I have been thinking and writing about the gifts of community for many months. Now that I've entered the last month of my sabbatical, it feels like it is time to shift my focus to the other side of the story. Coming together in community does not always make people more compassionate, more generous or kinder. Groups of people can also be mean and hateful. People band together to fight an enemy, to exclude outsiders, to resist change.
But here's what I find befuddling: sometimes, we come together to protect ourselves from seeing something or knowing something that would compel us to do something. Communities of people seem to be able to create and sustain lies or myths or half-truths longer than individuals can. And that's saying a lot.
My trip last week to New Orleans gave me several opportunities to see how well we do this--and how badly it screws things up.
Exhibit A: slavery.
I traveled to New Orleans with my friend Karen Jack who was on a mission to discover more about her ancestors. Karen's mother and father were both born in Louisiana to families who had long lived and worked in the area. Karen's research had led to conclude that her great-great-great-grandparents had been slaves on one of the plantations that lined the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. We visited two that are closest to Vacherie, Louisiana, where Karen's mom grew up and where her grandmother and aunt still live.
The first plantation, called "Laura", was relatively simple. The main building was a beautiful creole-style structure which had served as the business office for the plantation--the family actually lived 50 miles down the river in New Orleans. Our guide was a man dressed in work clothes who did a great job telling the story of three generations of the family which originally owned the plantation. The tour included a visit to a single slave cabin which had been rebuilt on the property, representing the 69 cabins which housed 175 slaves in the decades preceding the Civil War.
According to our guide, the third generation owner, Laura Locoul Gore, was disgusted by the human cruelty on which the family business was founded. She sold off everything and left Louisiana, never to return.
The second plantation at which we stopped, Oak Alley, was more unsettling. The house there was much grander—the owner who had it built used it not for business but for entertaining and as his primary residence. A spectacular row of enormous oaks framed the view from the second floor gallery out to the Mississippi.
Our tour guide was a white woman wearing a period dress complete with a hoop skirt. She smiled like a gracious hostess as she showed our group the “shoo-fly fan” positioned over the enormous dining room table that would have been pulled by a slave who sat in the corner. She pointed out the glass jars designed to serve as flycatchers positioned all around the table. We got the picture—lots of livestock in close proximity, no screens, all windows and doors kept open to keep the air circulating, and the result is a ton of flies and other insects in the house.
The guide also pointed out the chair in the children’s room where the enslaved “night nurse” would sit, keeping guard as the children slept in case a river rat or some other animal crawled in the open windows. She then stood in the hallway and pointed out portraits of the original family and their children—out of six children born to the couple, two lived to adulthood.
Clearly, plantation life wasn’t idyllic, even for the owners. But it was significantly worse for the slaves.
The foundation that now owns and operates Oak Alley has rebuilt a row of six slave cabins in the location where there were originally many more. This part of the tour was self-guided—a series of signs inside and outside the cabins described the life of “house slaves” and “field slaves” (and how they were different) as well as how the sick were cared for in a “sick house”. The information, while limited, was not sugar-coated. For example:
- Sugar cane was the main cash crop of all the plantations along “River Road”. The slaves planted and harvested the cane (cutting it by hand with sharp machetes was treacherous work). They also processed the cane there on the plantation, boiling it down in progressively smaller pots, skimming off impurities as they went. This was also incredibly hazardous work. Injuries were common and the doctor who was on call had essentially one remedy: amputation.
- During the sugar cane harvest which lasted from October through December, the slaves worked 18 hour days.
- If any slave did get sick (and in a tropical climate full of mosquitoes and swamps, people got sick all the time) they were quarantined in the “sick house” and cared for by other slaves who had no resources or medicine at their disposal. Needless to say, the mortality rate was high.
- Slave rations were essentially starvation rations. Each slave had to tend their own garden and raise their own chicken and hogs (if they were lucky) to supplement the food they were given by the plantation owner. They did this work at night, after they came in from their day of working in the fields.
The slave cabins were close enough to the manor house that the master could have heard conversations the slaves had on their front porches at night. This amazed me. I always had the thought that slavery was sustained in the United States in part by being hidden, out in the fields, away from the cities, away from the genteel lives of those whose wealth depended on cruelty. But at Oak Alley, nothing was hidden.
How did the owners live like that? I found my answer in an exhibit in one of the slave cabins on medical practices. Shipping records revealed that an exceptionally large amount of opiates were regularly delivered to the plantation (as well as the laxatives which regular opiate usage necessitates). There was some comment that suggested this medication was used to treat injured slaves, but I found that hard to believe. It seems clear to me that the owner of the plantation managed to live as he did by drugging himself.
It seemed like a pretty good metaphor for how we tolerated--and benefited from--slavery for as long as we did. We just nodded off and refused to see what was right in front of us.