While in college, I had the chance to join an archaeological field school working on a plantation about an hour outside of Memphis, Tennessee. Together, we excavated the former slave quarters, regularly finding pieces of their lives and spending time in the classroom to debunk the anthropological significance of this type of work. We also took a weekend drive to New Orleans, touring several other major plantations and soaking up as much history as possible — both the physical aspects and the stories that the people there would tell.
Our professor urged us to pay attention to the framing of these stories, and even to compare that framing between the cultural and scientific. We had been so focused on learning about soil types and climate cycles of the past few millennia up to this point that we were surprised to receive this instruction. Nonetheless, we kept our eyes and ears peeled, to an insightful and infuriating effect.
The first two plantations we visited focused their exhibits and tours on the slave trade and the immense cultural impact of African people on the American landscape through their food, clothing, and music. They admonished slavery’s villainy at every turn, while also returning power to those who built a nation.
Perhaps if we’d never visited those first two institutions, I wouldn’t have thought anything in particular about the third. But from the moment we arrived, it was different. Tickets were bought and collected at a gate outside the main complex, completely separate as if you were entering Disneyland. Before our tour could begin, we were herded to the gift shop and cafe to indulge ourselves — we could even order mint juleps in to-go cups so we could sip on them throughout a leisurely stroll of the property. We actually had to pass the old slave cabins on our way to the refreshments, discovering only through our own curiosity that we were allowed to examine them.
The main event started and stopped at the plantation house itself, where we learned more about the gentry who lived there than about those who enabled their livelihood. Just like this NPR article, we were educated in the minutiae of the floorboards and the ceilings, learning where the furniture came from and exactly how old the silverware was.
To be very clear about something: in isolation, there’s nothing wrong with focusing on these things. If I were to become a great writer, people may one day tour my house and see the desk I scrawled on, just as I’ve looked for Sir Anthony Hopkins’ signature initials carved into the walls of his old schoolhouse (and found them). But the people who lived in plantation houses like these were rarely remarkable, most the time, they were just well-to-do. We Americans tend to scrutinize major figures in our history for their slave ownership, including the very fathers of our nation like Thomas Jefferson — slavery is a major focus of tours at his Monticello residence. Why not apply that same scrutiny to unknown aristocrats?
Undoubtedly, it has something to do with wanting to relate to our past. As one former tour guide at plantations like these attests, people don’t want the ugly version of the past “dragged up” before their eyes. Plantation houses retain a lot of popularity for events and weddings because of their refinement and opulence, but tourists are made uncomfortable by the facts of daily life for the majority of people who lived and worked there. As a Southerner myself, it’s a hard line to tiptoe, wanting to take pride in local heritage but knowing that its legacy is something I can’t relate to.
I haven’t named and shamed an institution here because it’s not constructive. The point of this narrative is to stress the importance of deciding things for oneself, which is one of the greatest perspectives that traveling bestows upon us. Traveling with intention, as we seek to promote at Passion Passport, requires looking beyond the neatly-packaged images and stories an attraction might try to sell you. That applies everywhere, abroad and right here at home. It’s one huge reason I sponsor the American road trip: outside of the city, you’ll quickly find that the truth is often messy, unexpected, and skewed one way or the other. On the road, we can decide what part we play in the retelling of America’s history and the unraveling of its future.