It was, perhaps, the most appropriate if grotesque place to mourn the 2016 presidential election: an old Louisiana plantation. I’d been long planning to use my last day in New Orleans to take a drive out to the country and see one, and I wasn’t going to let the two hours of sleep and the devastation of the night before thwart me. I was going to go on with my life. I didn’t anticipate how much worse and how much more necessary it would make the pain.
I was a big fan of Gone With the Wind as a kid, its pomp and glamour and opulence, many years before I understood our country’s history of slavery and all the suffering and devastation it caused. I haven’t revisited the problematic “pro slaver” tale since then, but I’ve always wanted to tour a plantation. I haven’t been to the south enough times to do it, and it’s been on my bucket list forever.
We drove an hour west of New Orleans, on roads that hover over swamps laced with Spanish moss. The road was strangely desolate, and we listened to Nina Simone and Sam Cooke on the way, thirsty for voices who understood pain and struggle. My eyes were swollen from a long, ripping cry that finally washed over me earlier at a cafe where just days before I’d written happily as I enjoyed the genteel neighborhood. We were silent a lot of the way, breaking it every once in a while to give voice to a fresh realization of disbelief. He’ll inherit the office from the man whose presidency he once tried to delegitimize. That brave and honorable man will vacate the desk once used by JFK to a man who doesn’t know basic things about our history and our democracy. Perhaps the most qualified candidate to ever run for the office was thwarted by manufactured lies and a protest vote that shaved off just enough of the ballots to give him the electoral win while giving her the popular vote. Those were just a few.
We arrived at the plantation – famous for being the scene of Interview With a Vampire – on an overcast day that matched our despondency. We paid the hefty fee, and walked under three-hundred-year-old live oaks resplendent with resurrection fern, made bright and green by recent rains. We were guided to the meeting spot for the tour of the “big house” by women in gaudy hoop skirts made of materials that would have not been available in the antebellum south, too shiny and just a little bit cheap, one of the women flashily painted with decidedly 21st century makeup.
The first stop, a sitting room, filled up quick with the exclusively white faces of the tour attendees. It was hard not to wonder how many of them were happy about the tragic turn of electoral events, who was friend and who was foe. The hoop-skirted tour guide ushered us all in, closed the door, and launched into her best imitation of a gracious southern hostess. She talked in exaggerated tones and boasted of the wealth of the home. She told us how every brick had been handmade by many of the 106 slaves that had been kept there, and how many thousands of dollars the family spent every week on importing ice down the Mississippi from Canada, a wild extravagance at the time. I began to get slightly queasy. When she led us to the dining room to show us the giant fan hanging from the ceiling and moved back and forth by a rope pulled by slave boys 8 to 14 – slow enough to not extinguish candlelight, but fast enough to make sure the guests at the dining table were refreshed – I knew I had had enough of the grotesque “big house” where an evil few had lived richly on the backs of human beings they enslaved and tortured.
Instead, we cut out of the tour early and headed on our own to the slave quarters , tastefully cleaned up and made to look presentable. There was no tour here, although you were “free to tour them on your own.” It was here that it hit me how gross the entire system was, and continues to be. How the obsession with wealth and status has been the justification for so many atrocities and inhumanity. In the room where they displayed the shackles used on the slaves next to the bits used on the horses and a yoke used on oxen, my anger flared.
In that same room there was a quote from a letter from the plantation owner’s wife, asking her son to be sure to chain his slaves up at night and on Sundays. This was the same woman who had been described to me in glowing terms on the “big house” tour, whose name and china pattern I knew, while the many souls who had suffered to support all that wealth for her were relegated to single line entries on a ledger with a first name and a price. I wondered why the focus of the tour wasn’t them, who did all the hard work.
The rage I felt at the looking-glass quality of the tour and the grounds matched the rage I feel for America after this disastrous decision. We too have been focusing on the wrong thing. We too have been dazzled by baubles and finery, and have forgotten whose suffering and struggle really matters. We too have supported evil while good people struggled. The same spirit that still glorifies slave owners but fails to remember slaves is the spirit that lifts up a narcissistic and empty man while passing up a competent and prepared woman. The human penchant for injustice wore on me all afternoon. Instead of looking beautiful to me, the old oaks seemed like witnesses to endless suffering, played out decade after tragic decade for ten generations. I was sorry I had gone to the place and given it any of my money or attention.
We ended slavery, that most evil of institutions, although its end was in no way smooth or fast. In fact, its ugly echoes can still be heard in voter suppression and police bias. But if this election taught us anything, it’s that we are so far from extinguishing hate and evil. It’s that it’s still bubbling under the surface, muted but not silenced or in any way extinguished and, most recently, emboldened. We have to call out dissonance, and not just go along. We have to take stands and choose what we give our attention and treasure to wisely. It’s that we all have to ask what side we’re on.
I fear my my children will be dealing with the outcome of this vote well into their adult lives. I am so sorry for all of it. I am sorry I didn’t do more, that I didn’t convince one more person, didn’t write one more piece. I am laid low. But I have to keep railing. As Sam Cooke sang to me as we headed back on the long, curving country road, built, no doubt, on the paths where enslaved feet once trod under a beating sun, “It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come.”
It just has to.