantations were no different. As it turns out, there's only one estate in the region that focuses primarily on slave history, and that only opened in 2014. The majority of the people who lived on these estates continue to be overlooked. It baffled me that while the world at large seems to be processing the dark history of the southern states, the story being told on the ground is somewhat different.
It poses a difficult question for discerning travellers: should we be propping up a tourism industry that seems to be downplaying a deplorable trade? Particularly galling are the properties that are refurbished as accommodation, paying homage to their glory days of southern luxury, where you can imagine yourself as a high-society southern belle sipping tea on the porch swing. It's a little uncomfortable. What's next? Full costume role plays where you get to beat your very own person of colour?
I'm not completely unsympathetic to the tour guides, there is probably very little recorded information to draw from on slaves who lived on the estates, and these mansions are an incredible part of the past, but I don't believe it's an excuse for softening the atrocities that occurred there.
There is a deeper ethical dilemma with properties that do acknowledge the past with some form of equality too: should we be participating in tours that benefit from showcasing the horrors of slavery, at all? While there's a case for that angle, I can't help but believe that recognising an issue might, at least, be a first step in the right direction.