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.