Monday, March 28, 2016

Louisiana: The Slavery Museum


Children, sculpted by Woodrow Nash, Slavery Museum, Whitney Plantation, Louisiana. March 2015.


It's taken me a long time to write about my visit to the United States' very first slavery museum. Maybe because it generated polarized responses in me: Deep satisfaction in its creation. Disappointment in some of its execution.


Children, sculpted by Woodrow Nash, Slavery Museum, Whitney Plantation, Louisiana. March 2015.



I visited the museum in March 2015 with a German doctoral student in linguistics who studies the black French Creole language in South Louisiana. We shared an airbnb house at the start of my second year here, before I found my apartment in Opelousas.


Children, sculpted by Woodrow Nash, Slavery Museum, Whitney Plantation, Louisiana. March 2015.


Some memories remain vivid a year later.


Children, sculpted by Woodrow Nash, Slavery Museum, Whitney Plantation, Louisiana. March 2015.


The sculptures of the children in the church.

These children.

They are witnesses to a world that is alongside theirs, but which has different rules. These children, of an age when they know things are different for them than for others, but whose child-minds and spirits still have that buoyancy of belief in fanciful futures. 

These sculpted children observe us, the historical tourists, as we enter the church and sit in its pews and walk slowly around their figures, looking at them in their stillness. Do you see me? Each asks. Do you see me?


Children, sculpted by Woodrow Nash, Slavery Museum, Whitney Plantation, Louisiana. March 2015.



Names. The museum includes the names of men, women, and children who were enslaved. A seeing. A recognition of each person's humanity, a life lived, not just a dot in the universe labeled "slave."


Children, sculpted by Woodrow Nash, Slavery Museum, Whitney Plantation, Louisiana. March 2015.


The girl with the pretty teeth. The docent who led our group walked us through panels of names and story excerpts, asking each of us to note any that felt particularly meaningful for us. Later, she shared the story that meant the most to her, which was this, which I imperfectly relate to the best of my memory: There was a young girl, maybe 11 or 12 years old, enslaved, known for the prettiness of her teeth. And maybe she was very proud of the prettiness of her teeth. Well, the man who owned this little girl didn't care for the attention the prettiness drew. Or maybe the pride she took in their prettiness. One midday, he took the little girl into one of his outbuildings, one with the blacksmithing tools. Using an appliance, he removed one of the little girl's teeth. The next day, he did the same. The next day, the same. Every day, he removed one of her teeth.

Can you imagine? The pain of the act itself, during and after. Perhaps more stupefying, though, the anticipation of what was to come the next day. Then in the following morning. In an hour. In fifteen minutes. In one minute. Or to be the girl's parents, undergoing the same torture, albeit once removed, and being powerless to prevent it.

I regret that I didn't take the time to hunt down that story on the wall while I was there so I could be sure I heard it correctly and that I could share it here in the girl's own words. I've not been able to track it down since so I don't know how accurate my narrative is.

But I think about that girl and her fear. And I think about the capacity of cruelty that lives within all of us.


Children, sculpted by Woodrow Nash, Slavery Museum, Whitney Plantation, Louisiana. March 2015.


The Anti-Yoke Baptist Church. Later morphed into Antioch. This church at the Slavery Museum is not original to this site. It was built here and more recently moved to the Whitney Plantation, the site of the Slavery Museum.

When the museum docent explained that the original name of this church was "Anti-Yoke" as in contra the yoke that oxen wear as they work in the fields at the direction of a driver, I felt this inner exhalation of admiration for the men and women who were so bold as to give their church this in-your-face, self-determinate name.



Children, sculpted by Woodrow Nash, Slavery Museum, Whitney Plantation, Louisiana. March 2015.

There were things about the museum that underwhelmed me:
  • It costs a lot of money to get into - $22! For that, I expected to see all of the exhibits and not be kept from entering some of them because they weren't ready yet. This was annoying, especially because in a couple of cases (e.g. entering a cabin), there appeared to be no good reason to keep us out.
  • Overall, I felt the slavery experience was somewhat sanitized. This may change in the future with additional exhibits. I hardly think Auschwitz and Buchenwald are sanitized.
  • Our docent was an engaging leader and I appreciated the information she had to share, but there seemed to be gaps in her knowledge that I would have expected the museum to have covered in their staff training. 



Children, sculpted by Woodrow Nash, Slavery Museum, Whitney Plantation, Louisiana. March 2015.

But what a triumph that the Slavery Museum exists!




Related posts

The Peculiar Blindness, Part 1
The Peculiar Blindness, Part 2
The Peculiar Blindness, Part 3
Louisiana Lit: 12 Years a Slave
Rootless Lit: The Warmth of Other Suns








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