Feminist folk singer Ani Difranco has enraged fans by hosting her upcoming “Righteous Retreat” at Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana.
As someone who grew up in Georgia, I’ve seen that a lot of White southerners and northerners view plantations as glamorous vacation hubs. For many, plantations are serene settings for family gatherings, weddings and retreats. There are even housing communities that are presented as high class by adding “plantation” to the name.
The gruesome realities of plantations are almost non-existent in their minds because the pain is not tied to their historical framework. There is almost always a careful removal of a realistic identity of masters, their descendants and the privilege that comes along with the erasure of history. So when people like Thomas Jefferson are discussed, the excuse for his participation as a slaver owner/rapist is, “He was a man of his time.”
The focus now turns to his legacy as a founding father rather than as a racist, enslaver and sexual abuser. This history is often avoided or shunned, which leads to the cloaking of actual events. It allows for privileged groups to remain unbothered by very meaningful lived experiences on terror filled plantations.
The focus on the lavish and decadent lifestyles of the plantation owners trumps the fact that patrons are directly basking in the riches accumulated from the mass enslavement of African American people. Some would like to think that times weren’t so hard for “the slaves”. The Nottoway Plantation’s website specifically states, “It is difficult to accurately assess the treatment of Randolph’s slaves; however, various records indicate that they were probably well treated for the time. “
What records? John Randolph owned 155 slaves. How many of them were allowed to submit recommendations or file police reports?
Considering his slaves to be valuable tools in the operation of his business, Randolph provided the necessary care to keep them in good health. He understood the importance of hygiene in controlling the spread of illnesses and disease, so he provided a bathhouse where slaves could bathe daily if they wished. He also had a slave hospital; he paid a local physician to make weekly visits and trained one of the slaves as a nurse to care for his slaves.
Ever the astute businessman, Randolph knew that in order to maintain a willing workforce, it was necessary to provide not only for his slaves’ basic needs for housing, food and medicine, but to also offer additional compensation and rewards when their work was especially productive. Every New Year’s Day, John Randolph would give the field slaves a hog to cook and the Randolph family would eat with them in The Quarters. There would be music and dancing, and the Randolphs would give the slaves gifts of clothing, small toys and fruit, as well as a sum of money for each family. In addition, the workers received an annual bonus based on their production.
Their site basically states, he owned and controlled the entire lives of other human beings but he bathed them, gave them ham and they danced. How differently would this story have been if the formally enslaved wrote it?
Pity me, and pardon me, O virtuous reader! You never knew what it is like to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by law or custom; to have the laws reduce you to the condition of a chattel, entirely subject to the will of another. You never exhausted your ingenuity in avoiding the snares, and eluding the power of a hated tyrant; you never shuddered at the sound of his footsteps, and trembled within hearing of his voice. – Harriet Ann Jacobs
While Nottoway Plantation’s website claims New Year’s day joyous, Harriet Ann Jacobs, the author of “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” says otherwise:
But to the slave mother New Year’s day comes laden with peculiar sorrows. She sits on her cold cabin floor, watching the children who may all be torn from her the next morning; and often does she wish that she and they might die before the day dawns.
This is the story we know. For many African Americans, we don’t have the privilege of forgetting. We don’t have the privilege of causal plantation dining and retreats. It wasn’t fun or luxurious for us. To disregard this fact, is to disregard our humanity. No matter how it’s glammed up, we don’t want to go back.
Jessica Ann Mitchell