The Long Arm of History

The last stop on our camping trip was a moving history lesson at the Whitney Plantation located on the east bank of the Mississippi River some 45 miles west of New Orleans.

History can be defined in three ways : a) what actually happened; b) what we are told happened; and c) what we come (or want) to believe happened.

The Whitney Plantation is a museum with a mission to accurately portray what life was like for a slave on a sugar cane plantation in Louisiana. It is the only museum that I know of in the country devoted to educating visitors about slavery from the perspective of the enslaved.

Using actual data from the plantation’s records, first-hand accounts obtained from former slaves as part of a WPA project during the Great Depression and other historical facts, the Whitney presents the heart-wrenching reality of slavery in the “land of the free.”

But why, in 2017, should we care about the history of slavery in the United States? What’s past is past, right? It can’t be changed. Besides, we’ve overcome it. We elected a black man to the highest office in our land — twice. Even our Supreme Court stated we live in a post-racial society.

I would argue that the long arm of history touches us today. One day has built upon another to bring us to this day — and this day finds us divided as a nation.

Consequently, I am inclined to agree with journalist Matt Taibbi who wrote: “So much of the Trump phenomenon is about history. Fueling the divide between pro- and anti-Trump camps is exactly the fact that we’ve never had a real reckoning with our terrible past or our similarly bloody present.”

A visit to the Whitney will clear your mind. Those wanting to cling to the history they were told and have come/want to believe of a noble people fighting for a lost cause will find it difficult to see anything noble about enslaved children starving to death, enslaved women serving as sex slaves forced to bear children to ensure a continuous supply of new slaves, and the enslaved men who dared to fight back being shot to death then beheaded — their heads jammed on pikes to serve as a gruesome warning to others contemplating rebellion.

In short, the Whitney lays bare the ugly truth of the slave trade, the world’s complicity in it and how slave labor helped build our nation. It negates any portrayal of the Confederacy as anything other than what it was — a union of state governments and citizens dedicated to preserving the legal right to enslave other human beings even if it meant destroying that nation.

But what the Whitney does most effectively is put faces and names to the now abstract concept of slavery.

Every visitor to the museum receives a badge which has a photo of the clay sculpture of a child slave. On the back is a brief bio of that child.

The life-sized sculptures reside in the Antioch Church which was relocated to the plantation museum from another Louisiana town. Your first stop on the Whitney tour is at the church to seek out the child on your badge.

That was how I was introduced to Peter Barber, a slave from Charlottesville, VA who, as an old man, told his story to the Federal Writer’s Project during the Great Depression.

The church is dotted with statues, a moving memorial to all the faceless, nameless children once enslaved in our country.

Peter Barber was a person. He survived slavery only to live out his life under Jim Crow laws. His descendants may still reside in Charlottesville where, in August, they witnessed white nationalists and supremacists march in violent protest of the removal of Confederate statues.

The long arm of history grabbed Peter’s descendants as surely as it holds each of us, daring us to view the truth about our past so that we accurately view present circumstances in the context of our shared history.

For me, that means no sorrow or remorse for the removal of monuments to men who tore our country apart to keep Peter Barber in chains in order to enrich themselves. I feel no pride in my southern heritage. My only regret is that the monuments to such brutality didn’t come down sooner.

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