The United States is a perfect example of what Spanish philosopher George Santayana meant when he said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The past reveals itself clearly in the ways we view plantations in the slave-holding South.
As a Black woman from Columbia, Tennessee, I avoided the Halloween maze and the hayrides at nearby Rippavilla Plantation, knowing it was built by slave labor for a member of the Confederacy, and balked at the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) rallies held in my mother’s hometown of Pulaski, Tennessee. The KKK, founded in Pulaski, still holds sparsely-attended rallies in the town, but, in true Southern fashion, they are “ignored” by local business-owners and townspeople.
When I walk through the cities that I have frequented or called home while living up North — Philadelphia; Washington, DC; and New York — I find myself vigilantly checking out street signs and plaques, wondering if city planners have commemorated a slave-holder, abuser or colonizer. The ubiquity of these shrines cements the overwhelming feeling that the US will never truly reconcile the race relations of its history or its present.
But Rippavilla hayrides aren’t the only example of whitewashing Southern plantations’ history.
Indeed, plantations such as Boone Hall, Belle Meade and The Hermitage — former home of brutal president and slaveholder Andrew Jackson — now serve as venues for celebratory gatherings or weddings, consciously ignoring the legacy of slavery and the centuries of devastation inflicted upon the Black diaspora. The blithe treatment of these landmarks conveys the strength of peoples’ convictions to prioritize romance and revelry over torture, and willful ignorance over uncomfortable realization. It is this avoidance of discomfort that prevents the US from becoming the land of equality on which its reputation stands.
A stark reminder of this failure to confront the past is found in the story of Ronnie Anderson, an African American man in Louisiana, who feared last month that he could not get a fair trial in a criminal case because of the Confederate monument prominently placed in front of the courthouse. Anderson argued that the monument “is not just memorializing the Confederacy but revering the Confederacy and what it stood for, right in front of the very place that African Americans go to seek fairness and impartiality in the court system.”
Meanwhile, a memorial sign outside of Glendale, Mississippi, for a lynched child continues to sustain attacks. Emmett Till was a 14-year-old Black boy tortured and beaten to death in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a White woman. The repeated desecration of the memorial further reflects not only how he and countless other Black people have been treated while living in the United States, but also how their memory is regarded after their deaths.
Monuments and other landmarks that memorialize Confederate leaders reinforce the trauma Black people face and the understanding that US legal system is built to sustain the rights of people who side with the Confederacy over Black lives. Lack of historical review and reconciliation appears in the physical violence Black people encounter and avoid every day, from the police or in public discourse that invokes racist and sexist tropes designed to devalue a great athlete of our time.
A common misconception is that the pain of this country’s racial history belongs only to its victims. The violence inflicted upon Black people is not just Black history; it’s American history, as chattel slavery of Africans occurred throughout North and South America, producing centuries of anti-Black sentiment, policy and engagement. It’s world history, as every European nation either practiced in transatlantic slavery or colonized the lands of Indigenous peoples. Nothing better exemplifies the United States’ tenuous relationship with its history than Confederate monuments and the number of streets, bridges and schools that still bear the names of racist leaders throughout the nation.
In contrast, consider Germany, which has erected the majority of its Holocaust memorials in Berlin within the past 25 years. In fact, many of the former concentration camps in Germany and throughout Europe now serve as sites of remembrance of Holocaust victims, often centering visitor experiences to mirror those of the prisoners.
The closest the United States has come to centering the experiences of formerly enslaved people is via exhibits at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, DC; the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina; the Equal Justice Initiative’s lynching museum memorial in Montgomery, Alabama; and the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana.
While these museums and memorials do much to commemorate the lives lost during slavery and Jim Crow, the Whitney Plantation focuses on slavery within the space occupied by formerly enslaved communities. The Whitney Plantation’s approach stands in contrast to how plantations throughout the rest of the US are presented and the sort of memories invoked therein.
The vandalization of Till’s memorial shows us that racial truth and reconciliation have not penetrated the nation’s psyche. The number of plantations, Confederate monuments and Confederate namesakes that exist today present us with ample opportunity to commemorate the victims of enslavement and genocide in their stead.
Recent protests about (and the removal of) Confederate monuments by activists such as Bree Newsome have been a step in the right direction in confronting the nation’s past. Yet more needs to be done to promote reflection upon the ideologies and traditions that supported the building of these structures, as well as the importance of honoring the victims of racist brutality instead of their murderers.
By making the legacy of pain in the United States inescapable, we can then lead ourselves into a legacy of remembrance, consideration and reparation.