The Space Between

When I was neck-deep in wedding photography groups, I noticed a small trend bubbling up that I was initially very happy about. 

An outspoken minority of photographers refused to shoot weddings that occurred at plantations. In south Louisiana, this was a decision that would more than likely cost them a significant amount of money in lost opportunities, and I commended them for their dedication. Most of the wedding venues in our region are renovated plantations that now operate as multi-purpose event halls. My own wedding reception was at a plantation, which I remembered for some time with regret. But then, as I began to consider the issue closely, I came to a different conclusion.

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Isn’t this staunch refusal to engage with our region’s past the main cause for most of our problems today? Isn’t that disconnect between where we think we are today, versus where we used to be, what causes so much to be lost in translation? We shouldn’t drive to avoid our past. We should face it head-on, arm-in-arm.

Plantations—the structures—are beautiful. What happened within their walls and on their grounds was an unspeakable evil.

Isn’t this what southerners struggle with on a daily basis? This push-and-pull effect between loving your region, your state, your town… but still knowing that the land you stand on bore witness to the worst atrocities that the human race had to offer. The space between beauty and the profane is where the southern mind rests, and it can respond in two ways. Or so we think.

One, you could ignore it. You can rent out plantations and have weddings there as if they are no more than empty buildings; you can fly a confederate battle flag in front of your house because it’s just about “southern pride” and not racism. You can believe that confederate monuments belong on pedestals in public squares and not in museums. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, you can rail against them for “trying to steal your culture.”

Or, you could try bury it all and never engage with it. You can refuse to cater plantation venues, and you could see statues torn down and destroyed. The past can be forgotten, the names can be blacklisted, and then we can hope that something ugly doesn’t rise up into the void left behind. 

I think that there is a third way. 

Shying away from our history will not serve our region in the long run. Embracing it fully and downplaying the evil that was done does little to help us, either. Both options, I believe, are detrimental to the end goal of building a better South, one to be proud of.

I choose to give our past weight, but not power. I choose to leave it plain to see, but not celebrated. I choose to let these places stand and serve as a reminder in hopes that our collective humanity will never run and hide again in the light of someone else’s lust for power.

This weekend, we went to Rosedown Plantation in St. Francisville. I’d taken clients there before for engagement and portrait photography shoots. The rolling hills of St. Francisville are utterly gorgeous; it’s one of my favorite places in all of Louisiana. 

But this weekend, we went for a different reason. We paid the park entrance fee, wandered the sprawling gardens, and investigated the many historic buildings on site. As we walked, we noticed that there were placards for everything—the names of the bushes and trees planted, the architectural style of the home, when and where the many statues in the garden had come from, what the outbuildings were used for.

As we came across the reconstruction of the kitchen—now detached from the main house, with the original chimneys still intact, we came across a dusty binder on a rickety wooden podium. On it was a frayed and sun-bleached plastic label. 

“List of Turnbull’s slaves.” The binder was at least an inch thick.

I almost took a picture of it, but it felt like I would only serve to diminish it further in doing so. The binder was hidden not in the main house, where throngs of tourists walk through on the hour, every hour, but in a reconstruction of the old working kitchen out back. The names of these people rest not on a monument in the middle of all the splendor, but inside a building where they were likely forced to labor. The irony absolutely astounded me, and the anger that rose up in my throat took my breath away. 

We can do better.

There is nowhere we can go where the sins of the South are not. It’s in our music, our food; it lives in the air we breathe. The fact that we live here, in a region that was built on the backs of enslaved people and at the cost of their stolen lives, means that this part of our heritage is something we can never escape, never bury. We’d be foolish to try. It should be a part of our daily lives. It is so engrained in our culture that we have little choice but to live alongside it. To deny this, we can either walk through our lives half-blind, or minimize the past as much as we can so that we don’t have to think or feel too deeply.

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There are many in our region that do this. They “refuse to wallow” or “apologize for who they are.” But that is not what is asked of us. We don’t need to grovel, but we do need to live with our hearts and eyes wide open. We need to see the astonishing beauty of our home, and the monumental suffering it endured. We need to hear the beauty, but above all, we need to listen to the pain. And truly hear it. The beauty is tempered by the pain. The pain gives context to the beauty. Appreciating both for what they are is the only way that we can live authentically.

And this means listening to the experiences of others. This means listening to the real hurt and the real thoughts of our black neighbors, friends, family. I was disheartened but unsurprised to see how quickly the Black Lives Matter movement was diminished and drowned out in my city. What the white, dismissive news anchors and white, laughing (or angry) Facebook commenters didn’t realize is that their task was actually very simple. They didn’t need to grovel. All they needed to do was sit down, shut up, and listen. Just long enough so they could truly hear what was being said instead of drowning it all out under the weight of their assumptions.

 I stood by that binder for a long time, flipping through its cracked and dusty pages. I wondered if anyone else had done the same thing. It seemed unlikely, given how unyielding they were. I looked at their Anglicized names and wondered what their true names would’ve been. Their names—scrubbed out, erased, written over with someone else’s idea, stayed with me. 

Who were they?