When Ani DiFranco decided to host a creative retreat at the Nottoway Plantation, she clearly had no idea what kind of statement she was making.
It is evident that she did not stop to consider how hosting a retreat at a plantation that at one point enslaved 150 humans helps to reinforce our historical amnesia and romanticization when it comes to the brutality that was slavery. Many bloggers quickly explained just what was so messed up about the whole debacle, which made me feel a bit better, but also left me feeling slightly unsettled. Where is the line between indulging in rosy-colored stories of happy slaves and remembering the suffering that our nation was built upon? Can we visit historical sites while still honoring this part of history?
In this piece, Cynthia R. Greenlee explains why she chooses to visit sites of slavery:
No doubt some of these landmarks paint a picture that privileges the slave owners, see benevolence rather than brutality, and attract mainly white audiences. Still, it’s far too easy to point a finger at historic plantations for their seeming devotion to hoop skirts and a whitewashed Southern history. Get rid of these plantations, and you wipe away a part of American material culture and part of slavery’s history.
Rather, let’s push existing sites to have a more accurate, inclusive view of history. Take time to visit a site of slavery, and if you don’t like what you see, post a Facebook update with details about your questions and complaints on your wall and the site’s Facebook page, if it has one. But, more importantly, contact that site’s manager and make your voice heard.
…..Slavery is not that far away from my branch on the family tree, and I feel these historical sites belong to me. Though I have joked half-seriously that African Americans should get lifetime free admission, I enter these sites with a serious purpose. As a historian, I visit these museums to check the stories they tell. I don’t mind being “that” visitor who hijacks the tours with corrective interpretation. I am that brown face that may give guides pause when they launch into a selective version of history. I don’t mind walking into the office of curatorial and programming staff to complain about representations of slavery.
But, more than anything, I go to honor those who never got off the plantation.
Juliana probably dresses up like Frida Kahlo a little too often.
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