MOSF 17.15: The Whitney Plantation: Creating Identity in the Miasma of Historical Feelings
Memoirs of a Superfan Vol. 17.15: The Whitney Plantation: Creating Identity in the Miasma of Historical Feelings
by Ravi Chandra
December 31, 2022
In Louisiana, enslaved African Americans who escaped often fled to the swamps. The paddy rollers (patrollers), bounty hunters who sought to re-capture them, were afraid of swamp gases, the emanating miasma causing illness; alligators; and the unknown perils of the boggy, mysterious darkness. But this alternate geography provided refuge for the escaped, where they lived for days, weeks, months and even years. I have been told there were even colonies of free Blacks, formerly enslaved, who lived in the swamps of the antebellum South. In the same way that devalued foods became staples of poor and discarded peoples around the world, the devalued and feared swamps became survival mechanisms, sources of nourishment, and oases of spiritual exploration and attainment for those who were themselves devalued. The waters of the swamplands and the animals and herbs found therein became prized for voodoo, hoodoo, Christian, and novel syncretic spiritual practices created by the enslaved.
Tessa Annette Neblett Evans writes, “Planters appeared unaware of the exploitation of the swamps by the enslaved and free blacks, and only documented their distaste of the swamps when writing about the nuisance animals, mosquitoes, or disease that these spaces perpetuated.” The land was perceived differently by Whites and Blacks, and Blacks exploited this blindspot, misperception, misunderstanding, denial, and avoidance to their advantage.
To be free, you had to go swampin’, be comfortable swampin’ where the White man wouldn’t dare. These White men and women asserted power, control, order, and hegemony over land and people, especially those they ordained below them. They needed an under to have their over. They pushed fluidity, freedom, and truth to the boundaries, the margins, the swamps, where nature and human nature, far from the White gaze, could exist in peace, and rise to fullness.
“Solomon Northup (author of Twelve Years a Slave, RC’s note) remarked in his autobiography about the peace he found in the swamps.”
–Tessa Annette Neblett Evans
“A lonelier spot, or one more disagreeable than the centre of the ‘Big Cane Brake,’ it would be difficult to conceive; yet to me it was a paradise, in comparison with any other place… I labored hard, and oft-times was weary and fatigued, yet I could lie down at night in peace, and arise in the morning without fear.”
– Solomon Northrup, quoted in Evans
History, too, is a swamp. The mind goes loose, boggy, and faint in proximity of its breathtaking expanse. The mind twists into distorted shape, bent out of everyday, orderly form, and strains for cohesion and comprehension, struggling to wrap itself around, to right itself around, its unmooring. Our human minds can only hold so much in consciousness. Our unconscious holds truths and mysteries, and our past and the lives contained in it, largely belongs to that unconscious. Becoming aware of the past is to step into a swampland of uncertainty, insecurity, alienation, doubt, losses, and unacknowledged, trammeled life. The world we see both channels and denies that awareness. In one eye, we see a built-up marvel; in the other we see the theft, exploitation, and abuse that has gone into brick, street, city, and nation.
How do we bring these split-screen visions and unnamed feelings together in our cortices? How can conscience join all in humble, yet mighty, union and wholeness? Who are we, in this transitional space between past, present, and future? What transmissions are we receiving? What will we send forward, on?
I was all tender to these questions as I visited the Whitney Plantation in Edgard, one hour outside of New Orleans, Louisiana, following the close of the Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in May, 2022. A youthful fellow-in-training, now mentee and friend, recommended the Whitney tour to me as we conversed over lunch, and I booked a trip, on-the-spot, with Legendary Tours. I wore my BLM t-shirt, wanting to give it a blessing from Black history, and also giving another signal to ghosts, ancestors, and the people of Louisiana, that I was with them.
The swamp is where we understand ourselves, but aren’t understood. The swamp is where unnamed and murky, queer feelings reside, subtly moving or catching us, as we try to pass in what we call civilization. The swamp trembles and roils, belches a fiery NO to those who would suggest dominion over our spirits, dominion over all.
The Legendary Tour van picked me up on Canal Street near my hotel, and I joined a handful of other pilgrims. As we rode to Wallace, my mind relived memories of the conference and I had visions for the next APA conference, to be held in San Francisco. I was so wrapped up in the future that for a moment I thought I was already back in San Francisco and panicked that I’d forgotten to pack some mementos of Louisiana. I was already losing myself in time.
When I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. in July, 2019, I was overwhelmed by the deluge of history. Caught in the cauldron of its wide current, both orienting and disorienting at the same time, my mind and heart swelling, I asked that the museum see me, see my commitment and path, as much as I saw the museum. I asked the museum to hold me to task. The eyes on the walls watched me then and have watched me before and since. I must as much find identity in those minds as in my own. I was pulled apart, synaptic tendrils splayed across centuries and peoples. In that space, I joined with an African American family from DC, and we toured and lunched together, made ourselves temporary family in the ways that warm-hearted people can. We still correspond, and I still feel kin. But the miasma of historical feelings touched me then, and touched me again at the Whitney.
The self-guided audio tour took me to the main house, and I immediately felt tense and discordant. One part of me, some kind of architect I suppose, viewed the grand white building with enthusiasm, like it was some kind of beautiful comfort in the heat and humidity. The greater part of me recoiled in horror and memory of what the building represented, looked at it from a position somewhere closer to those enslaved, or those enraged by the history of their bondage. These parts of me, exploded into distant, feuding, yet neighboring mansions of the human psyche, conversed in the shadows of trees older than slavery, and I thought about the ways our own world is juxtaposed like this, yet unremembered and unjoined. I walked a brick pathway, as wordless, raw emotions engulfed me: rage, fear, despair, grief, all nestled by the sun and an occasional gentle breeze, the sights and sensations pulling me from past to present, wondering about future, searching for self.
354 human beings are known to have been enslaved here at Whitney plantation, all of them necessarily kept against their will. The bricks I walked on, the buildings I viewed, were all made by enslaved human beings. Skilled workers like blacksmiths might be tipped and could occasionally buy their freedom. They tried to buy freedom for their relatives or loved ones, speaking for what their humanity knew was most valuable and beloved. They worked from “cantsee to cantsee.”
People were not people, but laborers valued as animals or implements, yet so like their captors that a carceral psychology had to be created atop the carceral landscape and laws to create an abusive order diverting them from endowed sameness and equality.
Black granite slabs placed over concrete form the Wall of Honor, naming many of the people enslaved here, along with their approximate years of birth, and original tribal affiliation. The sun is too bright for adequate photographs, but I run my eyes over the names, silently saying them, trying to make my mind familiar across the years.
On another side of Whitney, wide mouthed kettles used in the production of sugar are artistically arranged, reminding visitors of lives lost to the burgeoning industry. Limbs and bodies lost to grinders. Sugar is sweet, but stirs a bitter history.
A slave cabin stands, giving what little shelter it could. I imagine that it was largely permeable to the elements. A statue of a child, sculpted by artist Woodrow Nash to add a layer of life to Whitney, sits on the porch. This rendering grounds me in the humanity that trod the earth here and was forsaken. My visitor badge gives me the words of Pauline Johnson, age 12 when emancipated, age 93 when interviewed by the depression era Federal Writers project. Her father died just before freedom, and was married to her mother on his deathbed. The audio tour says “childhood ended at age 10,” though I can’t imagine that any child living here could have anything approaching a proper childhood; though one might imagine hidden, secret joys of families, in cabins like these, or on the fields. Evans tells of one family that escaped, one after the other, into the swamps.
Clint Smith writes in How The Word is Passed, “Francis Fedric, who was born enslaved in Virginia and escaped in his forties, wrote in his autobiography, ‘Children feed like pigs out of troughs, and being supplied sparingly, invariably fight and quarrel with one another over their meals.’” Artist Woodrow Nash says, “the reality of slavery is child enslavement.”
The Field of Angels was “built to honor the lives of 2,200 enslaved children who died here in Saint John the Baptist Parish between 1823 and 1863.” (From Smith.) A statue of a winged angel holding an infant is at the center of a courtyard filled with names. Someone has ringed her arm with mardi gras beads, but almost look like a shackle, another example of a split-screen view of Louisiana.
Memorials and painful words rise out of the lush green landscape of the plantation, creating a layered reality, making me see our own reality outside the plantation in new light. I read about the 1811 German Coast Rebellion, in part inspired by the successful Haitian revolution. Smith writes, “According to historian David Brion Davis, ‘For nearly seventy years the image of Haiti hung over the South like a black cloud, a point of constant reference by proslavery leaders.’” Some accounts claim almost 500 enslaved, meagerly armed individuals rose up in 1811. They killed two white men and destroyed some property before their actions were quickly put down by well-armed Whites. Some were returned to slavery. Many were killed immediately. At least 65 were decapitated. A memorial depicts rows of heads on pikes. As I view them, I feel disembodied myself. The words and grisly, lifesize scene have pierced reality, and my mind/heart anguishes in the rising miasma, a twisted, coagulated pretzel of past and present.
I am reminded of the scene when I recently watched Will Smith’s late 2022 film Emancipation. He plays Peter, who passes heads on pikes as he is remanded from slavery to Confederate battlefield work. Peter later escapes to the Union army through the swamp.
The federal government granted Louisiana statehood as a slave state in 1812 partly to offer Whites protection in the wake of the rebellion.
A sign near the memorial reads “The uprising was apparently well planned with several meetings on the maroon’s territory in the swamp.” Coded language was used to plan the German Coast Rebellion.
In the indoor exhibit, Voltaire’s words pronounce a verdict: “Slavery is as old as war and war is as old as human nature.” But what is human nature, and freedom, if not choice? Can the power fantasies of the culture be overcome by the need for love, justice, and humanity?
The words of Ibrahima Seck, historian of Whitney, close out the audio tour. I try to write them down, but get only a paraphrase: “History hurts. We cannot hide from it. My goal is to educate, not to leave you with guilt or anger.” I leave with the weight of an educated hurt, suspended in time.
The Legendary Tour van driver calls for me; I’m the last to board. When we get back to NOLA, I take myself out to the museum in the park, and there I discover that I’d forgotten to retrieve my ID at the Whitney plantation when I returned my audio tour equipment. Just like America’s identity has foundered on slavery, I’ve lost the marker of my identity at one of slavery’s southern bastions. Clint Smith’s book reminds me that hidden histories fill our landscape, North to South, and we are lost till we see them. I call Legendary, and they generously offer to bring me my ID in the morning, just in time to board a plane back to San Francisco. America’s identity is not so easily salvaged. We have a collective retrieval, remembrance, and repair ahead of us, and we must be unafraid to enter the swamp of history and memory.
We have many alternate geographies, necessary respites from the places our existences are challenged and denied. Different points of view. Safe spaces. Black Twitter. Wakanda. Listservs. Friendships. Coded languages we make up for our own ears only, for our co-conspirators and allies. Places we can be free, and help free others.
White Arkansas surveyor Thomas Nutall describe the swamp are a “horrid morass,” unwholesome, “the everlasting abode of alligators, snakes, and noxious animals”. Many Whites, would describe history – a people’s history, a clear look at America’s racialized past – the same way.
But when we venture into the swamp, we can make the horrid holy. We can reclaim human nature from the distortions of oppression, suppression, and control, which try to bend us into pristine subordination.
Visiting Whitney brings a continuity of struggle into the view of the present. It is not easy to come to our senses, but we must.
The struggle, the swamp, our places of discomfort, are portals. Through them, we can be free.
For further exploration:
Evans, Tessa Annette Neblett, “From swamps to swamping: The usage and perceptions of swamps by African-Americans in Antebellum and Postbellum Arkansas and Louisiana” (2014). Masters Theses. 196. https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/master201019/196
Smith C. How the Word is Passed. New York: Little, Brown, 2021.
Chandra R. Red Thread. 36 Views of San Francisco. 2018.
Thank you, Ravi for another mesmerizing piece that weaves history into the emotional fabric of contemporary life. We are living in a moment where so many retrograde aspects of American history are pressing on us. We’re fighting battles against the pro-slavers all over again, perhaps because they were never truly defeated. Telling the story of the enslaved people of The Whitney Plantation blasts holes in the lies of the slavery deniers. I like the way you end the article. The truth can set you free.
Thanks, Eddie, for these reflections. We carry the same hopeful consciousness and burdened conscience that calls for clarity and solidarity. Thank you for always adding your truth and voice in the quest for justice. Happy New Year!