April 19, 2018

Visiting Whitney Plantation, aka Habitation Haydel

This sculpture at the Whitney Plantation represents the longboats that took captives from the shores of Africa to the slave ships.

I’m standing inside a cabin, a wooden structure too sturdy to be called a shack but with enormous gaps between boards where the mud has worn out. I’m thinking about the bed in this room: Who got to sleep in it? How many of them shared it? Was it even comfortable? The view out the back is of a canal that was dug to keep the ground from flooding — this is swamp land, after all. Our tour guide has reassured us that the resident 6-foot gator, Buford, would probably stay out of our way today because it was too cold for him, and I’m wondering: Did they have to contend with alligators on top of everything else?

The cabin is an original Whitney Plantation structure. It has four rooms, two in front with a double-sided fireplace to warm both and two in back. Inside are a few beds, a spinning wheel, a single chair and a table for eating. It was home to up to 20 people at a time, so there was never any privacy. It strikes me as a sad place to come home to.

By contrast, the “Big House” is a broad structure with bedrooms upstairs, sitting and dining rooms downstairs, and galleries on both levels and both sides. It actually isn’t that impressive in size, and I remember Hannah Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil.”  The house is built in a style called Creole cottage: two levels, with rooms only accessible via the galleries. The thing that stands out most about this house is the way the rear gallery functions as a panopticon.

Passion project

Whitney Plantation was opened to the public in 2015, a passion project of retired lawyer John Cummings and the brainchild of historian Dr. Ibrahima Seck. The museum cost about $8.6 million of Cummings’ personal money and took over 15 years to build. I first read about it in 2015, when The New York Times published an article describing the museum as “both educational and visceral.” This assessment, I would say, is apt. Whitney Plantation is America’s first museum of slavery and slaves, and it has changed the region around it. There are many plantations along the “German Coast” that are open to visitors and double as event venues, but until Whitney Plantation, they focused on the white masters’ homes and lives exclusively. Today, the Laura Plantation, a nearby museum focused on Creole women, has a permanent exhibit dedicated to the people who were enslaved there.

The tour begins in the gift shop and visitor center, where guides greet guests before taking them through a series of monuments and historical buildings. Guests are allowed to visit the grounds only as part of a structured tour, as museum guides work hard to control the narrative. They keep those enslaved at the center while they educate visitors about the region, the technologies and the buildings on the site. Many museum employees are former visitors who fell into an uneasy love with the place, and I can understand why. As a historian, I can appreciate the way the museum balanced historical specificity and accuracy with a deeply humanistic intimacy. The emphasis is on names and experiences, not statistics and dates, and I came away having learned and felt in equal measure. I credit Dr. Seck with knowing just how to strike that balance (and I credit John Cummings with knowing enough to begin by hiring one of the world’s top scholars on the subject).

Slavery on the human scale

When we use the word scale in philanthropy, we usually think taking something to its largest and broadest possible configuration. At Whitney Plantation, I got a sense of something I can only describe as the human scale of slavery: shrinking my view of the system down to the level of the personal. I began to appreciate the amount of manpower it took to produce hundreds of thousands of pounds of sugar or to build a levee, using 18th century technology. I understood more profoundly that American slavery was, as Dr. Seck put it, by design “a transfer of technology and know-how experienced for many centuries on African soil” and that “Cajun” and “Southern” foodways aren’t just influenced by West African culture — they are West African.

My thoughts are still unsettled about this experience. I glimpsed something I cannot, yet feel compelled to, describe. I recorded on my heart Lucien and Marie Therese, two babies who share my birthday. Their names were inscribed on the Field of Angels, a memorial dedicated to the 2,200 slave children who died before the age of 3 in St. John the Baptist Parish. I crouched inside a metal prison cell where runaways and those destined for the auction block were crammed.

I also stood inside Antioch Baptist Church. The church was built by the Anti-Yoke Society, an organization founded by freed black people in St. James Parish 8.5 miles down the road, to pay for Christian burials. They built the church as a place where they could worship the way they wanted to, as free men, women and children, and later “biblicized” the name to Antioch. It is the first stop on the tour. Beautiful statues of children, representing the hundreds who were enslaved along the German Coast, sit and stand at intervals in the church. The children are the heart of this museum, and guests are constantly reminded that the violence of slavery was violence inflicted on children.

Finally, I have stood in a garden that memorializes the bravery of the 1811 German Coast Uprising. This memorial is optional, not part of the tour. Visitors are asked to remain silent, and the only sound is the gentle tinkling of wind chimes. Roses bloom on either side of the central installation, a series of sculpted heads on pikes. After the largest slave insurgency in American history, those captured were beheaded and their heads were displayed along the river road. Disturbing and controversial, it too is a part of the history of this particular place.

The area around Whitney Plantation feels a world apart from the vivacity and wealth of New Orleans. It sits amid a dozen correctional facilities in Southern Louisiana. It’s hard not to see the continuity between these systems designed to imprison black people and exploit their labor. The panopticon lives on. Places like Whitney Plantation put a human face on imprisonment and guide us all toward a more empathetic future in which reparations are not only possible, but imperative.

Without a doubt, I would advise everyone to visit Whitney Plantation. As America’s first attempt to deal with the realities of slavery, it gives to the visitor much more than the toll it takes. Until you get there, I recommend the following readings and videos:

Rhiannon