I, too, sing America.
— Langston Hughes, 1945
Fewer than six miles apart, between two kinks in the same stretch of the Mississippi, stand two ancestors modern America would rather forget. An hour beyond the hum of New Orleans, Laura and Whitney hold the same plots they held 200 years ago. Since then, from atop the balconies of the Big Houses, the changes to this Louisiana landscape are almost imperceptible, the horizon newly busied with the occasional whizz of cars and the steadily rising levee that hides the river’s edge from view.
Come, when the summer sun is at its highest and the trees cast only their slimmest shadows, as though rationing relief. In heat like this, shelter from the leaves above never seems to stretch quite far enough. “Feel free to take one,” chirps the guide at Whitney, gesturing towards the barrel of umbrellas just behind us.
Every act has a meaning, I consider, as our makeshift parasols populate the earth with a little more shade, though still a little less than true comfort would require. Here, umbrellas are for sunshine, not rain. I’m surprised to feel grateful for the soothed expressions on the faces — some white, many black — around me.
The umbrellas are recent additions, I presume, new props to make the unbearable bearable. But would it be a mark of respect to suffer — just a little — instead? to fold back my umbrella and breathe the heat as Laura, as Whitney once breathed it? I keep the umbrella high, my elbow locked in spite of myself. Wordlessly, the others appear to have reached the same conclusion.
This is a past that America has been curiously unable to confront. The legacy of slavery drifts through the topsoil of almost every yard of this country, ever more deeply ploughed with the footfalls that daily displace it. It is in the sun-licked stonework of its buildings, the burnished vaults of its banks, the wrinkled furrows of its fields.
In parts like these, one of America’s greatest tricks is to give the impression of mastering history, of massaging it into speaking for itself. Truth, it seems, has been cultivated to proliferate — organically — like benevolent bacteria from somewhere amid the curated lawns, the renovated huts, the retouched villas.
Laura and Whitney were once two rather similar plantations: squeezing sugar from cane, indigo from buds, profit from slaves. Now, they are two voices of how history might be told, two jarring reflections of life in today’s and yesterday’s America, two undeniable realities.
I pull into the car park at Laura and step out into the drowning air, my heels crunching the jagged stones that line my way to the Visitor Centre. (This is how tour guides let history speak here, exclusively in the present and future tenses.) I had missed the entrance from the main road and — forced to turn around to come back — I now feel all the awkwardness of having unwittingly sped past such a place.
You have to know where you’re headed on the River Road.
I consider whether, not too many decades ago, a man of my build and background might have sidled by without so much as a tremor. I can’t be sure of the answer.
Before I have had time to complete my thought, I notice four Hispanic gardeners listlessly tending to their flowerbeds. They are crouching, two leaning a forearm on a knee, the clustered yammer of their foreign voices so familiar in a country that behaves more like a continent. The irony strikes me — hard — as the dust that lines my way slaps the fronts of my shoes, leather-brown and faded. They’re old and dirty, all-too-plainly appropriate in this place.
In the Visitor Centre, whose manners are far closer to those of a gift shop, I search the crowd for a face that isn’t white. “English?”, smiles a member of staff. I nod my assent. “You’re just in time,” she trills. “Take the door to your left and join on the end. They won’t have started.” I hand over a few crumpled dollars (twenty of them, in fact), thank her, and walk down the path towards a house that would be stately but for the maize-yellow slather of paint that covers its façade.
I join the queue to climb the quick steps up to the church — Baptist — the whitest thing for miles around, the black of our falling umbrellas forming silhouettes like birds’ wings where the skirting meets the earth. Inside are statues and cool air and wooden boards.
We have all been handed new identities, printed cards on string necklaces. That’s how they do things at Whitney. Mine swings as I move, a thurible at my chest. I wait for the smell of incense, which never comes. This afternoon I ‘am’ Henry Reed, son of Margaret, and I spot the statue that denotes him. Us younger folks went bare feeted, I read, the wood suddenly restorative to my tread. The church wasn’t here until 2001. His dungarees are tight on his shoulders, baggy at the waist, his hands in his pockets.
When I exit, hand in pocket, the oppression of outside is plain as my eyes adjust, the leaves of the trees momentarily pixelated against the searing blue of sky. I am reminded of the deadened cypresses that lined my highway route here, killed by the newly-salted swamp waters beneath. It was not just they who had been unprepared for Katrina.
Paths guide me through three memorials: dedications to slaves and to children; to those forced to labour in this parish, this plantation, this state. Passing through each, my umbrella soon scorching to the touch, I note the contrast between granite and grass.
There is something in the extreme colour of this landscape — full as it is with deep pigments: blues, browns, greens, whites and now (with the memorials) blacks — that almost wishes it could apologise for itself, give way to something more colourless, the reserved palettes of citied streets and architectural equanimities. Belfast, say, or Berlin.
It takes a while for our tour guide (a man of my age and complexion) to coax us up the stairs to the Big House’s balcony, and I watch as a young black woman poses beneath the lively Spanish moss, smiling over her left shoulder just as I’m looking over mine. She is well dressed, her blouse lightly imprinted and her large sun-hat draping shadow across her like a veil. Her female companion, perhaps a proud mother, photographs her on a smartphone.
As she panders to the camera for the second time, I overhear the guide’s studied rehearsal of four generations of plantation life: small victories, small defeats, a relentless toss and turn of familial fortunes. That’s business for you, the art of all deals. Slaves and owners, he says disconcertingly, “interdependent”. He doesn’t stop to blush. I moisten my lips with my tongue, but do not speak.
Halfway down the Duparc family tree, I admit to myself that I’m more interested in studying the band of day-trippers temporarily in my midst. I listen to the metronomic pulsation of fingers on cameras, until their barely audible percussion harmonises with our guide’s incantatory insistence on the future tense: “By the time the Civil War comes around, there will be 186 slaves working at this plantation”. His words hit the ear like a premonition.
It’s the grammar that unsettles me, but only later will I realise why and how. We pass from one room to the next, tasting each reversal, each will be that should be was. Soon, reflecting at Elisabeth Duparc’s bed-side, I detect in our guide’s commentary less a prediction of future discord than the construction of an eternal present: how it levels out the past, betrays time, lets make-believe suns set on make-believe Earths. How it silently wishes us to slur into the error of supposing ourselves prelapsarian. This hasn’t happened — not yet. But it has.
Somehow, it is not the past that is haunting us but we that are haunting it. A touch darker, I think to myself, and I might mistake us for the ghosts in these rooms.
I stare out the window towards the cabin where Tarantino had Django strung up and scarred. The outhouse I’m in is a kitchen, and the timber responds to our shoes with bold thunks. So y’all are bounty hunters, huh? I take in the wooden surfaces — each as expressionless as its neighbour — and then the implements, darkly metallic, that sit above two kilns and a hearth built into one wall, evidently restored. I trail three fingers across the wood, as though it might feel the touch.
Three African-American women, all slightly past middle age, distract my attention. They are taking turns with what looks like a butter churn (and with the obligatory camera, too) — each laughing and stirring as though against some invisible opposing force. They reminisce about their mothers. A gesture of victory? of overcoming? empowerment? I am too timid to ask. More pictures. I file out of the cabin only to be caught in another viewfinder outside.
I’d like to try it myself, at times like these, this relentless photography, this fingertip catharsis. I am not sure how they catch it all on a single lens. Succumbing to every voyeurism, I watch them devolve their emotions to machines, hoping to find in it an act I also can perform. The shutter’s click, our primal scream. I find it grotesquely perfect here, in all this heat and light, the effort to recapture a past so recent — so current — that its skeletons hardly seem to have shed their flesh.
Months after, I will replay this moment until the perceptions it rouses stick to the very landscape. I will see the camera’s furious grammar on the tops of roofs and in the curved necks of flowers: loading, aiming, capturing, shooting. Killing the past into the present, with each beat possessing it. What kind of self-defence is this? I will sense that I, along with all these remains, am in the camera’s sights — and wonder: what is the enemy that waits?
But that will be then, and this is now. We walk, process, slowly now, towards the Big House, anxious for the faintest dash of wind or cloud. There are no grand parlours or ballrooms here, though, just sugar-white walls and the smell of linen.
You’ll have to know where you’re going if you leave behind the suspended roadways of the 310, whose sublime knots are equalled only by the river below. But if you do, you’ll find two repositories of that thing we call memory. Or history: memory’s younger, better-smelling cousin.
For now, it’s somehow right that this history flies at you in the present tense — because the true histories of this past haven’t happened yet, though the past decidedly has, is. This is the Portuguese bookkeeper’s self-fulfilling prophecy, the intensely personal writ nation-large. The only “true landscapes are those that we ourselves create”, he wrote, “since, being their gods, we see them as they truly are, which is however we created them.” We are the species of the never-was that always will be. I myself no longer know which tense it belongs in.
Museums like these are not funeral rites, salves to the soul. The past is not there to be celebrated or solemnised and then ended with a shudder. It is there to carry multiple truths, truths that are not so much retrievals of what has been lost as un-forgettings of what must be recalled. There, deep in that Louisiana light that defines a new colour within orange, between gold — the contentious and the undeniable, brought forward to shake the world.
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed —
I, too, am America.
(This essay is based on visits to Laura and Whitney Plantations in June 2016. It was also published with Medium.)