Impressions of Oak Alley Plantation
“Why did Jacques decide to free Zephyr?” a man on our tour asks curiously, wanting to know why Jacques Roman granted freedom to his most faithful slave.
The guide’s answer escapes us as we’re too distracted by the incredulous tone of the question.
“It’s like he may as well ask why Zephyr, or any of the other slaves, deserved their freedom,” I murmur to Jave and Aaron who chuckle sardonically in agreement.
By this point, we’re nearing the end of our tour of the Oak Alley Plantation’s big house, and I’m glad because the whole setup is getting on my nerves. The tour guides attired in their antebellum dresses share stories about Jacques and Celina Roman and how they came to own this beautiful land and this beautiful home that was built by slave labor.
At one point during the tour, our guide explains how during dinners in the dining room, a slave boy was required to gently pull a cord to swing the fan above the table to provide a comforting reprieve from the humidity for dinner guests.
“The slave boy would’ve been required to apply just enough force to the cord to create a gentle breeze without blowing out the dinner candles,” our guide continues.
“Yeah, and I bet that if he accidentally blew out the candles, he’d get beaten and whipped to a pulp,” Aaron says. We all agree.
And that’s what’s annoying me the most about Oak Alley Plantation – it’s all so romanticized. One guest even giddily asks the guide to talk about Jacques and Celina’s courtship. Isn’t it all just so romantic?!
As a black guest at Oak Alley Plantation, I can’t help but wonder if this National Historic Landmark is open for tours simply to remind southerners of the “good ‘ole days” when blacks were treated as chattel and as a symbol of white plantation owners’ power and wealth. What’s really unnerving is that there are even black female employees working as guides, and I can’t help but wonder: Sistahs, you really couldn’t find any other job?!
As we explore the property, I can’t help but try to envision this sugar plantation as it really was – not as the Disneyland-esque fallacy that it’s portrayed to visitors who’ve paid $20 to be bamboozled. But not us. We know better.
As much as I want to be enamored by the property’s leaning oak trees, I can’t help but wonder how many slaves were strung from these trees or tied to these trees for brutal whippings when they waved the fan too forcefully and accidentally blew out the dinner candles.
As we explore the refurbished slave cabins that look suitable enough for our next camping trip, I can’t help but wonder how many times Jacques Roman or one of his overseers entered into these homes to rape and brutalize slave women. And I wonder about the slave children who were torn from their mothers’ arms as they slept, only to be sold and transferred to the next highest bidder.
As I gaze across the field, I try to envision rows and rows of tall sugarcane and hundreds of slaves working under the unforgiving sun while overseers watch on their horses with whips in hand, ready to crack them if a slave dares to take a break from the heat.
To be fair, on the area of the property where the slave cabins are located, there are placards that acknowledge that the property was built on the backs of slaves and that express the hope that by “bringing the life, work and identity of those who were enslaved here into focus, we look to bring truthfulness and clarity to the full story of Oak Alley Plantation.”
But try as it might, Oak Alley Plantation has failed its mission. Perhaps I’d think differently if my “blackness” didn’t color my opinion. Or perhaps Oak Alley would’ve succeeded if it painted a truer picture. Perhaps if they’d tried to preserve the slave cabins as close to their original versions as possible like those found on the St. Joseph Plantation next door. As sobering as the St. Joseph slave cabins are, they speak volumes by painting a more accurate picture of what slavery was and what it was not.
There was nothing romantic about it. There was nothing redeeming about it. The institution of slavery not only dehumanized slaves, but it dehumanized the owners. Why aren’t those stories being told? Why aren’t there characters portraying the slaves and telling their stories – the stories that really matter? Perhaps because then, fewer people would come. Ironically, I suppose that focusing on the slave narrative would be bad for business.
Or would it?
The night before our visit to Oak Alley, I read a post by another blogger announcing that the Whitney Plantation (near Oak Alley) was opening for tours on the day of our visit to Oak Alley. Because of the short notice, we didn’t have the chance to book tickets, but I definitely would’ve since the Whitney Plantation touts itself “as the only plantation museum in Louisiana with a focus on slavery.”