The thought of visiting plantations was a dread as a child growing up in New Orleans.
A long car drive. A packed lunch. A tour of an old house.
Most of the visits I remember were more like car drives down River Road where you only see what you can see from the car. Miserable. Old houses creep me out, too, if I am honest.
When my church, however, organized a trip to Whitney Plantation, I jumped at the opportunity to visit. I had been wanting to visit for years and never made time.
Slave Uprising of 1811
Since I was 18, I have gone on a silent retreat in Convent, Louisiana, on the Mississippi River across and slightly upriver from Whitney Plantation.
Several years ago I read American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt while on my retreat, which recounts the largest slave uprising in American history that happened miles from where I read the book.
To my surprise, Whitney Plantation has a memorial to those men who yearned for freedom and rose up against the brutality of chattel slavery, ultimately losing their lives.
Through memorials like the one to the 1811 uprising and the Field of Angels (a memorial honoring 2,200 enslaved children who died before their third birthday), Whitney Plantation captures the individual narratives of hundreds of enslaved people in such a way that you enter their world. You see life from their perspective. You feel the injustice.
It far to easy too forget about the chilling nature of slavery. Plantations are intriguing. The grounds are welcoming. The architecture is fantastic. The drive down River Road can be peaceful and picturesque. Whitney Plantation successfully shocks you, and rightfully so, to the reality of slavery.
Reflections from My Visit
Despite the haunting and chilling nature of the content, I am eager to visit again. I would like to take more time and read the names of the 102,000 slaves memorialized here and read the stories as told by the slaves themselves. I also want to visit the Destrahan plantation where the 1811 Slave Revolt had its origins.
Ironically, the more haunting aspect that continues to occupy my thoughts is the prayer kneeler in one of the bedrooms in the main house. How could the plantation owners pray to God while maintaining the institution of slavery? They had to know on some level how unfathomably inconsistent slavery was with the character of God, right?
What stories do you have to tell yourself to participate in the brutal practices of chattel slavery? What lies do you have to believe about the nature of man and the nature of God to carry on the institution of treating humans as possessions?
In the midst of my reflections, it occurred to me that we all do this at some level. We construct God in the image we need him to take on to justify things we want to continue to do, believe and participate in. These might not be practices like the wretchedness of slavery but wretched practices nonetheless in the eyes of our creator.
The Impacts of Slavery and a Path Forward
To think the impact of slaver is in the past is far too easy, particularly for those of us who are not black. After all, generations have come and gone. But has society completely shed the widely held belief that black people were inferior to white people and, therefore, justified for ownership? Are institutions completely purged of centuries of public policies that were overwhelmingly, if not completely, instituted by politicians with biases towards their own race?
Racial tensions exist for multiple reasons. No politician will crack the code. Governments are broken institutions that will always take from their people. God even tells us that in 1 Samuel 10-21.
Maybe it is naive and overly simplistic, but I believe we are much more alike than we are different, even though we belong to different cultures, ethnic groups and political parties.
Jesus prayed that we (his followers) would be one as his Father and he are one. Oneness begins in community. Community is built through relationships. Relationships are built through getting to know one another. Getting to know one other starts with putting others’ interests ahead of ours to hear their stories. Through stories, we learn the nature of people and motivations. These experiences have made us who we are, and, especially for those of us who follow Jesus, these exchanges draw us nearer to the heart of God. The nearer to God we draw, the nearer to each other we become.
I am thankful for my visit to Whitney Plantation. I am thankful I could share the experience with my son. I see hope in him and his generation.