Wednesday, August 8, 2012

American Slavery and French Visitors

I realize that sometimes my postings here may come across a little Attention Deficit Disorder-like. I blame it on a combination of my personality and my current place of work. Didn't I say I wanted to use this blog as a place to sort out my experiences of that as interpreter and historian? Since I work for a park that's interpretive mission includes the natural, cultural, and historic stories of a diverse and distinct region, I deal with a variety of topics daily. Within a course of a conversation, I may answer questions regarding the displacement of the Acadians, the difference between Cajun and Creole, the price of alligator meat, the region's agriculture, the  known distance of various bodies of water, the impact Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had on the area, and where is the restroom (always where is the restroom). I will call vast array of subject material I am expected to know "opportunities to learn." Heck, I can even consider them challenges for interpretive connections. Challenges! I like those; challenges keep me busy and pushing myself to go just that much further, right? That's what I tell myself, anyway.

One of my greater challenges working at a park with a high international visitorship is that of communication. There are only so many motions one can make to convey the fact that we have French translations available. "Traductions en français pour le musée?" probably does not sound the way it is supposed to when I attempt the phrase. Towards the end of summer, we see an influx of European visitors. For many Europeans countries, August is traditionally a month for holiday and nobody bothers to let the poor visitors know that Louisiana in August offers about the most miserable of conditions possible (Yes, I'll take 95% humidity to accompany that sultry 95 degree heat... and may I have mosquitoes on the side? Thanks).

I have noticed that with this influx of French visitors that there has been an influx of interest in the topic of American slavery. Year-round, French visitors have often asked about slaves, cotton, and plantations, but with so many visiting in a concentrated period of time, the questions also appear concentrated. The questions are usually phrased "where can I go to see the big houses where blacks picked cotton?" or "where are the houses where slaves worked?" 
What a lovely Louisiana plantation home, but something is missing... (From the Library of Congress)

What I find so striking about the European interest in slavery is the fact that most of our plantation homes want to keep the stories of the enslaved workers neatly tucked under the displayed historic tapestries. When Americans visit historic plantations, they want to see Scarlett on Tara or relive a clean (white) past. "Nowhere else in the south will you find such a spectacular setting!" claims Louisiana's Oak Alley. Oooh, here is a good one: " a stunning historic plantation that lies between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana.  A dramatic, multi-million-dollar renovation has restored this historic plantation to her days of glory..." 

Her days of glory. Glory? Glory.

The map includes an overseer's cabin. Whomever lived in that cabin oversaw the people thought of as nothing more than chattle, enslaved workers. Glory? Hmmm, I don't know if that is the word I would choose. I don't want to speak out of turn, for I have not visited either mansion (I'll admit that thoughts of touring historic homes nearly kill me). Maybe they embrace their legacies of slavery! I highly doubt it, however (who wants to learn about the institution of slavery while having their nails done, anyway?). It has been my experience that plantation homes would rather embrace the stories of hauntings than the histories of the enslaved workers who kept these places running for decades. Unfortunately, these are the plantations that visitors may tour. Oak Alley offers tours en français (and I cannot even begin to vouch for what the French tours offer, my brain still trips on "parlez-vous français"). 

I read this article last year and have been trying to digest it for months. Birkenhead wrote: 

"If America is a family, it’s a family that has tacitly agreed to never speak again — not with much honesty, anyway — about the terrible things that went on in its divided house. Slavery has been taught, it has been written about. There can’t be many subjects that rival it as an academic ink-guzzler. But the culture has not digested slavery in a meaningful way, hasn’t absorbed it the way it has World War II or the Kennedy assassination. We don’t feel the connections to it in our bones. It’s hard enough these days to connect with what happened 15 minutes ago, let alone 15 decades, given the endless layers of “classic,” “heirloom,” “traditional” “collectible,” “old school” comfort we’re swaddled in. But isn’t it the least we could do? What is the willful forgetting of slavery if not the coverup of a crime, an abdication of responsibility to its victims and to ourselves?"

Ouch. We try a "coverup" that results in something of a toddler who threw a blanket over her head in a lively round of "hide and seek." The toddler is technically out of sight, but the blanket doesn't really hide the toddler, her shape is still there. So if Americans have a hard time with coming to grips with their own history, why is it Europeans have such a fascination with it? Europe has its fair share of a painful past, but in my experience, the historic sites associated with those places do not back down from the difficulty of the history. I love to hear about historic sites telling a more inclusive history by sharing the stories of enslaved workers and I find that is what our French-speaking visitors want to see more of during their visits to historic plantations in the American South. Regardless of how Americans want to remember it, the history still exists. Encouraging the "connections to it in our bones" is part of the job of interpreters. This is our challenge. And challenges just push us to go that much further, right? 

*Note: As always, these thoughts are my own and do not necessarily reflect that of my employers. 

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