When I lived abroad in Prague, Czech Republic, in 2005, I was asked a few times about America, its people and culture, why Americans were so loud, so cheery, so fat, so rich (oh no! not you, of course!). Inevitably these people had never been to America, their experience mainly being news, music videos, and movies. Rather than take offense at the stereotypes, I encouraged these people to visit so they could see for themselves how truly diverse the country and its people are. Having traveled to 40 of the 50 U.S. states to date, I see America as not one country but a region made up of many little countries, much like Europe, where we may all speak English with varying accents but an American is not one easily defined type. A Yankee is not a Californian, a Midwesterner is not a Texan, a Seattleite is not a Floridian. It's that countries-within-a-country that I love to experience when I travel in the U.S. Take my September 2013 trip to Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia to knock off a few more states on my way to 50. I have lived in northern Virginia, Maryland, and the Washington D.C. area, below the Mason-Dixon line denoting where the cultural South begins but not really the true South since that region mixes in many Northerners, myself included. Focusing on the Deep South, I decided to visit Charleston, South Carolina's Lowcountry capital. Outside of that city is Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, a beautiful 390-acre area along the Ashley River where Reverend John Grimke-Drayton in the mid-1800s created a landscaped walking area with bridges spanning black marshes, azaleas everywhere, and live oaks covered in Spanish moss. Peacocks roamed on the lawn of the post-Civil War main house with its veranda designed to catch the cool breezes on the hot day I was there. Established by Barbados natives Thomas and Ann Drayton in 1679 and still privately-owned by the family, Magnolia exemplifies the dichotomy of plantations as I came to realize on visiting a few in the area. Ideal places for weddings and celebrations of Southern style but also places with dark slavery histories that are acknowledged but not in a deep, real sense. This plantation was created to grow Carolina Gold, a special highly profitable rice strain, with its cultivation enabled by the free manual labor of imported West Africans, known culturally as the Gullah or Geechee. Seen from a trolley tour around the outlying areas of the acreage, there are still the flooded paddy areas with many alligators out catching the sun and the drainage ditches built to irrigate the fields, the muggy heat likely far worse back then when there was no tree coverage or rest from the malarial mosquitoes. Five small wood slave houses, pristinely kept and dating back as far as the 1850s, are located on the property a ways away from the main house, with their preservation just being started four years ago. I didn't take the 45-minute tour of the cabins, which Magnolia without using the "s" word describes as acknowledging "the vital role that Gullah people and
culture plays in any interpretation of Lowcountry history" and "addressing
this often overlooked part of the region's narrative." Whether I did that educational tour or not, I expected to be left with the same impression, that South Carolinians celebrate their white Southerness and role in creating early America over truly pulling back the curtain on their harsh slavery history and what was done to enable that contribution. Was it odd that all the Magnolia house guides were white and the only African American employees I saw were a gardener and another picking up trash? I realized no matter how many peacocks were around, I as a white person wouldn't be getting married at Magnolia or any plantation for that matter. There was just something wrong about celebrating at these places, a history subtle in its physical presence having been wiped away by time but still loud in my mind in its emotional heft, a feeling that what had happened here was not quite over because it is only allowed to be gently remembered or at worst, is covered over with nice green lawns. Let us remember only until it's best for our pride to forget, a quintessential American sentiment when it comes to addressing cultures assimilated or destroyed as white Europeans raced to settle the continent and certainly a sentiment I felt in South Carolina.
Another example of a classic Southern plantation is Boone Hall Plantation on the Wampacheone Creek, found at the end of a long alley way of stunning old oaks covered in Spanish moss. Covering 110 acres currently and founded in 1681 by Englishman Major John Boone, the plantation was not known for rice as Magnolia but cotton and pecans and still operates as a farm today. Like Boone, the main Colonial Revival house, owned privately after passing many hands, is relatively new, this time from the 1930s, with lush gardens in front and well manicured lawns, Southern-style enough to be used as a setting for the ABC mini series North and South as well as the movies Queen and The Notebook. Boone more than Magnolia tried to compliment the house tour with an educational experience on Gullah culture and slavery on the plantation. Former slave quarters, eight one-room brick cabins, are nearby, each outfitted with a scene with audio discussing a part of the journey from slavery to freedom. That walk ends with an outdoor presentation by a Gullah woman who discusses life from the perspective of someone born for free hard labor, including making the bricks of their cabins. I learned quite a bit from the whole show although I once again had this nagging feeling as I saw a Gullah woman nearby making and selling their traditional coiled baskets from sweetgrass. I didn't begrudge her a living, of course, but I couldn't help but flash back to when the cabins were what Gullahs had to call homes, with her people sitting in the same spot making these same baskets with no ability to walk down that oak alley way and out the gate. How little or how much has changed? I thought of where I come from in New England where the earliest American ancestors were guilty of atrocities against Native People, including slavery. As far as I know, there is no historical area there that was quite like these plantations with reminders of their harsh histories combined with a celebration of the dominant white culture side-by-side. At Plimoth Plantation, for instance, in Massachusetts, Wampanoags and other Native People participate in an outdoor living history exhibit to show people what their life was like in the 17th century at the time the English settlers came. They also sell crafts in the plantation store. Is it the same, though? Although both cultures were enslaved and maligned along the way as savages compared to white culture, the imported Africans weren't resettled to reservations or provided their own land like Native People. They instead became sharecroppers still reliant on white landowners, many too poor to rise above the lives they had before. No reparations, just a forced welcome if at all by the Southern whites who had lost the Civil War and many their fortunes, mansions looted and burned to the ground. New England has many a town and even Massachusetts named after its Native People culture; there was no town I heard of in South Carolina that had adopted a Gullah word for a name. What really did the Gullah have when slavery ended? Freedom as U.S. citizens, true, but not an equivalent freedom to whites. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ensured greater equality and less formal discrimination through legal rights although South Carolina as recently as 2011 was still push voting restrictions that targeted minorities. And the Gullah now must fight to keep what land they occupied after the war as vacationing people and developers flock to South Carolina's Lowcountry and Sea Islands. Fortunately, the U.S. government stepped up in 2006 to fund for a decade a heritage corridor aimed at preserving historical sites from Florida to southern North Carolina. Where was the South Carolina government in all that?
Boone Hall and Magnolia, designed for tourists who want to be told what wealthy plantation living was like but certainly not what plantations were really like, are kept open as privately-owned profit-making endeavors for their white owners. I visited two other plantations in South Carolina, however, that were not privately owned, run by the state or federal government, in order to see other takes on the plantation-visiting experience. Rose Hill Plantation State Historic Site, up country in Union, South Carolina, was built by Charlestonian William Henry Gist, known as the Secession Governor of South Carolina in office from 1858-1860 and the man behind the state being the first to cede the Union in December 1860. Formerly a 7,000-8,000-acre cotton and corn plantation during Gist's time, the area was reforested, with the petite main house and gardens now in slow decline, spider webs off of azaleas, magnolia trees overgrown, crumbling stone walkways, anemic rose bushes, painting needs, very quiet in the early afternoon I visited with one nice elderly lady as a volunteer tour guide. There were no slave quarters on site, all lost to time, she said, letting me know that Gist and his family's cemetery plot was a few miles away down the road at what was once the outer edge of the plantation. Once in a brick structure long since crumbled, Gist's modest obelisk headstone where he was laid to rest in 1874 had a lone, very worn and small Confederate flag stuck in front of it, with the surrounding area full of woods detritus clearly showing nobody cared for the family plot. One of the key men in the Civil War, now just an old stone in the middle of nowhere, hardly what Confederate General Robert E. Lee got in his home state of Virginia. Drayton Hall, circa 1742 on the Ashley River outside Charleston, is another example of not retouching the past in order to suit a need to remember it in a kinder light. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has managed the huge Palladian-style house since 1974 as a national historic landmark since it's one of the few plantation houses left standing after the Civil War. It was built by John Drayton, a relation to the family line that owns Magnolia, and the site has the same history of rice cultivation although none of it is readily apparent in the forested area. The house is the lone structure left, with the trust deciding not to upgrade it into a faux remaking of what it looked like back at its height complete with a colonial dressed tour guide. Rather, the trust preserves the building and its rooms in original condition so some painting on the cypress-paneled walls is peeling and trims are missing places, there is a dustiness and smell of age, particularly with the sweltering heat on the day I went. There is absolutely no furniture, paintings, curtains, nothing to show the style of the time or who lived there. As a result, Drayton does feel empty, sad in a way, and definitely of a bygone greatness, albeit a wonderfully designed house with a great entry staircase and grand rooms with marble fireplaces reminding me of the rich person who built it. Being about architecture most, there is not much in the way of what the plantation was like, but the trust in 2010 did dedicate a memorial just down the main entry road where 40 named and unnamed slaves are buried, with more suspected going back going back to 1790. At the memorial's dedication ceremony, Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture, summed up what I had been feeling myself as I walked around the site, wondering how many were below and thinking about the Gullah who will never be known as someone drives by to take wedding photos on the steps of Drayton. "But in some ways, we learn even more by what a country chooses to forget. This desire to omit—disappointments, moments of evil and great missteps—is quite instructive. Often it is the essence of African American culture that is forgotten or neglected. It is often the story of the enslaved and their descendants that is shrouded by the mists of forgetfulness. But today, this dedication allows us to pierce this mist with the sunshine of remembering. Within this cemetery, we know the names of some, but many more names are known only to God. But today, we honor them all—we honor their sacrifice, their suffering and their impact. But we also honor their joy, their resiliency and their lives. It is clear that we are all made better by their lives—which is the foundation on which we stand."