Plantation weddings, and ignoring the past

Now this shit is just creepy.

Flying your family and friends down for a destination wedding in South Africa celebrating “colonial Africa” and staffed by expressionless, befezzed Africans is creepy. I’m the kind of person who likes to give the benefit of the doubt, so I’m going to say that this couple was just painfully, criminally ignorant, because the thought that they were fully aware of the implications and just thought it was charming could make me lose my faith in humanity.

GOOD’s Amanda Hess feels the same way. But then she brings it back to home soil–the soil, she says, “of America’s own historical horrors.” It’s plantation weddings that have her back up. Her working definition for plantation wedding appears to be “a wedding that takes place on a plantation”; she seems to place one couple who debated having Confederate flags at their reception on a level with another couple whose wedding featured origami table decorations and a Legend of Zelda cake, and whose only apparent sin was getting married on a plantation.

And that’s pretty much where she loses me. She’d have a valid argument if slavery was America’s only historical horror, or if plantations were the only land it happened on. But they aren’t–they’re just the only ones that have appeared in a major motion picture starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. This is the house that slavery built, not just in the South but throughout much of the U.S., and any town or city dating back before about 1860 has a history that almost certainly will involve slave labor. Being conscious of the racist history of the South takes more work than finding a wide, tree-lined driveway and pointing an angry finger.

In the South, if you pass on the plantation and instead choose to get married in a church, and that church was built before 1860, it almost certainly was built with slave labor. If you decide to go the JOP route and get married in a historical courthouse, you’re probably walking in a place that not only was built by slaves but also was a place to buy and sell them. Those romantic bridges of Madison County are lovely for photos–and, in many cases, built by slaves. If you’ve studied at UNC Chapel Hill or visited the White House or the U.S. Capitol or, hell, much of New York City, you’ve almost certainly traveled on at least one street cleared by slaves, a historic building built by slaves, or a property built on top of the rubble of slave labor. And they’re not all conveniently marked with a wraparound porch.

There is a line, albeit an arbitrary and subjective one, between foolishly, thoughtlessly romanticizing a dark and hurtful era and celebrating a special occasion at a location that carries a history. Of course, plantation houses selling their historical value on the basis of slave houses and summoning bells are unpardonably oblivious at best (and tasteless and heartless at not-even-worst), as are people who seek them out for antebellum-themed parties because of the charm of the era–but those are the easy call, the low-hanging fruit. Does it make us better people if we proudly eschew the grand mansions and sprawling plantations of the History Channel and Gone With the Wind in favor of a location with just as shady a history but less visibility? It makes it easier to ignore the places we walk every day without giving a thought to the slaves who built it and didn’t get museums and historical markers. Or, for that matter, to the Native American “savages” who were “valiantly” driven back by “intrepid” white settlers to make room for “progress.”

The fact is, locations that were developed by slavery are so ubiquitous as to be nearly unavoidable in any town with a history reaching back through the 19th century. And that doesn’t give us an excuse to pretend it doesn’t matter, that it all fades with time–to the contrary, it becomes even more important to get out of our history books and museums and recognize the real impact of all the people responsible for the establishment of the United States. The fact that this even comes up for discussion is a sign that we have something of an education gap here. On the plantation, the slaves were in the fields and the house and the slave quarters–and in the church, they were up in the balcony, kept out of the way until their owners were ready to go. History is history. It does us no good to decry the horrible things that happened on plantations if we’re then going to give ourselves a pass on the rest of the story.

Hess writes, “But eliminating explicitly racist details from your wedding doesn’t make the venue any less racist. It’s on a plantation.” Eliminating the plantation doesn’t make it any less racist, either. It just sets it on a different plot of Southern land that doesn’t make us feel as overtly guilty, and frankly, that’s just laziness. So a note from a Deep Southerner, for anyone planning an event in the Deep South: Mint juleps are a fantastic way to serve bourbon. Paper fans are pretty much a necessity, even inside in the air conditioning, and many funeral homes do hand them out for free. The azaleas bloom in mid-spring and smell fantastic. Alabama peaches taste better than Georgia peaches (sorry, Mom). And yes, in many cases you’re going to be standing where slaves labored, and it won’t always be clearly labeled with a historical marker. Be mindful and respectful of history and of the people who made it, and make an effort to recognize its implications, even if there isn’t a hoop skirt around to remind you.

Author: has written 267 posts for this blog.

Return to: Homepage | Blog Index

61 Responses

  1. andy
    andy July 26, 2011 at 8:39 am |

    links are broken

  2. Kristen J.
    Kristen J. July 26, 2011 at 9:18 am |

    For serious? And I thought “Pearl Harbor” weddings were creepy…

  3. K
    K July 26, 2011 at 9:27 am |

    I am fairly certain that the bridges of Madison County — that is, the famous and weird-looking but supposedly romantic ones featured in the movie with Meryl Streep, not just any bridge in any county named Madison, anywhere in the US — were not built by slaves, since they are in Iowa, which was always a free state, and all of the extant bridges were constructed after emancipation.

    But I take your point, and I also think some of the reason the plantation-weddings-are-backward trope has gained traction recently — I’ve seen it in Hess’s piece and elsewhere since Jexebel featured the “Out of Africa” wedding pictures — is the general propensity of non-southerners for shaming southerners for the cardinal sin of being southerners. If the point was really concern about historically based racist overtones of wedding-location choices, I would expect we’d see the same level of attention to weddings held at slave-built buildings in the north. But there is a tendency to erase the historical reality of slavery in the north, because northerners are not “backwards” like southerners are.

  4. KJ
    KJ July 26, 2011 at 9:38 am |

    Thank you for this. I sometimes think that people from Northern states pretend ‘slavery, what slavery?’ and ‘racism? that’s a southern thing!’ It is especially frustrating when, as a southern, I fully acknowledge the problematic actions of my ancestors (who did not own slaves, but did fight for the Confederacy) and my state. Yet many northerners want to call me a hick and assume I am racist when I tell them I’m from the south. I hope that everyone can take the time to look at the actions of our ancestors and acknowledge what they have done. You don’t have to wear a sackcloth and ashes, but be willing to talk about when they were in the wrong.

  5. samanthab
    samanthab July 26, 2011 at 9:43 am |

    Well, agreed. And disagreed. To start, there certainly are venerated historic buildings in the North built on slave labor. That much isn’t uniquely Southern, as seems to be suggested in Hess’ piece. You’re obviously correct, also, to suggest that slave labor wasn’t confined to the plantation even within the South.

    However, I’m not sure that *some* of these fantasies of what a “plantation wedding” might be aren’t inextricably bound to exploitation of slave labor. Some of the linked pieces seem to be clearly invested in a caricaturish fantasy of the South based in “Gone with the Wind” and very little else. And if you want to see yourself as Scarlett O’Hara, you own the brutal baggage that goes along with that! Wanting to have a wedding on a plantation and wanting to have a “plantation wedding” are two different things, I’m thinking. The second strikes me as very much problematic.

    And, as a non-native Southerner from a long line of Southerners, I’ve always preferred magnolias and gardenias to azaleas. Contrary to popular Northern thought, we are not a monolith! Complexity matters.

  6. Nahida
    Nahida July 26, 2011 at 9:45 am |

    WTF.

  7. Hershele Ostropoler
    Hershele Ostropoler July 26, 2011 at 9:58 am |

    Of course slavery is a purely Southern thing. That’s why the African Burial Ground in in Atlanta.

    samanthab: However, I’m not sure that *some* of these fantasies of what a “plantation wedding” might be aren’t inextricably bound to exploitation of slave labor.

    At the very least, the fantasies reflect a lifestyle that requires lots of dollars worth of unpaid labor.

  8. Andie
    Andie July 26, 2011 at 10:22 am |

    KJ:
    Thank you for this.I sometimes think that people from Northern states pretend ‘slavery, what slavery?’ and ‘racism? that’s a southern thing!

    I see that a lot up here, north of the border. Some people in Canada get a superiority complex because of the *U.S.* history in the slave trade. They’re always surprised and try to deny when I tell them Canada had slavery too.. we just didn’t have a big to-do over abolition. It was like Britain went “Uh.. guys, so we’ve been thinking.. slavery is actually kind of wrong and I think we’re gonna need to stop (we’ll keep on with the colonization for another century or so, though)” and Canada kind of went “Uh.. okay? Sure.”

    But we had ‘em.

  9. Esti
    Esti July 26, 2011 at 10:24 am |

    I can’t entirely agree with this post. I do think that it would be great if people were more aware of the extent to which places other than plantation were associated with slavery — I think you’re absolutely right that the North has a big smug blind spot on the issue. And if you are simply using a site that has some link to terrible things that were done in the past, that has to be okay for the reasons you note. But there’s a difference between objecting to a site because it has some link to slavery (which, as you note, eliminates a huge, huge number of places) and objecting to a site because its ONLY association is with slavery, or because a lot of its aesthetic appeal rests on associations with the slave era.

    City halls and public streets in major cities may have been built by slaves and may have been the site of atrocities in the past, but I think the fact that people don’t associate them directly with those events today says something about reclamation and about the shifting purposes of those locations over time. People of color use city hall, they walk down those streets, they ride across public bridges. Plantations, by contrast, have on the whole never really lost their link with slavery — I (and I suspect a lot of people) can’t really think of anything plantations have been used for or are linked to other than the era of slavery, and a lot of the romantic qualities people ascribe to them come from that same association.

    I don’t think it’s always wrong to have a wedding at a plantation, but you need to think about it pretty carefully before doing so. Is it a historical site that hosts tours and has preserved as much of the decor from that era as possible? Or is it just a big pretty house that hosts a lot of events of various kinds, or that has had different uses since the pre-war period? Do you just like the gardens, or is there some romantic feeling to sweeping around this historic location that when you really think about it makes you feel a little icky?

    And if you decide on the plantation setting, I think you need to be particularly sensitive to the other aspects — if you’re trying to create a Gone with the Wind feel with decor and food and your dress, then the plantation stops being just another wedding location and instead becomes a set piece in an invocation of a really terrible part of the past. I don’t think that you can never use pieces of that aesthetic, but you need to be really careful while doing so — antique candlesticks and chests are one thing in the abstract, but another thing entirely if you combine them with a plantation location and an all-black staff. And since some locations virtually guarantee that your servers will be people of color — it’s certainly true in South Africa that most of the time you can expect event staff to be all or predominantly black/coloured — that’s another thing to consider.

    I guess the short version of my thoughts on this is — when I looked at the pictures of that South African wedding, I tried to imagine a black couple from Britain hosting that event and could. not. do. it. So I think it’s worth asking yourself, when you consider a plantation location for your wedding, whether you think your black guests would feel uncomfortable at the event. Is the location itself, or the location in combination with all of the other aspects of the event (including the staff), something you could picture a black couple choosing for their wedding? I suspect that if you’re getting married at city hall, or at an old church, the answer is probably yes. But on a plantation, it might not be as easy to tell — in which case, err on the side of caution, yes?

  10. chava
    chava July 26, 2011 at 10:45 am |

    …I also grew up in the Deep South (agree on the peaches, btw), and I’m not feeling this. Just because many locations *besides* plantations are problematic and carry with them the history of slavery does NOT mean that getting married on a plantation, with a primarily black staff (and it WILL be primarily black in, say, Birmingham) isn’t a special kind of yuck.

    I found my rich white friends’ country club weddings with an all-black staff, an all-black band, and an unspoken ‘no blacks, Jews, or Catholics’ membership policy uncomfortable enough. Putting the whole thing on a plantation would just be extra helpings of fail.

  11. Surgoshan
    Surgoshan July 26, 2011 at 10:49 am |

    You should read “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II”. It will convince you to change “built before 1860″ to “built before 1940″. And “in the South” to “the United States”, because things got really, really bad all over this country.

  12. Azalea
    Azalea July 26, 2011 at 11:20 am |

    Ugh I started typing a long post about personal experience and decided against it but long story short, I don’t think a plantation wedding by itself is some horrible offense. However the idea of having an all black wait staff for your wedding on a southern plantation with an all white wedding party and all white guests just kind of SCREAMS racist prick.

  13. ame
    ame July 26, 2011 at 11:20 am |

    I see the point of the OP, but I want to say I completely agree with Esti…

  14. Kristen J.
    Kristen J. July 26, 2011 at 11:33 am |

    To me this is an example of human FAIL. We romanticize periods in history from the perspective of the powerful without acknowledging the horror that went into it *because* only the voices of the powerful from that era are acknowledged. Plantation era =/= romantic. Regency period =/= romantic. WWII =/= romantic. 100 years from now when people are having 80s themed weddings =/= Romantic.

  15. SgtPiddles
    SgtPiddles July 26, 2011 at 11:37 am |

    Woooow. I mean, back home there are weddings on old plantations – because everything is a plantation! Churches are old plantations, museums are old plantations, my friend’s house is an old plantation. But no way would we ever be like well ain’t this cute, let’s just post some confederate flags while we’re at it. I mean, yeah, the city has a messy history and we’re aware of the price of that – heck, half the town was burned down in Sherman’s march. But that just means you need to be all the more aware of what’s around you.

  16. JDP
    JDP July 26, 2011 at 11:43 am |

    Not gonna disagree with the OP, but it’s worth pointing out that you’re gonna be hard-pressed to find a “historical” estate or church that doesn’t have severely problematic associations. Any Spanish church built before 1834 was directly involved in the Inquisition. Most Mexican churches built before 1820 were, too. Churches built in Spain prior to the Reconquista mostly represent conquered and repurposed mosques. Aristocratic and bourgeois estates in Europe were built largely with forced labor and in many cases with finances acquired through the slave trade or exploitation of serfs, and in Western Europe, a lot of that money was also made via rampant colonialism. Then you have to make sure that you’re not putting your guests up in buildings that were used by the Nazis as centers of command, and certainly not recent constructions that were financed with confiscated Jewish property. And we can bring this back to the US and Canada and recognize that all of those estates have been built on land stolen from the indigenous peoples of North America.

    And so on.

    Obviously romanticizing that history isn’t the solution, but I don’t think that refusing to interact with it is, either. IMO, confrontation requires engagement.

  17. Nahida
    Nahida July 26, 2011 at 11:50 am |

    JDP: Obviously romanticizing that history isn’t the solution, but I don’t think that refusing to interact with it is, either.

    I think there’s a huge difference between interacting with it/living your life as you must and throwing it an honorary dinner party.

  18. Hashmir
    Hashmir July 26, 2011 at 11:51 am |

    I think Esti might have said it all, but I thought I’d chime in as another lifelong Southerner (Texan).

    To me — and I think Amanda Hess did a good job of emphasizing this, but perhaps she could have done better — the problem is not that the place was built by slaves, but that the entire theme of the plantation weddings is basically “play the role of the white slaveowners who used to really live here!” I could be wrong, but I would be extremely surprised to find a couple that is not straight and white having a full-out plantation-themed wedding at one of these locations, and if a single black person has ever done so, I’ll eat my mouse.

    Regarding the Northerner scorn of Southern racism, I can’t really say whether or how it affects this issue. It may be one of those things where criticisms from outside a group are implicitly more of an attack, where the same criticisms from inside are implicitly introspective. Personally, I found that Amanda Hess’s complaints were a lot of the same things that have always bothered me about Southern culture, such as the way playing out slavery-era whiteness is “connecting with history,” while complaining about slavery-era slavery is “refusing to let go of the past.”

    Which is really what this boils down to, I think. You’re allowed, even encouraged to talk about and glorify your Southern ancestry and history if you’re white, but if you’re black, you are not. In a way, I would argue that the slaves never actually got their humanity, at least in a historical sense. You don’t talk about them as individuals, but as footnotes explaining how many slaves some Southern woman brought to her marriage. They are cut off from their descendants, who can’t even talk about them without being perceived as “attacking” the descendants of their very oppressors!

  19. JDP
    JDP July 26, 2011 at 12:02 pm |

    Nahida: I think there’s a huge difference between interacting with it/living your life as you must and throwing it an honorary dinner party.

    Which was my point when I said “romanticizing it isn’t the solution.”

  20. Hashmir
    Hashmir July 26, 2011 at 12:15 pm |

    JDP: Which was my point when I said “romanticizing it isn’t the solution.”

    …Then I’m not entirely sure who you’re arguing against. You said that you “don’t think that refusing to interact with [that history] is [the solution], either,” but I don’t see where anyone advocated that. I just see people saying that interacting with it in this way is problematic.

  21. Erin
    Erin July 26, 2011 at 12:16 pm |

    Hashmir: Which is really what this boils down to, I think. You’re allowed, even encouraged to talk about and glorify your Southern ancestry and history if you’re white, but if you’re black, you are not. In a way, I would argue that the slaves never actually got their humanity, at least in a historical sense. You don’t talk about them as individuals, but as footnotes explaining how many slaves some Southern woman brought to her marriage. They are cut off from their descendants, who can’t even talk about them without being perceived as “attacking” the descendants of their very oppressors!

    I think this is right on the money. My spouse is an Episcopal priest at a historic church. The original building–a gorgeous chapel that’s listed on the Historic Registry of Buildings for our state–was built by slave labor. There is a plaque in front of the church describing its history: its architect, how the only bishop ever consecrated in the CSA was consecrated there, the names of the rectors, etc. Nowhere does it list the names of the slaves who built it. When I brought up the idea of raising some money to build a garden or some kind of monument dedicated to these people–naming them, honoring them for their work–a parishoner suggested it would be a sticky subject; many parishoners would be very sensitive to the idea that their ancestors would be outed as slave owners.

    I think the problem with Hess’s article is that she didn’t just highlight antebellum-themed weddings, but rather any wedding taking place on a plantation. Yes, dressing up and pretending you’re Scarlett O’Hara is creepy (as an aside, why would anyone want to pretend to be Scarlett O’Hara at their wedding? I don’t remember her being overly thrilled at any of her weddings!), but as a PP pointed out, it’s really difficult to find any place that doesn’t have some awful association behind it. Even your own house could have been built with labor by people who weren’t paid fairly for it.

    So we’ve acknowledged that there may be no place “safe.” The question is what to do about it.

  22. Nahida
    Nahida July 26, 2011 at 12:26 pm |

    What Hashmir said. I was thrown off because you seemed to imply that there are people arguing we shouldn’t interact with it at all.

  23. Ella
    Ella July 26, 2011 at 12:41 pm |

    This is so confusing to me. How can you even argue for a second that a plantation, where slaves were kept, overworked, and killed, is the same as a church built with slave labor?

  24. Ella
    Ella July 26, 2011 at 12:44 pm |

    In addition, you can’t just ignore that random white buildings in the south aren’t really giant symbols of slavery the way that a plantation is.

    This article misses the point so massively. I’m so surprised to find it on Feministe.

  25. samanthab
    samanthab July 26, 2011 at 12:45 pm |

    Hershele, yeah, that’s really my problem here, is that these princess fantasies depend upon exploitation regardless of the details. You can’t be a princess without subjects.

    The thing that strikes me here is that the work (meaning, the incredible craft of these structures) here *does* deserve honoring in a way that doesn’t diminish the circumstances under which it was. I can’t say that I necessarily know what that best way to do that would be. But I do feel strongly that to hide away these structures would be a dishonor to those who built them. It would be another erasure, and I don’t see how that can be appropriate.

  26. Nahida
    Nahida July 26, 2011 at 1:05 pm |

    Ella:
    This is so confusing to me.How can you even argue for a second that a plantation, where slaves were kept, overworked, and killed, is the same as a church built with slave labor?

    Ella:
    In addition, you can’t just ignore that random white buildings in the south aren’t really giant symbols of slavery the way that a plantation is.

    This article misses the point so massively. I’m so surprised to find it on Feministe.

    But it says, “There is a line, albeit an arbitrary and subjective one, between foolishly, thoughtlessly romanticizing a dark and hurtful era and celebrating a special occasion at a location that carries a history.”

  27. JDP
    JDP July 26, 2011 at 1:17 pm |

    Ella:
    This is so confusing to me.How can you even argue for a second that a plantation, where slaves were kept, overworked, and killed, is the same as a church built with slave labor?

    You mean like church grounds in Inquisition-era Spain where “heretics” (i.e. Jews and Moors who hadn’t sufficiently assimilated) were often tortured, sentenced, and executed?

    You mean like ghettos in many parts of Nazi-occupied Europe that were purged of Jews and are now posh and trendy parts of town because of their central location? Not to mention the churches that were the only entrance and exit to those once-walled-off areas?

    You mean like mosques that have been Christianized into churches while those countries work damned hard to continue to erase Muslim history and contemporary Muslim identity in those countries?

    You mean like the complex gold leaf work throughout Spanish and Italian churches that was made by melting down and hammering down the gold pillaged from the civilizations of the Americas?

    You mean like courtyards and museums in France, Germany, and England full of Egyptian art and artifacts that were pillaged during colonialism and still aren’t being returned, despite the pleas of Egyptian archaeologists to return them their history?

    And so on.

    I have no love of the South and I have no problem with stamping out this sort of antebellum romanticism and Confederate bullshit that is pervasive across a lot of the Southern states. But you’d be a complete fool to believe that Europe is any less flippant about their history of shitting on the rights of others. And if you think that Europe can somehow afford to be flippant because they’ve somehow conquered their own problem of racism, go to Spain or France or Italy or England and talk with African immigrants. Or Romani, for that matter. Or the victims of the recent terrorist attack in Norway.

    We should damned well confront the rampant racism in the American South, but the “look how racist the South is” game allows way too many other people a pass, even while they’re engaged in much worse behavior. As someone up-thread said, there’s a difference between “plantation wedding” and “wedding on a plantation.” This especially when the colonialist implications of a newly married Royal Couple going on a Tour of Their Realm have largely gone unspoken.

  28. iiii
    iiii July 26, 2011 at 1:37 pm |

    JDP – also, the California missions, which *were* plantations.

  29. samanthab
    samanthab July 26, 2011 at 2:01 pm |

    Slaves were kept, overworked, and killed on small farms and in towns as well. I’ve read it argued that there were distinct advantages to the plantation setting for slaves, in that there were enough of them kept in a single location that they were able to develop community. As has been said now repeatedly, it’s just not good history to isolate the plantation as a unique site for the brutal exploitation of slaves within the U.S.

  30. Esti
    Esti July 26, 2011 at 2:47 pm |

    samanthab: Slaves were kept, overworked, and killed on small farms and in towns as well. I’ve read it argued that there were distinct advantages to the plantation setting for slaves, in that there were enough of them kept in a single location that they were able to develop community. As has been said now repeatedly, it’s just not good history to isolate the plantation as a unique site for the brutal exploitation of slaves within the U.S.

    That’s reasonable as a point about teaching history, but with respect to wedding venues I think the more important issue is what the land has been used for in the interim. A house in town that once housed people who owned slaves (and possibly the slaves themselves), that is now just another house on the street and is (assuming its private property) being used for a wedding by someone connected to the current owners doesn’t have the same connotations as a piece of land that after being built and supported by slave labor, has since been used either as a private house (by white people) or a historical attraction, and continues to be strongly associated aesthetically and emotionally with the era of slavery.

  31. Erin
    Erin July 26, 2011 at 3:29 pm |

    Esti: That’s reasonable as a point about teaching history, but with respect to wedding venues I think the more important issue is what the land has been used for in the interim. A house in town that once housed people who owned slaves (and possibly the slaves themselves), that is now just another house on the street and is (assuming its private property) being used for a wedding by someone connected to the current owners doesn’t have the same connotations as a piece of land that after being built and supported by slave labor, has since been used either as a private house (by white people) or a historical attraction, and continues to be strongly associated aesthetically and emotionally with the era of slavery.

    The argument that I’m sensing from you here, Esti, is essentially that if one can avoid/ignore/be unaware of the true historical past of a place, be it a church, building, private home, whatever, then it’s acceptable as a wedding (or any function) venue. A plantation home, however, is not because it cannot be avoided that slaves were present there.

    Should one then avoid places where, if they’re being honest with themselves, they can assume slave labor was involved in the building? Or does a place’s relative “normalness” now–as it is seen by others, of course–determine its acceptability?

  32. JDP
    JDP July 26, 2011 at 4:02 pm |

    Quick show of hands: how many people in this thread are reasonably okay with driving a Volkswagen?

    1. Jill
      Jill July 26, 2011 at 4:18 pm | *

      Quick show of hands: how many people in this thread are reasonably okay with driving a Volkswagen?

      I know a good number of Jews who refuse to buy Mercedes, but that’s not really here nor there.

      Look, symbolism matters. It’s not just a question of “Was this built by slaves?” It’s also a question of what a particular aesthetic or space or brand represents. The plantation is a much more literal and relied-upon symbol of slavery than a courthouse or a bridge, even if a courthouse or a bridge was also built by slaves. The plantation was, for a lot of enslaved people, the locus on their slavery. For a lot of white people, the plantation represents a glorified bygone era where whites had it good, at the expense of people they kidnapped and forced into labor. I agree that it’s silly to suggest that anyone who has their wedding at a plantation-style mansion is a horrible racist, but I do think there is some important criticism to be leveled at folks who use “theme” their wedding around the plantation, or around the Antebellum South. The argument isn’t “this particular building was built by slaves and therefore no one should use it.” The argument is, “Glorifying a period where human beings were enslaved is really really fucked up, and that’s what Plantation-themed weddings do.”

  33. Hashmir
    Hashmir July 26, 2011 at 4:06 pm |

    Erin: The argument that I’m sensing from you here, Esti, is essentially that if one can avoid/ignore/be unaware of the true historical past of a place, be it a church, building, private home, whatever, then it’s acceptable as a wedding (or any function) venue.A plantation home, however, is not because it cannot be avoided that slaves were present there.

    Should one then avoid places where, if they’re being honest with themselves, they can assume slave labor was involved in the building? Or does a place’s relative “normalness” now–as it is seen by others, of course–determine its acceptability?

    I can’t speak for Esti, but I think that it’s more accurate to say that plantations are notable not because they are the only places where slavery happened, but because they are such strong symbols of that specific era.

    Again, when you look at the branding and advertising used to push plantation mansions as wedding venues, it becomes clear that many (not all!) of them are not just promoting the fun of having a wedding in a really big and well-decorated place; they’re promoting the fun of having a wedding in a Mansion that has Historical Significance — which is to say, the fun of being white in the South.

    It’s one thing to simply enjoy a place for its qualities without constantly pointing out that it has a bad history, but it’s another thing entirely to enjoy that place as a symbol of joy and goodness by glorifying the very things that made its history bad.

    To stay in the South for a bit (because, again, native Southerner, so I’m familiar with it), it’s like all the Confederate flags that people have around here. The (white, male) people who put them on their trucks say that it’s simply a symbol of states’ rights. But it’s not, because that symbolism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the design, but that design happens to have a history, and that history is of going to war to defend slavery. Because using that flag as a symbol invokes that history, it cannot become a symbol of freedom.

    The plantations are slightly different, in that I do think one can theoretically use the place without invoking the symbol, while the flag is a symbol unto itself. But that’s basically my point — as soon as you invoke the symbolism of the plantation, you have invoked it all. And that’s what skeeves people out.

  34. Hashmir
    Hashmir July 26, 2011 at 4:15 pm |

    JDP:
    Quick show of hands: how many people in this thread are reasonably okay with driving a Volkswagen?

    I realize that my other post came after yours, but I would make the same basic argument. If the problem is the symbolism, as I argue, then there is no problem with driving a car originally designed under Hitler’s mandate, so long as that care is not emblematic of Nazi Germany. While plantation-themed weddings are certainly not as extreme, the comparison would not be driving a Beetle, but rather driving a Beetle while wearing traditional Nazi garb.

  35. chava
    chava July 26, 2011 at 4:31 pm |

    Yeeeeeah. Symbolism matters, the message your actions send matters. There are plenty of places to throw a big fancy dress party in the South–maybe a plantation just shouldn’t be one of ‘em.

    Hashmir: I can’t speak for Esti, but I think that it’s more accurate to say that plantations are notable not because they are the only places where slavery happened, but because they are such strong symbols of that specific era.

    Again, when you look at the branding and advertising used to push plantation mansions as wedding venues, it becomes clear that many (not all!) of them are not just promoting the fun of having a wedding in a really big and well-decorated place; they’re promoting the fun of having a wedding in a Mansion that has Historical Significance — which is to say, the fun of being white in the South.

    It’s one thing to simply enjoy a place for its qualities without constantly pointing out that it has a bad history, but it’s another thing entirely to enjoy that place as a symbol of joy and goodness by glorifying the very things that made its history bad.

    1. Jill
      Jill July 26, 2011 at 4:39 pm | *

      You know, I just googled “plantation wedding” and clicked through four of five different websites, and several pf them have photos of white couples in a horse-drawn carriage, operated by an older black man. It’s an interesting theme.

  36. Calioak
    Calioak July 26, 2011 at 4:35 pm |

    Dumb question but does the wedding couple pick the staff or does the Southern plantation hosting the wedding use there own staff or some of both?

    Not being Southern maybe some of the dynamic on the location is going over my head, but deliberately re-enacting slavery is just ick!

  37. chava
    chava July 26, 2011 at 4:43 pm |

    As far as the urban American South and its cultural history, I have a much bigger issue with folks continuing to hold weddings & debutante balls at golf courses, country clubs, etc–that continue to exclude Jews.

    And really, you’re going to argue that in US culture the Volkswagon is a symbol of Jewish oppression analogous to and tied into current inequities in the same way as *plantations* ?

    JDP:
    Quick show of hands: how many people in this thread are reasonably okay with driving a Volkswagen?

  38. Erin
    Erin July 26, 2011 at 4:46 pm |

    Someone offered to eat their mouse if a picture of a black couple getting married at a plantation could be found. I don’t advocate eating a perfectly good mouse, and technically only half of this couple is black, but here you go: http://everaftervisuals.com/index.php/weddings/oatlands-plantation-leesburg-va-wedding-photographer-billy-and-jhanna/

    FTR, I googled “plantation weddings” like Jill and this image was on the 4th page of results.

    Here’s another: http://www.google.com/imgres?q=plantation+weddings&hl=en&sa=X&tbm=isch&tbnid=Zhoo-DEQavUUBM:&imgrefurl=http://observatoryblog.com/2010/05/12/amy-pat-montpelier-plantation-inn-nevis-ii/&docid=aI-ybashJtNWEM&w=714&h=477&ei=hTQvTvuWJ8bYgQe6hpWLAQ&zoom=1&iact=hc&vpx=596&vpy=287&dur=2990&hovh=183&hovw=275&tx=140&ty=99&page=12&tbnh=153&tbnw=230&start=169&ndsp=16&ved=1t:429,r:4,s:169&biw=1150&bih=618 (12th page)

  39. Transitionland
    Transitionland July 26, 2011 at 4:50 pm |

    To avoid any potential building/land history related issues, my fiance and I will get married in a hot air balloon over international waters.

    (Or at the NYC Marriage Bureau, as a last resort.)

  40. chava
    chava July 26, 2011 at 4:50 pm |

    It is fairly difficult in the urban South to hire any kind of large staff for an event such as a wedding that isn’t made up primarily of African Americans. If the plantation is sufficiently rural, then I believe you start getting more white labor.
    I grew up in the urban South, and every wedding or even there I’ve ever been to has had an overwhelmingly black staff.

    Calioak:
    Dumb question but does the wedding couple pick the staff or does the Southern plantation hosting the wedding use there own staff or some of both?

    Not being Southern maybe some of the dynamic on the location is going over my head, but deliberately re-enacting slavery is just ick!

  41. JDP
    JDP July 26, 2011 at 5:21 pm |

    chava:
    As far as the urban American South and its cultural history, I have a much bigger issue with folks continuing to hold weddings & debutante balls at golf courses, country clubs, etc–that continue to exclude Jews.

    Yeah, I spent a part of my childhood in eastern TN. Not fun.

    And really, you’re going to argue that in US culture the Volkswagon is a symbol of Jewish oppression analogous to and tied into current inequities in the same way as *plantations* ?

    It’s not perfectly analogous, but beyond the slave labor issue, please tell me exactly the role of the term “volk” within Nazi cultural mythology.

  42. JDP
    JDP July 26, 2011 at 5:22 pm |

    Err, sorry about screwing up the blockquotes.

  43. chava
    chava July 26, 2011 at 5:44 pm |

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at, though–yeah, Volkswagons were deeply problematic for a whole host of reasons, the “volk” issue among them. But they don’t continue to carry that weight in the US. Buying a Volkswagon doesn’t support a continuing system of inequality, Volkswagon ads don’t encourage you to reminisce about Nazi Germany, etc.

    The closest American analogy I can think of is hosting an “Indian theme wedding” in something like Moundville (near Tuscaloosa).

    “It’s not perfectly analogous, but beyond the slave labor issue, please tell me exactly the role of the term “volk” within Nazi cultural mythology.”

  44. Hashmir
    Hashmir July 26, 2011 at 5:44 pm |

    Erin:
    Someone offered to eat their mouse if a picture of a black couple getting married at a plantation could be found. I don’t advocate eating a perfectly good mouse, and technically only half of this couple is black, but here you go:

    Can I get out on the technicality that they don’t appear to actually be Antebellum-South-themed?

    JDP: It’s not perfectly analogous, but beyond the slave labor issue, please tell me exactly the role of the term “volk” within Nazi cultural mythology.

    I think that’s still missing the point. Wikipedia suggests that people in Germany don’t use the term “volk” for that very reason, and in the US, the term “volk” has no connotations at all. (It’s hard to pick up those kinds of dogwhistles when they’re in another language, the primary speakers of which were at war with you.)

    Now, if you wanted to argue that in Germany the name is inappropriate, you could be right. I can’t say — for all I know, it’s like complaining that people say “camaraderie” when “comrade” is a loaded word. But that still has no bearing on its actual symbolic meaning in the US, so there’s still no conflict between opposing plantation-themed weddings and not Volkswagon.

  45. Esti
    Esti July 26, 2011 at 6:20 pm |

    Erin: The argument that I’m sensing from you here, Esti, is essentially that if one can avoid/ignore/be unaware of the true historical past of a place, be it a church, building, private home, whatever, then it’s acceptable as a wedding (or any function) venue. A plantation home, however, is not because it cannot be avoided that slaves were present there. Should one then avoid places where, if they’re being honest with themselves, they can assume slave labor was involved in the building? Or does a place’s relative “normalness” now–as it is seen by others, of course–determine its acceptability?

    Hashmir and Jill already kind of covered this, but since you asked — no, I’m not arguing that people’s ignorance of the connection between slavery and a particular location is what makes it more acceptable to use those places than plantations. In fact, my first comment noted that I think using a plantation for a wedding can be fine, and that you *should* consciously think about the history of the place when doing so.

    But yes, I think that a location’s relative normalness today plays a role in how acceptable it is as a venue. Or more accurately, I think whether a venue/other aspect of a wedding has since taken on connotations other than slavery is relevant to its acceptability. So, for example, the confederate flag doesn’t go down very well because it is very closely linked to the Confederacy itself (and the defense of slavery specifically), and it has never really taken on a different meaning in a widespread way. By contrast, the Union Jack has been used in so many different contexts since the time when it represented colonization by Britain that it doesn’t inspire the same level of negative feeling even if it was once a symbol of something just as bad as slavery. It’s not that the Union Jack’s history is fine as long as we ignore it. It’s that we have collectively (to greater and lesser extents, depending on who and where you are) ascribed different meaning to that symbol over time.

    To me, the question isn’t “can we ignore the bad associations with this thing?” It’s “have we as a society since created non-bad associations with it?”

  46. Erin
    Erin July 26, 2011 at 6:24 pm |

    Hashmir: Can I get out on the technicality that they don’t appear to actually be Antebellum-South-themed?

    But that was pretty much the point of this post. Hess attacked weddings at plantations, period, regardless of whether they had a “plantation” theme. Caperton acknowledged the wrongness of those weddings, but questioned what the problem was with using a plantation as a venue period, when places all over the country also carry the taint of slavery.

  47. Erin
    Erin July 26, 2011 at 6:36 pm |

    *sorry for the double “periods.” It’s what I get for walking away in the middle of a comment.

  48. Hashmir
    Hashmir July 26, 2011 at 6:39 pm |

    Erin: But that was pretty much the point of this post. Hess attacked weddings at plantations, period, regardless of whether they had a “plantation” theme. Caperton acknowledged the wrongness of those weddings, but questioned what the problem was with using a plantation as a venue period, when places all over the country also carry the taint of slavery.

    I’m on fairly tenuous ground here, but I’m going to protest that the actual bet still required a theme:

    I could be wrong, but I would be extremely surprised to find a couple that is not straight and white having a full-out plantation-themed wedding at one of these locations, and if a single black person has ever done so, I’ll eat my mouse.

    Incidentally, I should say that I originally read a little more nuance into Hess’s post than was actually there. So, to sum up, Hess railed against all plantation weddings, but failed to address the difference between a wedding on a plantation and a plantation theme. Caperton pointed this out (and I agree), but (I would argue) failed to address the difference between plantations specifically and other Southern buildings with less symbolism.

    And if I do end up having to eat my mouse, can I at least wait a few weeks until I get the new one I’m planning to buy?

  49. JDP
    JDP July 26, 2011 at 7:46 pm |

    Hashmir:
    I think that’s still missing the point. Wikipedia suggests that people in Germany don’t use the term “volk” for that very reason,

    Right. Because it’s code for “Aryan” in the Nazi sense. But “volkswagen” is apparently ok.

    and in the US, the term “volk” has no connotations at all. (It’s hard to pick up those kinds of dogwhistles when they’re in another language, the primary speakers of which were at war with you.)

    So we’re giving racial code words a pass so long as they’re not in English?

    Now, if you wanted to argue that in Germany the name is inappropriate, you could be right.

    It’s still a German company, the same company that was founded via Nazi mandate, and produced their goods with the slave labor of people who are, in some cases, still alive today.

    I can’t say — for all I know, it’s like complaining that people say “camaraderie” when “comrade” is a loaded word.

    uh no.

    But that still has no bearing on its actual symbolic meaning in the US, so there’s still no conflict between opposing plantation-themed weddings and not Volkswagon.

    Once again, we’re not only talking about “plantation-themed weddings” here. We’re talking about “weddings on plantations” and in that case, I think the analogy is pretty legitimate. If someone wants a wedding at a wealthy historical estate in the country and picks a plantation without directly thinking about the fact that said plantation was an institution of racial slavery and brutality, how different is that from someone who picks a car with a name that’s a racial dogwhistle and where initial capital for the company was acquired by exploiting people enslaved by a genocidal regime and who were sent to the ovens as soon as they could no longer work the assembly line?

    My point is not “OMG volkswagen” or “why r u hatin on plantashuns.” My point is that singling out the South is convenient because it allows us to ignore a lot of other nasty crap. It’s cliche. If there’s a point where the Europeans can use their castles, estates, and cathedrals without having to deconstruct their history of colonialism, genocide, etc. to a T, then the South can theoretically get to that point, too. The history of the American South is not uniquely horrific and it shouldn’t be treated as such.

  50. Hashmir
    Hashmir July 26, 2011 at 9:50 pm |

    JDP: Right.Because it’s code for “Aryan” in the Nazi sense.But “volkswagen” is apparently ok.

    That’s not my point; my point is that (A) I don’t know German culture well enough to know if the term or brand “Volkswagon” is loaded in the same way that plantations are in the US, and (B) what little I do know is that Germany tends to get really sensitive about Nazi stuff, so it would be somewhat surprising to me to learn that Volkswagon still carries Nazi connotations there in the same way that “plantations” have slavery connotations in the US.

    If you are telling me that it does, then I would be very interested to know more, but it still wouldn’t have to do with plantation-themed weddings. As I have stated throughout, the problem is not simply that slave labor was involved, but that many (not all!) of the weddings are constructed to effectively play Master and Lady of the House.

    So we’re giving racial code words a pass so long as they’re not in English?

    No, we’re giving foreign potential code words in the US a pass if there’s no one to pick up on the code. Language changes, and again, as far as I know, “Volkswagon” simply does not carry Nazi connotations in the modern US any more than “Ford” does. If you are telling me that the actual, real-life use of the term upsets actual, real-life people in the same way that historically-styled plantation weddings do, then I will happily complain about it. But if t is simply some hypothetical “intellectual consistency” test, as I understand it to be, then no, I don’t care, because I’m not in the business of looking at cultures I’m not familiar with and getting upset at things I don’t understand.

    It’s still a German company, the same company that was founded via Nazi mandate, and produced their goods with the slave labor of people who are, in some cases, still alive today.

    See above re: the importance of it actually being symbolic of Nazi Germany in modern times.

    Once again, we’re not only talking about “plantation-themed weddings” here.We’re talking about “weddings on plantations” and in that case, I think the analogy is pretty legitimate.If someone wants a wedding at a wealthy historical estate in the country and picks a plantation without directly thinking about the fact that said plantation was an institution of racial slavery and brutality, how different is that from someone who picks a car with a name that’s a racial dogwhistle and where initial capital for the company was acquired by exploiting people enslaved by a genocidal regime and who were sent to the ovens as soon as they could no longer work the assembly line?

    …Since when are we talking about “weddings on plantations” full stop? I mean, yeah, Amanda Hess basically was, but has there been a single comment in the 50+ thus posted on this blog that failed to distinguish between a wedding that did invoke the Antebellum South theme versus one that did not? If so, it certainly wasn’t one of mine.

    My point is not “OMG volkswagen” or “why r u hatin on plantashuns.”My point is that singling out the South is convenient because it allows us to ignore a lot of other nasty crap.It’s cliche.If there’s a point where the Europeans can use their castles, estates, and cathedrals without having to deconstruct their history of colonialism, genocide, etc. to a T, then the South can theoretically get to that point, too.The history of the American South is not uniquely horrific and it shouldn’t be treated as such.

    Well, yeah, everywhere has a crappy history. But (A) I’m not aware that Feministing, GOOD, or either of the respective authors of the posts in question have a habit of picking on the South, (B) I’m definitely don’t recall an explicit comparison to Europe or anywhere else (and indeed, with all the DSK stuff going on, I’ve seen Europe’s history of damaging colonialism getting pulled up quite a bit), and (C) I can only speak for myself, and I’m interested in picking on the South because it’s the only place I’ve lived, and thus the only place where I have any notable cultural insight. So I happen to be very interested in discussing our unique brand of racial tensions, as well as everyone else’s.

  51. evil fizz
    evil fizz July 26, 2011 at 11:07 pm | *

    So we’re giving racial code words a pass so long as they’re not in English?

    No, but I’d argue there is a meaningful difference between terms that have cultural and historical resonance given a particular context and those that don’t.

    If there’s a point where the Europeans can use their castles, estates, and cathedrals without having to deconstruct their history of colonialism, genocide, etc. to a T, then the South can theoretically get to that point, too.

    And we’re back to the “use of property that has bad historical baggage” versus “specifically invoking a theme of violence and oppression through misplaced romanticization”.

  52. michelle
    michelle July 27, 2011 at 2:20 am |

    Excellent post. Thanks.

  53. samanthab
    samanthab July 28, 2011 at 12:56 pm |

    Hashmir, well, what you’re assuming there is that the symbol is more important than the reality. To me, that’s problematic in it’s own right. If we just eliminate plantations from sight, than the dark history disappears? As someone from a white family that’s been in the South for 250-some years, I think it’s actually pretty important to examine the realities of that history. To me, if you eliminate the masterpieces of slave work, that’s a huge act of dishonor. And weddings are an obvious way to fund the maintenance of those plantations. There’s just a limit to how much I can emotionally and intellectually invest in observations on the South and slavery based almost exclusively in “Gone with the Wind.” That’s not a resonant “symbol,” as I see it, so much as a lack of meaningful information.

  54. Hershele Ostropoler
    Hershele Ostropoler July 28, 2011 at 9:01 pm |

    evil fizz: And we’re back to the “use of property that has bad historical baggage” versus “specifically invoking a theme of violence and oppression through misplaced romanticization”.

    I totally agree with this. A lot of things have baggage; you don’t have to emphasize it, or deliberately pick a locations because of what some would call its baggage.

    Also, both my parents are Jewish, you may be surprised to learn, and have at various times had a Volkswagen and several Fords

  55. Links of Great Interest: 7/29/11 — The Hathor Legacy

    […] Oh goddamn Feministe. […]

Comments are closed.

The commenting period has expired for this post. If you wish to re-open the discussion, please do so in the latest Open Thread.