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Through a Different Lens: Paradox and the Interpretation of Slavery at Southern Historical Plantation Sites

African American history, Breaking News

by George W. McDaniel, Ph.D.

SHEAR Conference – July 20, 2013

Each year, millions of people visit historical plantation sites throughout the South. Mount  Vernon alone attracts about a million, while Monticello engages about a half million. Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston brings in about 200, 000, while Middleton Place just up the river attracts 100,000, and Drayton Hall nearby attracts over 50,000. Think then of the educational potential of such sites. If interpreted well, they can illustrate the trajectory of Southern- Americans, both black and white, through centuries of time. They can serve as a remedy for the often overlooked contributions of African Americans and help correct a false picture of historical reality. As Pulitzer-prize-winning historian C. Vann Woodward wrote in his  American Counterpoint:

The ironic thing about these two great hyphenate minorities, Southern-Americans and Afro-Americans, confronting each other on their native soil for three and a half centuries, is the degree to which they have shaped each other’s destiny, determined each other’s isolation, shared and molded a common culture. It is, in fact, impossible to imagine the one without the, other, and quite futile to try.

If interpreted in such ways, Southern plantation sites can help us understand that history is not a simple linear progression, but rather is much more complex. They can help us appreciate the fact that the people of the past, like us today, are not easy to understand. They too were rife with contradictions, complexities. There are shades of gray, not a simple black and white dichotomy. Decisions were not clear cut or easy to make. Outcomes, for good or bad, were not known in advance.  History is nuanced. How to help visitors understand this?

One way, which I’d like to discuss, is by interpreting Southern historical plantations as a place of paradox. That is, historical Southern plantation were at once places of beauty and places of tragedy, places of opportunity and places of oppression; places of freedom and of slavery; they were at once a home and a prison.

As many of you well know, when visitors go to historical Southern plantations, the interpretation too often accents the aesthetics of architecture, decorative arts, landscapes, gardens, and the life of the owners to the neglect of the tragic reality of slavery, which made such places possible.  Of course, many Southern plantation sites, ranging from Monticello and Mount Vernon to Montpelier and Drayton Hall were indeed beautiful places. To deny that would be false.

On the other hand, to present only that picture would be false. Southern plantations were like a gulag, a prison camp –where one was sentenced to a confinement that lasted not just for a specific period of years, or even for a lifetime, but rather a confinement lasting from generation to generation to generation.

How to find a path through these seemingly opposing points of view? One solution is to embrace them both and to acknowledge they are both true at the same time, which is the very nature of a paradox: a seeming contradiction that is nonetheless true.  It is hoped that by interpreting history as more complex than what visitors may immediately perceive it to be, we can engage them in conversations with us, and among themselves, and thereby enhance and energize their understanding and enjoyment of history. And isn’t that the purpose of a historic site: To get people to understand, enjoy, and talk about history?

As we think about plantations overall as paradox and focus in on the enslaved community,  another paradox emerges. As historian Herbert Gutman has shown in his book The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, or John Blassingame in his book The Slave Community, or Charles Joyner in Down By the Riverside, or Philip Morgan in Slave Counterpoint — within this confined “prison” environment, slaves did manage to create families and communities, a tradition of resistance, and a distinctive culture. They passed on values and strategies to succeeding generations after slavery, as represented in their religion, family life, community life, language, music, foodways, or craft traditions. As Lonnie Bunch, Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, has declared, slaves “made a way out of no way.” They found ways to make a home and to forge a sense of self. They were supposed to be passive, but they found ways to be active agents instead.

In interpreting plantations as paradox, one has to be careful because such a concept just put out baldly could be perceived as too academic or not interesting to visitors. Thus, we need to answer a key question: What do visitors expect when coming to a Southern historical plantation site. By choosing to visit, they obviously have expectations and questions.  In response, we need not to dictate only one interpretation,  or set of interpretive lens, but rather to open up opportunities for questions. We need to hear from visitors and then find engaging ways to frame the interpretation with the concept of paradox and to interweave it into the interpretation in organic ways.

Recent informal surveys at Drayton Hall provide important clues of visitor questions.  Most of the visitors were white, with some African Americans. What respondents showed was that visitors to plantations expect to hear an interpretation of slavery. If not, they found there to be a “big hole” in the story. Several said that previously they had visited plantation sites where slavery was not discussed, and they had left disappointed. As one explained, “It’s history. You can’t explain plantations otherwise. We wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for slavery.”

The questions they wanted to ask were right in line with those historians have been asking. They wanted to know:

  • What was it like to be a slave?
  • What was their family life?
  • Did their families get divided? Sold?
  • What about individual slaves’ biographies?
  • Could we trace anyone back to Africa?
  • At Drayton Hall, who mowed the lawn?
  • Their medicine?
  • What gave them hope?
  • Inspiration?
  • What happened when freedom came?

Paradox offers ways to answer these questions by giving multiple perspectives, rather than one simple one.  Paradox can offer seemingly contradictory answers, which are nonetheless true. For example, what gave them hope? On the one hand, the daily, grinding reality of being a slave took away hope in ways that we today can hardly fathom. And some did give up. On the other hand, most did not give up hope; they found meaning within their family, community, work, or other things that people come to hold on to.

The good news is that these are questions that a number of Southern plantation sites are striving to answer. Monticello, National Trust sites like Drayton Hall, Cliveden, and Montpelier, plus others cited in this session are examples. There’s still a long way to go, and funding is tight. And finding support for, and giving credit to, our funding institutions is something all of us need to take more seriously.

So how might we interpret slavery and paradox at our sites and help get people to want to come and learn at Southern plantation sites? One way is to involve African Americans in the telling of their story. To ask them what questions they would like to ask of plantations? What do they value about such places? How do they connect? And to use that information in the interpretation so that visitors can hear, for example, directly from descendants.

As an illustration, I’m going to conclude with about 14 minutes of clips from over 15 hours of oral history interviews I conducted recently with African American descendants of Drayton Hall and with Charles Drayton, the last owner of Drayton Hall. You might feel the tension of paradox, of this plantation as a place of beauty and of oppression, of individual identity and mass anonymity. These are interviews with Drayton Hall descendants, but please imagine them to be at any plantation site you might know.  We hope to use these in mobile apps and on our new web site, with the goal being not to “wrap up” history but rather to open it up and to use our plantation site as an opportunity for cross-racial bridge building. In our discussion period, I hope we can talk further about Drayton Hall and the National Trust’s work and hopes for using sites for such a purpose, a purpose that we as a community and as a nation still deeply need to strive towards.

[ video clip not available at this time – please check back at a later date ]

George W. McDaniel has been, since 1989, executive director of Drayton Hall, a historic George McDaniel headshot 2013site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Charleston, SC.  A native of Atlanta, he holds a B.A. in history from Sewanee, an M.A.T. in history from Brown University, and a Ph.D. in history from Duke University.  A former Peace Corps Volunteer (Togo, 1968) and a Vietnam veteran, he was a Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution and director of museums and education at the Atlanta History Center. He is the author of numerous publications, including Hearth and Home: Preserving a People’s Culture, which received an Honor Award from the National Trust.  At Drayton Hall, George has devoted himself to education, historic preservation, and conservation of the Ashley River Region, and has won awards at local, state, and national levels.

SHEAR – The Society for Historians of the Early American Republic
Established in 1977, the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) is an association of scholars dedicated to exploring the events and the meaning of United States history between 1776 and 1861. SHEAR’s mission is to foster the study of the early republican period among professional historians, students, and the general public. It upholds the highest intellectual standards of the historical profession and encourages the broad diffusion of historical insights through all appropriate channels, including schools, museums, libraries, electronic media, public programming, archives, and publications. SHEAR cherishes a democratic ethos in scholarship and cultivates close, respectful, and productive exchanges between serious scholars at every level of experience and recognition. SHEAR membership is open to all; most members are professional historians employed in colleges, universities, museums, and historical parks and agencies, as well as independent scholars and graduate students.