“The people who know the least about slavery are Americans- black and white alike” our tour guide, Ali, said. I instantly felt ashamed because just like our tour guide at the Whitney Planation said, I knew very little about slavery and Black history and that was my own fault. Being biracial, I never fully identified with either of my cultures for various reasons. However, when it comes to my African American heritage, I realize now that I have resorted to ignoring the history and culture as if that would make me more “American” and less Black.
Throughout much of my education, I have often been embarrassed of the way in which literature and history portrays slaves and slavery. When dealing with the topic, authors I have read tended to brush over the tragedy or romanticize the experience of slavery. Unfortunately, Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire is no different. Interview With The Vampire is a novel that walks the reader through the history and evolution of New Orleans through the eyes of a vampire. When discussing slavery, Anne Rice paints a picture of how exotic and fascinating enslaved people were and creates a power divide between those of African descent and those of mixed blood.
A visit to the plantation in the same scorching sun and humidity my ancestors worked in will demonstrate that there is no romance in slavery. The Whitney Plantation provides a rare experience to view the sufferings of slavery, as it was, instead of glorifying the economic gain of plantations through opulent house tours.
Walk in the slave quarters and you will see the rickety beds that shouldn’t be able to hold a body placed in a cramped, door-less, cabin held together without nails. Read the names of the child memorial and you will see young children stripped of their cultural and individual identities- some not even given names but called negro and negress. Pass through a column of bushes and you will find 63 ceramic heads impaled on metal poles, representing the beheading of revolting enslaved whose heads were displayed as a lesson to all who sought freedom. I could hardly spend time in this last memorial without feeling sickened that one group of people could disregard countless lives and slaughter many just to earn money.
Literature shouldn’t be celebrated just for its mere mention of slavery because to the uneducated individual, romanticism of slavery can normalize the experience rather than create discussion of human rights. As our tour guide mentioned, the act of using unjust human labor for economic gain expands beyond slavery and will easily be repeated if we don’t educate ourselves. Ignorance is danger; it is our responsibility to teach each other our cultures and have respectful conversations if we don’t understand another’s perspective.
As for me, I’m not yet ready to fully educate anyone just yet- but I’m learning. Throughout the days that we have been on adventure through literature, I have become increasingly more comfortable having deeper conversations about my perspective and the impact of actions and words.
New Orleans has provided me with this opportunity to explore my blackness and understand that while my upbringing is in no way similar, a beautiful celebration exists.
As a class, we went to Congo Square, a gathering place for African Americans during slavery. Congo Square was one of the only places enslaved people were allowed to gather on Sundays and recognize their culture through dance, song, and trade. In an interview with NBC news, Jamilah Yejide Peters- Muhammad from the Congo Square Preservation Society discussed the importance of the Congo Square, stating, “[here] they were able to remember that my name was not Susan, I was not little picket head black girl Susan, my name was Jamilah and they could remember who I was… we could still sing our songs, we could still hear the rhythms we brought in our spirits, and we could teach them to our children.” Present day, New Orleans is among the few to retain their local Congo Square and commemorate its history through beautiful sculptures and weekend music performance of the same banging drums once performed, years ago. While my class went off to watch a movie about Buddy Bolden, I found myself drawn back to the square with my copy of Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter to catch up on reading and reflect upon my experiences here. On my walk to a café shop afterwards, I stumbled along jazz street performers on Royal Street playing a tune by Louis Armstrong and was in awe of just how connected parts of this city are to the African American story. I wouldn’t be in this city if not for bookpacking. I’m excited to see where these next two weeks take me and the influence it will have on my self-discovery.