Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Article Review: Local Color: The Southern Plantation in Popular Culture

Title: Local Color: The Southern Plantation in Popular Culture
Author: Jessica Adams
Publication: Cultural Critique, No. 42 (Spring 1999), pp. 163-187

This article represents a detailed analysis of how race is simultaneously presented and obscured in the experience of plantation tours, novels, and popular films. Adams also discusses how Southern identity is portrayed as "otherness" as well as normative. She uses the film Deliverance as an example of how backwards and grotesque a Southern existence can be, but points to the success of Gone With the Wind as the highly praised tale of a woman portraying important American values like, loyalty, strength, and optimism.  When it comes to plantation tourism, she cites multiple examples of how the plantation building and the planter are draped in the nostalgia of a pure past, a national treasure, and relic of a more peaceful time. This whitewashing of history comes straight from the archives of planters who lament the work of "tending to negroes", they can't get any rest as they are always called upon to resolve problems on their land.

On plantation tours, guides use words like butlers, skilled nannies, and servant boys to describe the work of enslaved Black people in chattel slavery. Of course this mythology is problematic because it erases all of the horrors of a plantation system and makes white privilege and superiority the preferred societal system. Adams argues that these versions of history have very real social and psychological consequences for African Americans today who are facing challenges that they may not understand because the historical context is not clear. The article ends with several deep literary analyses of plantation motifs and race in Gone with the Wind, Jezebel, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, and Interview with a Vampire.

I hope that the director of every plantation tourism site has an opportunity to read this. I can say that I have been on two plantation tours, Drayton Hall (Charleston, SC) and Stagville (Durham, NC) and the treatment of African American history has not been as hidden as the author describes. At Drayton Hall, the guide explained that the there are annual Christmas celebrations for planter and slave descendants from the plantation. In Stagville, the relatively stable slave quarters structures are called Horton's Grove, and make up an integral part of the tour. To me, there is no way that a rational individual can be aware of the climate, the technology, and the land mass of these Southern land parcels in the 17th and 18th centuries without considering the volume of human labor that made any of this success possible.

I would encourage the use of more slave narratives and other primary sources in the interpretation of these historic tourism sites. The guide at Stagville related a story from a letter in the Cameron family papers which is summarized as follows: The mistress of the house is writing a letter about a recent encounter with one of her female slaves shortly after the war the Civil War. The mistress is trying to give instructions about sweeping the floor, and the black woman stops her work, stands up straight and says that my skin is as white as yours and now I am as free as you and she marches our of the house and off of the plantation. That was one of the best examples of dis-spelling the victim myth of the Southern planation family. Let's find some more!

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