Posts Tagged With: the south

Building the First Slavery Museum in America

Below is an article that I found on the New York Times’ website today.  It’s written by David Amsden, and the link to the original article can be found here.  As a historian studying the process of memorialization and memory-making, I find this Whitney slavery museum to be incredibly fascinating.  I’d love to take a field trip down to New Orleans to check it out.  

 

Building the First Slavery Museum in America

By: David Amsden, for the New York Times 

John Cummings (right), the Whitney Plantation's owner and Ibrahima Seck, its director of research, in the Baptist church on the grounds.  Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times.

John Cummings (right), the Whitney Plantation’s owner and Ibrahima Seck, its director of research, in the Baptist church on the grounds. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times.

Louisiana’s River Road runs northwest from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, its two lanes snaking some 100 miles along the Mississippi and through a contradictory stretch of America.  Flat and fertile, with oaks webbed in Spanish moss, the landscape stands in defiance of the numerous oil refineries and petrochemichal plants that threaten its natural splendor.  In the rust-scabbed towns of clapboard homes, you are reminded that Louisiana is the eighth-poorest state in the nation.  Yet in the lush sugar plantations that crop up every couple of miles, you can glimpse the excess that defined the region before the Civil War. Some are still active, with expansive fields yielding 13 million tons of sugar cane a year. Others stand in states of elegant rot. But most conspicuous are those that have been restored for tourists, transporting them into a world of bygone Southern grandeur — one in which mint juleps, manicured gardens and hoop skirts are emphasized over the fact that such grandeur was made possible by the enslavement of black human beings.

On Dec. 7, the Whitney Plantation, in the town of Wallace, 35 miles west of New Orleans, celebrated its opening, and it was clear, based on the crowd entering the freshly painted gates, that the plantation intended to provide a different experience from those of its neighbors. Roughly half of the visitors were black, for starters, an anomaly on plantation tours in the Deep South. And while there were plenty of genteel New Orleanians eager for a peek at the antiques inside the property’s Creole mansion, they were outnumbered by professors, historians, preservationists, artists, graduate students, gospel singers and men and women from Senegal dressed in traditional West African garb: flowing boubous of intricate embroidery and bright, saturated colors. If opinions on the restoration varied, visitors were in agreement that they had never seen anything quite like it. Built largely in secret and under decidedly unorthodox circumstances, the Whitney had been turned into a museum dedicated to telling the story of slavery — the first of its kind in the United States.

The Whitney Plantation's "Big House" in January 2015. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times

The Whitney Plantation’s “Big House” in January 2015. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times

Located on land where slaves worked for more than a century, in a state where the sight of the Confederate flag is not uncommon, the results are both educational and visceral. An exhibit on the North American slave trade inside the visitors’ center, for instance, is lent particular resonance by its proximity, just a few steps away outside its door, to seven cabins that once housed slaves. From their weathered cypress frames, a dusty path, lined with hulking iron kettles that were used by slaves to boil sugar cane, leads to a grassy clearing dominated by a slave jail — an approach designed so that a visitor’s most memorable glimpse of the white shutters and stately columns of the property’s 220-year-old “Big House” will come through the rusted bars of the squat, rectangular cell. A number of memorials also dot the grounds, including a series of angled granite walls engraved with the names of the 107,000 slaves who spent their lives in Louisiana before 1820. Inspired by Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the memorial lists the names nonalphabetically to mirror the confusion and chaos that defined a slave’s life.

Ibrahima Seck, the Whitney's director of research, at a memorial on the plantation. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times

Ibrahima Seck, the Whitney’s director of research, at a memorial on the plantation. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times

Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, was among those to address the crowd on opening day. He first visited the Whitney as the state’s lieutenant governor in 2008, when the project was in its infancy, and at the time he compared its significance to that of Auschwitz. Now he was speaking four days after a grand jury in New York City declined to indict a police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, a black man who was stopped for selling untaxed cigarettes; 13 days after another grand jury in Missouri cleared an officer in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager; and two weeks after Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park, was killed by a police officer. Evoking the riots and protests then gripping the nation, Landrieu said, “It is fortuitous that we come here today to stand on the very soil that gives lie to the protestations that we have made, and forces us as Americans to check where we’ve been and where we are going.”

The mayor concluded his speech by extending his hand to an older man standing just offstage to his left. Stocky and bespectacled, with a thick head of unkempt white hair, John Cummings was as much a topic of conversation among those gathered as the Whitney itself. For reasons almost everyone was at a loss to explain, he had spent the last 15 years and more than $8 million of his personal fortune on a museum that he had no obvious qualifications to assemble.

The Whitney Plantation's "Big House" in 1926. Credit: Robert Tebbs/The Collections of the Louisiana State Museum

The Whitney Plantation’s “Big House” in 1926. Credit: Robert Tebbs/The Collections of the Louisiana State Museum

“Like everyone else,” John Cummings said a few days earlier, “you’re probably wondering what the rich white boy has been up to out here.”

He was driving around the Whitney in his Ford S.U.V., making sure the museum would be ready for the public. Born and raised in New Orleans, Cummings is as rife with contrasts as the land that surrounds his plantation. He is 77 but projects the unrelenting angst of a teenager. His disposition is exceedingly proper — the portly carriage, the trimmed white beard, the florid drawl — but he dresses in a rumpled manner that suggests a morning habit of mistaking the laundry hamper for the dresser. As someone who had to hitchhike to high school and remains bitter about not being able to afford his class ring, he embodies the scrappiness of the Irish Catholics who flooded New Orleans in the 19th century. But as a trial lawyer who has helped win more than $5 billion in class-action settlements and a real estate magnate whose holdings have multiplied his wealth many times over, Cummings personifies the affluence and power held by an elite and mostly white sliver of a city with a majority black population.

“I suppose it is a suspicious thing, what I’ve gone and done with the joint,” he continued, acknowledging that his decision to “spend millions I have no interest in getting back” on the museum has long been a source of local confusion. More than a few of the 670 residents of Wallace — 90 percent of whom are black, many the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers who worked the region’s land — have voiced their bewilderment over the years. So, too, have the owners of other tourist-oriented plantations, all of whom are white. Members of Cummings’s close-knit family (he has eight children by two wives) also struggle to clarify their patriarch’s motivations, resorting to the shoulder-shrugging logic of “John being John,” as if explaining a stubborn refusal to throw away old newspapers rather than a consuming, heterodox and very expensive attempt to confront the darkest period of American history. “Challenge me, fight me on it,” he said. “I’ve been asked all the questions. About white guilt this and that. About the honky trying to profit off of slavery. But here’s the thing: Don’t you think the story of slavery is important?” With that, Cummings went silent, something he does with unsettling frequency in conversation.

“Well, I checked into it, and I heard you weren’t telling it,” he finally resumed, “so I figured I might as well get started.”

This was a practiced line, but also an earnest form of self-indictment: Cummings’s way of admitting his own ignorance on the subject of slavery and its legacy, and by extension encouraging visitors to confront their own. As with the rest of his real estate portfolio, which includes miles of raw countryside and swampland, a 12-story luxury hotel near the French Quarter, a cattle farm in rural Mississippi and a 1,200-acre ranch in West Texas that he has never set foot on, he initially gravitated toward the Whitney simply because it was for sale. (“Whatever Uncle Sam and the bartender let me keep,” he likes to note, “I bought real estate with it.”) Originally built by the Haydel family, a prosperous clan of German immigrants who ran the property from 1752 to 1867, the grounds had been uninhabited for a quarter century. “I knew I wasn’t going to live here,” Cummings said as he drove past the blacksmith’s shop that he spent $300,000 rebuilding, where a plaque noted that a slave named Robin worked on the plantation for 40 years and where the actor Jamie Foxx, playing a slave in “Django Unchained,” was filmed being branded. “But aside from that, I didn’t know what I would do with the place.”

It takes just a few minutes of conversation with Cummings, however, to understand that he would never have been keen on restoring the Whitney in the mold of neighboring plantations, which rely on weddings and sorority reunions to supplement the income brought in by picnicking tourists. Pet projects he has taken up in recent years include outlining for the Vatican a list of wrongs the Catholic Church should formally apologize for and — to the chagrin of, in his words, “my friends who have all had political sex changes in the past 15 years” — exploring ways to curb the influence of conservative “super PACs.” Decades ago, his interest in abuses of power led to his involvement in the civil rights movement; in 1968, he worked alongside African-American activists to get the Audubon Park swimming pool in New Orleans opened to blacks. “If someone is going to deny someone rights simply because they have the power to do it — well, I’m interested,” he explained. “I’m coming, and I’m going to bring the cannons.”

Still, his plans for the Whitney might have gone in an entirely different direction, if not for the existence of an unlikely document. The property’s previous owner was Formosa, a plastics and petrochemical giant, which in 1991 planned to build a $700 million plant for manufacturing rayon on its nearly 2,000 acres. Preservationists and environmentalists balked. Looking for avenues of appeasement, Formosa commissioned an exhaustive survey of the grounds, with the idea that the most historic sections would be turned into a token museum of Creole culture while a majority of the rest would be razed to make way for the factory. In the end, it was wasted money and effort: The opposition remained vigilant, rayon was going out of fashion, the Whitney went back on the market and Cummings inherited the eight-volume study with the purchase. “Thanks to Formosa, I knew more about my plantation than anyone else around here — maybe more than any plantation in America outside of Monticello,” said Cummings, a litigator accustomed to teasing secrets from dense paperwork. “A lot of what was in there was about the architecture and artifacts, but you started to see the story of slavery. You saw it in terms of who built what.”

After digesting the study, Cummings began readying “any book I could find” about slavery.  Particularly influential was Africans in Colonial Louisiana, by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a professor at Rutgers.  Certain details startled Cummings, like the fact that 38 percent of slaves shipped from Africa ended up in Brazil.  No wonder, he thought, that the women he watched on television celebrating Carnival in Rio de Janeiro so closely resembled those he saw dancing in the Mardi Gras parades that surrounded him as a youth.  “I started to see slavery and the hangover from slavery everywhere I looked,” he said.  As a descendant of Irish laborers, he has no direct ties to slaveholders; still, in a departure from the views held by many Southern whites, Cummings considered the issue a personal one.  “If ‘guilt’ is the best word to sue, then yes, I feel guilt,” he said.  “I mean, you start understanding that the wealth of this part of the world – wealth that has benefited me – was created by some half a million black people who just passed us by.  How is it that we don’t acknowledge this?”

Cummings steered the vehicle past the yellow fronds of banana trees and pulled to a stop in front of a sculpture, a black angel embracing a dead infant, the centerpiece of a memorial honoring the 2,200 enslaved children who died in the parish in the 40 years leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. At traditional museums, such memorials come to fruition only after a lengthy process — proposals by artists, debates among the board members, the securing of funds. This statue, though, like everything on the property, began as a vision in Cummings’s mind and became a reality shortly after he pulled out his checkbook. Perhaps most remarkable is that this unconventional model has yielded conventionally effective results: at once chastening and challenging, beautiful and haunting. “Everything about the way the place came together says that it shouldn’t work,” says Laura Rosanne Adderley, a Tulane history professor specializing in slavery who has visited the Whitney twice since it opened. “And yet for the most part it does, superbly and even radically. Like Maya Lin’s memorial, the Whitney has figured out a way to mourn those we as a society are often reluctant to mourn.”

Before leaving the grounds, Cummings stopped at the edge of the property’s small lagoon. It was here that the Whitney’s most provocative memorial would soon be completed, one dedicated to the victims of the German Coast Uprising, an event rarely mentioned in American history books. In January 1811, at least 125 slaves walked off their plantations and, dressed in makeshift military garb, began marching in revolt along River Road toward New Orleans. (The area was then called the German Coast for the high number of German immigrants, like the Haydels.) The slaves were suppressed by militias after two days, with about 95 killed, some during fighting and some after the show trials that followed. As a warning to other slaves, dozens were decapitated, their heads placed on spikes along River Road and in what is now Jackson Square in the French Quarter.

“It’ll be optional, O.K.? Not for the kids,” said Cummings, who commissioned Woodrow Nash, an African-­American sculptor he met at Jazz Fest, to make 60 heads out of ceramic, which will be set atop stainless-steel rods on the lagoon’s small island. “But just in case you’re worried about people getting distracted by the pretty house over there, the last thing you’ll see before leaving here will be 60 beheaded slaves.”

The memorial had lately become a source of controversy among locals, who were concerned that it would be too disturbing.

“It is disturbing,” Cummings said as he pulled out past Whitney’s gate. “But you know what else? It happened. It happened right here on this road.”

John Cummings brought these cabins from another plantation to replace the ones at the Whitney, which were destroyed in the 1970s. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times

John Cummings brought these cabins from another plantation to replace the ones at the Whitney, which were destroyed in the 1970s. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times

A nation builds museums to understand its own history and to have its history understood by others, to create a common space and language to address collectively what is too difficult to process individually. Forty-eight years after World War II, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in Washington. A museum dedicated to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks opened its doors in Lower Manhattan less than 13 years after they occurred. One hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War, however, no federally funded museum dedicated to slavery exists, no monument honoring America’s slaves. “It’s something I bring up all the time in my lectures,” says Eric Foner, a Columbia University historian and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.” “If the Germans built a museum dedicated to American slavery before one about their own Holocaust, you’d think they were trying to hide something. As Americans, we haven’t yet figured out how to come to terms with slavery. To some, it’s ancient history. To others, it’s history that isn’t quite history.”

These competing perceptions converge with baroque vividness in the South. The State of Mississippi did not acknowledge the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery until 1995 and formally ratified it only in 2013, when a resident was moved to galvanize lawmakers after watching Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” While some Southern states have passed resolutions apologizing for slavery in the last decade, a majority, Louisiana among them, have not. In 1996, when Representative Steve Scalise, now the third-highest-ranking Republican in the House, was serving in the Louisiana State Legislature, he voted against such a bill. “Why are you asking me to apologize for something I didn’t do and had no part of?” he remarked at the time. This episode recently came to light amid the revelation that in 2002 he addressed a gathering of white supremacists at a conference organized by David Duke, formerly the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization founded the year the Civil War ended.

Slavery is by no means unmemorialized in American museums, though the subject tends to be lumped in more broadly with African-American history. In 2004, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened in Cincinnati with the mission of showcasing “freedom’s heroes.” Since 2007, the Old Slave Mart in Charleston, S.C., has operated as a small museum focusing on the early slave trade, on a site where slaves were sold at public auctions until 1863. The National Civil Rights Museum, which opened in Memphis in 1991 and was built around the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, offers a brief section devoted to slavery. Next year, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is scheduled to be dedicated in Washington as part of the Smithsonian Institution, a project supported by $250 million in federal funding; exhibits on slavery will stand alongside those containing a trumpet played by Louis Armstrong and boxing gloves worn by Muhammad Ali. “It has to be said that the end note in most of these museums is that civil rights triumphs and America is wonderful,” says Paul Finkelman, a historian who focuses on slavery and the law. “We are a nation that has always readily embraced the good of the past and discarded the bad. This does not always lead to the most productive of dialogues on matters that deserve and require them.”

What makes slavery so difficult to think about, from the vantage point of history, is that it was both at odds with America’s founding values — freedom, liberty, democracy — and critical to how they flourished. The Declaration of Independence proclaiming that “all men are created equal” was drafted by men who were afforded the time to debate its language because the land that enriched many of them was tended to by slaves. The White House and the Capitol were built, in part, by slaves. The economy of early America, responsible for the nation’s swift rise and sustained power, would not have been possible without slavery. But the country’s longstanding culture of racism and racial tensions — from the lynchings of the Jim Crow-era South to the discriminatory housing policies of the North to the treatment of blacks by the police today — is deeply rooted in slavery as well. “Slavery gets understood as a kind of prehistory to freedom rather than what it really is: the foundation for a country where white supremacy was predicated upon African-American exploitation,” says Walter Johnson, a Harvard professor. “This is still, in many respects, the America of 2015.”

In 2001, Douglas Wilder, a former governor of Virginia and the first elected black governor in the nation, announced his intention to build a museum that would be the first to give slavery its proper due — not as a piece of Southern or African-American history but as essential to understanding American history in general. Christened the United States National Slavery Museum, it was to be built on 38 acres along the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, Va. Wilder, the grandson of slaves, commissioned C. C. Pei, a son of I. M. Pei, to design the main building, which would be complemented by a full-scale replica of a slave ship. A number of prominent African-Americans, including Bill Cosby, pledged millions of dollars in support at black-tie fund-raisers. The ambition that surrounded the project’s inception, however, was soon eclipsed by years of pitfalls. By 2008, there were not enough donations to pay property taxes, let alone begin construction; in 2011, the nonprofit organization in charge of the project filed for bankruptcy protection. As it happens, it was during the same period Wilder’s project unraveled that John Cummings, unburdened by any bureaucracies, was well on his way to completing a slavery museum of his own.

Cummings and Seck at one of many memorials to slaves on the plantation.
Credit: Mark Peckmezian for The New York Times

For much of the last 13 years, Cummings has been joined on the Whitney’s grounds by a Sen­egal­ese scholar named Ibrahima Seck. A 54-year-old of imposing height, Seck first met Cummings in 2000, when Seck, who has made regular trips to the South since winning a Fulbright in 1995, attended a talk at Tulane with Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, the Rutgers professor. Cummings put up Seck at the International House, the hotel he owns in downtown New Orleans, and invited him to see the Whitney. Though at that point it was little more than a series of decrepit buildings entangled in feral vegetation, Seck was impressed that Cummings was thinking about it exclusively within the context of slavery. As someone from the region of Africa that provided more than 60 percent of Louisiana’s slaves, he was disturbed by the way other plantations romanticized the lives of the white owners, with scant mention of the enslaved blacks who harvested the land and built the grand homes fawned over by tourists. After walking the property with Seck for a few hours, Cummings invited him to return to New Orleans the next year to help crystallize the Whitney’s mission. Seck took him up on the offer, and for the next decade, Cummings flew Seck in from Africa each year during the scholar’s summer vacation.

Since 2012, Seck has lived full time in New Orleans to serve as the director of research for the Whitney. “As historians, we do the research and we write dissertations and we go to conferences, but very little of the knowledge gets out,” Seck said one afternoon in his French-inflected baritone while seated on the antique upholstered sofa in the parlor of the property’s Big House. “That’s why a place like this is so important. Not everyone is willing to read nowadays, but this is an open book.” He took a moment to glance around the lavish room, its hand-painted ceiling now meticulously restored. “Every day I think about how remarkable this is,” Seck said. “One hundred and fifty years ago, I would not be able to do what I’m doing here now. I would have been a slave.”

The alliance between the two men has been an auspicious one, with Seck’s patience and expertise serving as a counterbalance to the instinctual eccentricity of Cummings. While Seck researched the Whitney’s history, Cummings became something of a hoarder, buying anything he thought might one day be relevant to the project. When he learned about a dilapidated Baptist church in a neighboring parish that was founded by freed slaves in 1867, for example, he brought it across the Mississippi and had it restored on the grounds at a cost of $300,000. When recordings of interviews with former slaves that were made in the 1930s as part of the W.P.A.’s Federal Writers’ Project were acquired, Cummings hired a son-in-law who works as a sound engineer in Hollywood to clean them up; he plans to install a speaker system near the slave cabins, where the recordings will play on a loop, allowing visitors to hear the voices of former slaves while staring into the type of homes in which they once lived. After Seck unearthed in old court documents the names of 354 slaves who worked on the land before emancipation, Cummings bought an engraving machine so they could be etched in Italian granite in a memorial he christened the “Wall of Honor.”

“By 2005, it was clear to me that we were building a museum, but I’m not sure John was thinking about it in those terms,” Seck said. “If John feels something, he just goes ahead and does it. His stubbornness can be frustrating, but who in the world is willing to put so many millions of dollars into a project like this? If you find one, you have to support it.”

In his years of working on the Whitney, Seck has come to see the museum as both a memorializing of history and a slyly radical gesture: Cummings’s desire to shift the consciousness of others as his own has been altered, and in the process try to make amends of a kind that have been a source of debate since emancipation.

“If one word comes to mind to summarize what is in John’s head in doing this,” Seck said, “that word would be ‘reparations.’ Real reparations. He feels there is something to be done in this country to make changes.”

In 1835, a biracial child named Victor was born on the grounds of the Whitney, the son of a slave named Anna and Antoine Haydel, the brother of Marie Azelie Haydel, the slaveholder who ran the plantation at the time. One hundred and seventy-nine years later, a group of both the black and white descendants of the Haydels made their way to the Whitney’s opening in December. Many were meeting for the first time, and the sight of them embracing and marveling at the similarities in their appearances was as powerful as any memorial on the plantation. Among the black Haydels in attendance was one of Victor’s great-grandchildren, Sybil Haydel Morial, a well-known local activist who is the widow of Ernest Morial, the first black mayor of New Orleans, and the mother of Marc Morial, a subsequent mayor. “I was with John when he helped get the pool in Audubon Park opened to blacks,” she said in a later conversation. “Now, with the Whitney, he has given us a place where we can come and clear the air. If my slave great-grandfather had lived eight more years, I would have known him. Yet growing up, whenever my elders talked about slavery, they’d always get quiet when we kids were near.” Morial added that she hoped “some people around here may find their views changing” after visiting the Whitney, which seemed to be the case with some of her white relatives at the opening.

“I have to say, I was a little offended when I heard that slavery, of all the stories, was going to be the focus,” Glynne Couvillion, a white Haydel, said while standing inside the Baptist church, surrounded by dozens of ghostly sculptures of child slaves that Cummings commissioned to represent those interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project as they would have looked when enslaved. “But after today, I’m just in awe and proud to be connected to this place.”

For all the time and money Cummings has dedicated to the Whitney — and he is by no means finished, with plans to build an adjacent institute for the study of slavery — the museum was built on a shoestring budget compared with traditionally financed institutions. (The Holocaust Memorial Museum cost about $168 million.) Besides Seck, there were only two full-time staff members, an energetic young woman named Ashley Rogers, who serves as the director, and her deputy, Monique Johnson, a descendant of sharecroppers from the area, and it was evident that they were still finding their footing. Like the other plantations along River Road, the Whitney can be seen only through a guided tour — the cost is $22 — and a number of the docents struggled to find the proper tone. (“Time to depress you a little more,” one could be heard saying at various points.) Others struggled to answer questions about how, exactly, sugar cane was harvested by slaves, responding instead with generalities intended to incite emotion rather than educate: “It was the hardest, most grueling slave work imaginable.”

Yet this awkwardness might well serve as one of the Whitney’s strengths. Talking about slavery and race is awkward, and the museum stands a chance of becoming the rare place where this discomfort can be embraced, and where the dynamic among the mainly mixed-race tours can offer an ancillary form of education. A man who grew up in a “maroon community,” as bayou enclaves founded by runaway slaves are known, was so moved during his tour that he volunteered to work as a guide. A young black woman mentioned that she avoided tours at another nearby plantation because an ancestor was lynched on the grounds. Among the Whitney’s first visitors was a black man named Paul Brown, whose father was a field hand and who arrived dressed in a sharp blazer and a fedora on opening day “to shake the man’s hand who made this place possible.” During his tour, he offered personal anecdotes that served to buttress the white guide’s skittishness — bringing the past into the present, for instance, by pointing out how the images of slaves etched in one memorial were reminiscent of portraits of his ancestors. “I wish some of my white co-workers would come to this place,” he said afterward. “They’d understand me in ways they’ve failed for 30 years.”

Jonathan Holloway, a dean at Yale College and a professor of African-American studies, arrived for a tour in late January. He was in the area to give a talk at Louisiana State University about the ways the horrors of slavery are confronted and avoided in heritage tourism, and he found the Whitney to be a “genius step” in a long-overdue direction. “People have tried to do a museum like this for years, and I’m still stunned that this guy made it happen,” he said afterward. “There I was, coming down to talk about how in trying to tell the story, it’s often one step forward and two steps back, and boom, here’s the Whitney.” Holloway was particularly taken by the museum’s subversive approach. “Having been on a number of tours where the entire focus is on the Big House, the way they’ve turned the script inside out is a brilliant slipping of the skirt,” he said. “The mad genius of the whole thing is really resonant. Is it an art gallery? A plantation tour? A museum? It’s almost this astonishing piece of performance art, and as great art does, it makes you stop and wonder.”

Cummings, for his part, has been on the grounds every day since the Whitney opened, where he is in the habit of approaching visitors as they enter and telling them how they should feel afterward: “You’re not going to be the same person when you leave here” — a line that some found more grating than endearing. Inwardly, though, he was constantly making notes on what could be done to improve the experience.

“Look, we’re not perfect, and we’ve made a lot of mistakes, and we’ll make more,” he said one afternoon as the sun set across the sugar-cane fields that surround the plantation in much the form they did when slaves worked them 200 years ago. “We need all the help we can get — not financial, but we need brains.” With this in mind, he recently started reaching out to prominent African-American academics, hoping to create a board of directors — typically the first step for a museum, not one taken six weeks after opening day. “I’m firing before I’m aiming, O.K.?” he said. “I’m smart enough to know I don’t have the answers, but so far it looks like it’s the right thing.”

Cummings in the Cabin

Cummings and Seck in one of the cabins. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for the New York Times.

Correction: February 26, 2015
An earlier version of this article misidentified the source of the phrase “all men are created equal.” It is from the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution.
Advertisements
Categories: History, Politics/Current Events | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

History Is Personal

We Read to Know We're Not Alone

History is Personal:  
A Queer Southern Boy & the Power of Books

As someone who has spent the vast majority of his life inside a classroom, I know firsthand the liberating power of knowledge.  When you learn, the realms of reality expand, new possibilities arise, and doubts are swept away like dust in the wind even as new doubts blow in to take their place.  Learning to think critically, to analyze and draw one’s own conclusions is a profound process of liberation, a process of casting off the chains of ignorance.  The act of learning itself – whether from life’s experiences, the pages of a book, or from a teacher’s lessons – is empowerment, and if knowledge is power, then ignorance cannot be bliss.   For me, history has always been more than an interest in past events; it has been a source of legitimacy, granting me the courage to explore the many facets of myself and boldly accept my identity with the knowledge that there have been countless others like me in the past.

As I grew up in southwest Georgia, I didn’t quite understand what it was that made me feel different from those around me.  Let me rephrase that – I knew what it was that made me feel different, but, for the longest time, I didn’t understand the implications of that difference.  As I got older, I knew that I was inexplicably attracted to other guys even though I never considered myself gay.  In fact, I didn’t know what “gay” was.  Plus, I never felt different enough to need a whole new identity or label for myself.  I just knew that I could never really participate when my friends were checking out girls.  I also wondered if my friends struggled with the same fleeting thoughts and desires as I did, if their gazes skipped over the chicks in bikinis on magazine covers and lingered instead on the muscled men that graced the front of fitness journals.  I honestly thought that they must be dealing with the same issues, but just like I never mentioned it, they were keeping it a secret, too.

Even as I got older and my puberty-fueled fantasies became exclusively male-oriented, I never thought of myself as gay.  I didn’t know that gay existed as an option for me to “be.”  That’s because the knowledge wasn’t available to me, not yet.  I knew that there were men out there who had sex with other men, but I didn’t know that they constituted some thing known as “gay.”  In fact, the only things I knew about such actions between men came in the form of slurs, jokes, and – most powerfully for me at the time – from the pulpit of my Southern Baptist church.  What I learned in those pews was that homosexuality was a sin…and if it was a sin, then it had to be a choice, and an erroneous one at that!  Homosexuality, as I understood it, was just acts – something that some people did sometimes. I didn’t yet know that it was something that could be used to define – and segregate – a whole group of people as something fundamentally different.

And then I went to college.  By that point, I had realized that no matter how hard I tried or diligently I prayed, these urges and attractions I had weren’t going away; they were something permanent.  As early as my first year on campus, I became aware of people who openly identified as “gay” – that’s what they called it when a guy was attracted to other guys.  I heard people say they were born that way.  And they were fine with it.  I instantly recognized that within me – I knew at that moment that I must be “gay,” too.  It was the only explanation for why I had a crush on that guy in class, and why I couldn’t help it.  But the idea of telling anyone that I was gay terrified me.  In fact, it terrified me to even tell myself.

I vividly remember one evening in my university library:  I was taking a break from writing a paper by perusing the shelves.  As I was meandering along, the title etched into the spine of one book stopped me dead in my tracks:  Growing Up Gay in the South I remember my heart starting to pound as I looked around to make sure no one else was nearby.  I contemplated pulling it from the shelf, but how would I explain it if someone saw me reading such a book?  But, I did slide the book from its resting place and read it all there in the library that night.  The entire book was full of stories about people like me and I was exhilarated as I flew through the pages.

That night I had stumbled into the “HQ” section of our university’s library, which is the Library of Congress Classification System’s call number for the section on “family, marriage, women, and sex” (I find it odd that books on family, marriage equality, sexuality, pornography, and rape are all located on the same shelves, but that’s a topic for another day.)  I went back to that section often and read as much as I could, but was still too afraid to discuss anything I was reading – or even to check out the books – for fear of word somehow getting back to my hometown about my “dabbling” in gayness.

I eventually came out to family and friends, but I would have never had the courage if it hadn’t been for those books because they showed me that I wasn’t alone. And then when I entered grad school, I found out that there historians who only studied sexuality and gender!  They wrote dissertations, articles, and whole books not just on life stories of gays and lesbians – but on what it meant to be “gay” or “straight.”  I found books about how the ancient Greeks understood love between men, how the Native Americans accepted that there was a third gender in between men and women, and how science – and the search for a “gay gene” – wasn’t the only factor in defining gender or sexual identities.

With each book that I finished, I felt more empowered, more confident because I felt less alone.  I was blown away by the intricate, not-so-sub-cultures that George Chauncey deftly uncovered in his classic Gay New York.  Scholars like Jonathan Ned Katz and David Halperin taught me that words have power.  Above all others, Susan Stryker revealed to me the important difference between “sex” and “gender” and that our gender and sexual identities are fluid and malleable.  When I read Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, I cheered on as working class lesbians in mid-twentieth century Buffalo, New York defied the odds and established their own bars and community by asserting power over their own lives.  I cried when I read some of the poignant life stories that Patrick Johnson eloquently captured in Sweet Tea.  And when I closed Allan Berube’s Coming Out Under Fire after devouring it in a single sitting, I sat back in wonder as I realized that “gay history” is not on the margins of “real history,” like a quaint interest piece; it is absolutely fundamental to understanding the rest of history as we know it.

I no longer really identify as “gay” because I don’t feel connected to today’s gay culture.  But, of course, I’m not straight either.  I’m in love with a man, but I don’t accept all of the other baggage that comes with being “gay.”  So, I think of myself as queer, something different with no need of a further definition.  It’s more fluid, less confining, and I like that.  Moreover, the study of history has taught me that it’s okay to throw off labels and come up with my own identity – or collect many identities.  People have done it for millennia.  That’s why, for me, history has never been just a hobby, never just a profession.  It’s a path of reflection, a way to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be human, of what it means to simply be.  You can’t put a price tag on such a journey.

C.S. Lewis once said that, “We read to know that we’re not alone.”  I believe that the truth of his words echoes throughout the ages.

 

 

Categories: History, Ideas & Philosophy, Politics/Current Events, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The South: A Photo Essay (pt. 3)

On the Porch 

This is probably my favorite spot in the whole world: sitting on the porch at the Farm.  It may not be as exciting as sitting on the wall of a 1,000-year-old castle in Germany, but I love it nonetheless.  Whenever I have too much to do, or whenever the world or people are getting on my nerves, or even when I’m just missing home, I close my eyes and picture myself rocking on the Farm’s back porch.

There, you can have a hot cup of coffee in the morning, a cup of sweet tea in the afternoon, and a cold beer in the evening.  You can sit and watch the hummingbirds feed, check out the flowers’ growth, and see the occasional deer at the wood line.  And a car won’t drive by for days.

In my own personal opinion, a porch epitomizes life in the South.  Sure, the particular foods, and family, and accents, and politics – all of that is important, but the Porch is the nexus, the meeting point of all those things.  All Southern houses have one, most have one on the front and out back, and if you’re lucky, you live in one of those old houses that has a porch all the way around.

All good Southern food can be enjoyed on a porch, whether in a chair or down on the porch step, and the cooler is never more than an arm’s length away (whether it’s your own arm, or the arm of someone down at the other end).  Every good dog loves a porch because that’s where their world of the yard meets your world of the house.

On the porch is where lifelong friends and strangers alike can sit and tell stories about the good old days, or pass on little tid-bits of wisdom.  And let’s face it; the porch is one of the best places to catch up on a little gossip.  But, just a little.

But the porch is the absolute best place to simply sit and stare off ou’chyonda (and for any of you poor souls who have never stared off ou’chyonda – bless your hearts – or aren’t fluent enough in Southern to understand what I’m saying, I’m talking about simply sitting on the porch and staring off out into the distance and not saying a word).

Of course, you better choose wisely when you want to sit on the porch.  If you try to do some porch sittin’ in the middle of a Southern summer day, you’ll probably regret it very quickly.  The Dog Days of summer belong to unbearable temperatures, the gnats, and the ‘skeeters’ (more commonly known as mosquitoes) and if you don’t keep up your guard, they’ll eat you alive and carry away your corpse in pieces.

And let’s get one thing straight: Hollywood and Northern authors like to speak of “sultry Southern nights” or “sultry Southern summer afternoons” as if they’re something dreams are made of.  But any honest Southerner will tell you that “sultry” is just a glamorized and romanticized way of saying “hotter than hell and so humid that you can’t stand outside for one minute without being covered in sweat from head to toe.”  But, I guess “sultry” does make it sound better.

So, the porch is a place for meeting and greeting; it’s a place for listening and talking, sippin’ and drankin’.  The porch can be loaded with the members of your family, all of your friends, or it’s a perfect place to sit alone and think (or NOT think).  Time on a porch – like the pace of life in most Southern towns – seems to go much slower.

You’re always welcome on the porch, and when you leave, there’s one thing you will always hear:  “Ya’ll come back!”

Creative Commons License
The South: A Photo Essay by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Categories: Entertainment, Travel | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

The South: A Photo Essay

Now that I’m back home in the South for a few days, I thought I’d post this photo essay that I put together a couple of years ago when I moved to Buffalo.  I’ll post a new entry each day until it’s done.  Yall enjoy! 

In a country as vast as the United States, it goes without saying that several distinct cultures will exist within our borders.  And while each is unique in its own way, I believe there is one region of the US that is most distinctive and most unique: the South.  Depending on whom you ask, the South is either the best or the worst place to live in America.  And while there are indeed both good and bad things about Dixie, the virtues far outweigh the imperfections for those of us who call the South home.

Hollywood likes to portray Southerners as a bunch of Confederate Flag waving hillbillies.  And yeah – yeah, those Southerners sure do exist, but the South also produces poets, entrepreneurs, and world leaders.  Slavery, segregation, and racism have tarnished the South’s past, but at the same time, the South is the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr., the iconic leader of the Civil Rights movement.

The South is known as America’s Bible Belt for a reason.  In many small towns, the pastor’s words from the pulpit carry as much sway as anything released from the mayor’s office.  Politically, the South is now a Republican stronghold, though at one time it used to be the Democrat’s saving grace.  And not only does the South help shape politics on the national level, it often times leads.  Five of the last eight presidents have hailed from the South.

King Cotton once ruled the Southland, and while the crop may not be as important today, the South’s is still a predominantly agricultural economy.  There are still places where you can drive for hours and see only vast expanses of cotton, peanuts, soybeans, corn, peaches, or tobacco.

The South is a domain where football is king, and the only question of where you’ll be going on a Fall Friday night is the home bleachers, or the visitors’ stand.  Southern Hospitality is not a myth; sweet talkin’ and warm huggin’ is the greeting of choice around here.  But you better watch out: some of those little old ladies’ tongues are as sharp as their smiles are wide.

Food and Family are the pillars of Southern culture, and what Mama says goes.  The kitchen turns food into a Meal, which is something enjoyed by all sitting around the supper table.  And yes, we have ‘supper’ every night and save ‘dinner’ for Sunday at noon.  Down here in the South, the only things longer than our conversations on the porches are our accents.

While California and New York may now be the world famous destinations for rising stars, Blues, Soul, Rock & Roll – music as we know it – all began in the South.  And though it may not be your cup of tea, all of today’s leading Hip-Hop and Rap artists sing and rap about their home: “the Dirty South.”  Many of them got their breaks in Atlanta, host of the 1996 Olympics, the birthplace of Coca-Cola, home to the busiest airport in the world, and the Capital of the New South.

Life South of the Mason-Dixon Line may be slower and even a little more rural than up North or out West, but I don’t think we’d have it any other way.

*****

Following is a series of photographs that I have taken.  They are pictures either of things that I will miss about living in the South since I now live up here with the “damn Yankees,” or simply things that I feel embody different aspects of life in the South.  More simply put: they are pictures of Home.

Creative Commons License
The South: A Photo Essay by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Categories: Entertainment, Travel | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Changing Demographics

I was looking through my bookmarks and found this article from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and thought it was worth sharing.  


South:  First U.S. Region with Majority Low-Income and Minority Students

by Maureen Downey – January 6, 2010.

In a new report released today, the Southern Education Foundation declares the South the first region in the country in which more than half of public school students are poor and more than half are minorities.

By the end of the 2009 school year, African-American, Latino, Asian-Pacific Islander, American Indian and multi-racial children constituted a little more than half of all students attending public schools in the 15 states of the South.

That demographic change will create strains on educators still grappling with how to teach disadvantaged students. It could also increase the move to privatization in Georgia if middle-class parents begin to feel that public schools are overwhelmed by the challenges of poor students.

Among the highlights of the report:

For the first time in the nation’s history, children “of color” constitute a new diverse majority of those enrolled in the South’s public schools. This shift is largely due to a dramatic increase of Latinos, Asian Pacific Islanders, and other population groups in the region. Most students in this new majority are also low income. These transformations establish the South as the first and only region in the nation ever to have both a majority of low income students and a majority of students of color enrolled in public schools. Four Southern states (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Georgia) now have a majority of both low income students and students of color.

Long the region with the most egregious record of depriving African Americans of access to equal, high-quality public education, the South now faces a problem of education inequality and underdevelopment of its human capital of unparalleled dimension. If the South and the nation fail to come to terms with the educational needs of the new majority of diverse public school students described in this report, the impact on the region’s and nation’s economy, global competitiveness, quality of life, and democratic institutions, will be catastrophic. This is not hyperbole.

Already the South is home to 40 percent of the nation’s low income people and has among the lowest educational achievement and attainment levels in the nation. Class and race are more often than not accurate indicators of the quality of public education afforded to students.

The number of students of color has grown more rapidly in public schools in the South than in any other region. In 2000, African American, Latino, and other non-White students made up 44 percent of the public school’s student body in the South. In 2008, this number had grown to 50 percent. In 2009, students of color constituted 51 percent of the South’s public schoolchildren. The rise in the number of students of color in the South is the result of a growing Latino population and a reversal of the historical decline in the number of Blacks. In 1980, less than six percent of the South’s residents were Hispanic.

By 1990, this percentage grew to about eight percent. In 2000, Latinos made up slightly more than 11 percent of the South’s population—almost double the region’s percentage of Hispanic population 20 years earlier. In 2008, 14.9 percent of the South’s population was Hispanic.

From 2000-2008, the Latino population increased faster in the South than in any other region. Higher rates of birth among the South’s Hispanic and African American populations in recent years explain a significant part of the increase in school enrollment. In 2007, women of color outside the 15 states of the South accounted for 44 percent of live births, while in the Southern states, half of all births were to women of color. Five of the six Southern states with a majority of students of color in the public schools in 2009 also were the states where a majority of births in 2007 were to women of color.

Categories: Politics/Current Events | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Blog at WordPress.com.