In his documentary, Lillian Smith: Breaking the Silence, Hal Jacobs uses numerous historical clips. One that stood out to me, though, was a clip, which he showed three sections of, from a ten minute Coronet film entitled “The Plantation System in Southern Life” from 1950. The film presents the South as an idyllic destination, one full of nostalgia and agrarianism, a soothing balm against the trappings of modern society. Throughout, the film paints chattel slavery as some benign class system where the wealthy enslavers had more money and opportunities than the enslaved, basically saying that the enslaved had opportunities but they were poor. There is no discussion of poor whites, free people of color, Native Americans, or others. It’s merely a binary of enslavers and enslaved.
I do not want to completely analyze “The Plantation System in Southern Life” today, but I mention it’s overall narrative to highlight what Jacobs does with the clip in the documentary. The clip follows Rose Gladney talking about white southern womanhood and the place of the white southern woman on the pedestal and Diane Roberts speaking about post World War II America and readers not wanting to “get yelled about race” and their desires to get back to “the ways things were” before the war.
Jacobs’ movement to “The Plantation System in Southern Life” underscores the ways that, as Smith herself argued, the deep-rooted systemic beliefs of white supremacy etched themselves onto the very land. Jacobs shows three scenes from the brief ten-minute film. The first shows a family of white tourists approaching the big house of a plantation as the narrator talks about visiting the Southern states. The narrator describes the house as opulent, even stating, “This beautiful mansion is one of many homesteads that were once the residences of Southern planters.” Of course, what this narration makes invisible is the enslaved labor that made this mansion.
Jacobs cuts the clip off here, after the family looks inside, but “The Plantation System in Southern Life” continues as the narrator talks about the furnishings in the house. He states, “Planters imported fine household goods from England. These things represent part of the wealth that came from products grown on the plantation.” There are two important aspects here. The first is, again, the elimination of enslaved labor in the acquisition of the wealth that the enslaver acquired.
The second has to do with the turn towards Europe and England. John Crowe Ransom, in his essay from the Southern agrarians’ 1930 manifesto I’ll Take My Stand made a similar move. He wrote, “The South is unique on this continent for having founded and defended a culture which was according to the European principles of culture; and the European principles had better look to the South if they are to be perpetuated in this country.” This white, Eurocentric assertion, places Europe at the forefront of civilization and the South as its progeny.
The next clip that Jacobs uses shows an enslaved man in the field looking up at the enslaver who sits on a horse. The narration describes chattel slavery as an “unusual class system” where there was “a sharp division of people into two main groups.” These two groups, “the owners and the slaves, left a lasting influence on the society of the South.” During this narration, the screen shows two Black men in a field picking cotton. What the narration and the images do not show is the brutality of slavery, the family’s torn apart, individuals raped. individuals beaten, individuals denied their human rights.
Jacobs concludes the section with a clip that occurs near the end of the “The Plantation System in the South.” The clip shows white men, women, and children gathered around a barbecue pit as what appears to be the landowner cooks. Walking around the crowd is a Black woman who is serving the people gathered. The narration talks about seeing some of these historical influences at social gatherings in the South, and he mentions “the traditional southern hospitality, the gentle manners and courtesy.” At this moment, we see a white woman greeting a white couple. Jacobs slows down the transition to the next scene, and as he slows it down, the Black woman walks across the forefront of the screen as the narration trails off with, “The separation of society into distinct groups . . . “
The nostalgic image of the South in “The Plantation System in the South” is nothing new. The South had long served as a destination for Northern tourists, a place for them to escape the urban. In the cultural imagination, it served, as Elanor Mandeville Henderson put it in a 1939 issue of The North Georgia Review, as “a nostalgic longing to recover the feeling and atmosphere of a lost and perfect time.” This idealized image presents all white men as wealthy landowners and white women as southern belles, but as Henderson notes, “all southern men were not wealthy plantation owners who read Horace in his native tongue, all southern girls were not forever descending ‘the broad hall stair’ in hooped gowns and tiny slippers.”
Plain and simple, the nostalgia that so many, including “The Plantation System in the South,” perpetuate never existed. What existed was a system with a few wealthy people at the top who owned enslaved men and women and those enslaved men and women made those people wealthier. What existed was a system where wealthy people sought to keep poor and disadvantaged whites, Native Americans, enslaved people, and free people of color from interacting with one another because those interactions may lead to their usurpation. What existed was racism, exploitation, and brutality.
Jacobs use of this clip, and his undercutting of its nostalgic message, drives home the fact that by engaging with plantation tourism we perpetuate these same myths. While the architecture and grounds of plantation houses are beautiful, they contain, underneath their veneer, the pain and suffering of countless individuals. They continue to flourish and grow, fertilized by the blood, sweat, tears, and bones of the enslaved who lived and worked the grounds. They stand not as a testament to those held in bondage. They stand as a testament to those who enslaved.
All of this brings to mind a recent tweet that went viral from white plantation tourists who visited the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, a plantation dedicated to telling the stories of the enslaved, not the enslavers. In their review of their trip, the wife wrote, “My husband and I were extremely disappointed in this tour. We didn’t come to hear a lecture on how the white people treated slaves, we came to get this history of a southern plantation and get a tour of the house and grounds.” When I went to the Whitney, soon after it opened, a white man, from New Zealand I think, said he came just for the house.
The woman’s comments highlight the problems with plantation tourism and some non-existent past that this tourism creates within the mind of individuals. In a response, Michael Twitty talks about how visitors engage with him as he cooks, and he points out that “[t]he Old South may be your American Downton Abbey but it is our American Horror Story, even under the best circumstances it represents the extraction of labor, talent and life we can never get back.”
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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