Please Don’t Have a Plantation Wedding and Other Atrocities in U.S. Culture
Recently, a Twitter thread recapping a corporate retreat on a plantation that featured a historically accurate costume ball went viral. The “lone Black employee” dressed up as an enslaved person, eliciting looks of shock from his elegantly-attired white coworkers and the eventual termination of the HR person who planned the unbelievable event (Twitter, Reddit). While this is an extreme example, plantation weddings and celebratory events are commonplace. Picturesque mansions within sprawling plantations marketed as “classic,” “timeless” venues ignore the reality that enslaved people lived, suffered, and died performing forced labor there. Plantation weddings and other celebrations of depravity are nothing less than grotesque.
Last year, pictures emerged from a slavery-themed photoshoot depicting a Black man dressed as an enslaved person being freed by his white fiancée (TikTok). When an Airbnb listing for an “1830s slave cabin” caused an uproar, the cabin owner responded that he provided a “historically accurate portrayal” for his vacationing guests (The Cut). Virginia’s Berkeley Plantation, whose “romanticized imagery” includes “genteel white owners” and “enthusiastic guides in period costume,” had the gall to post “Berkeley Plantation believes that Black Lives Matter” on their website in 2020 (Boston Globe). Romanticizing plantation life and depicting slavery as anything less than horrific is historically inaccurate and morally indefensible.
• Consider: what had to happen historically for you to be able to live on the land you occupy today? How did slavery, genocide, and war affect your family history? Did they affect your family’s ability to acquire or maintain wealth or privileges? What opportunities might you have gained or lost because of them? How did they affect the family history of the most well-off person you know? How about the least well-off person?
Casual celebrations of horrifying acts aren’t geographically limited in a nation built on white supremacy. The economy of all of the United States was rooted in slavery. While the plantation is a uniquely horrifying place to have a celebration, plantation owners took out mortgages and opened lines of credit from northern banks, the cotton harvested by enslaved people was sent to northern factories, and enslaved labor was necessary for the United States to become a capitalist power (Vox).
A nationwide celebration analogous to a plantation wedding occurs each November when Thanksgiving commemorates the arrival of the Pilgrims to what would become Massachusetts and the beginning of Indigenous ethnic cleansing in the future United States. A group of religious extremists awaiting the imminent arrival of the Antichrist (All That’s Interesting), the Pilgrims conducted a holy war of extermination against the Pequod people, whom they believed were agents of the devil (Smithsonian). Though the depths of the Pilgrims’ murderous zealotry are often obscured, Thanksgiving explicitly celebrates the beginning of Indigenous dispossession. The United States was built on slavery and genocide. But Thanksgiving is a holiday about genocide, just like plantation weddings are ceremonies about the beauty of architecture that can be built at gunpoint by enslaved people.
Fun-filled plantation weddings and jovial Thanksgiving genocide dinners are possible because chattel slavery and ethnic cleansing are presented as remote tragedies of the distant past, entirely unrelated to modern society. Only one in three white Americans believe that the legacy of slavery impacts Black Americans “a lot” (Gallup). 40% of Americans don’t think Native Americans currently exist (Women’s Media Center).
These beliefs aren’t only the result of poor education or willful prejudice. Ignorance about the roots and present reality of U.S. society is necessary to avoid accountability for a few inconvenient facts:
The United States was the “most powerful slaveholding society on Earth” with a “national economy thoroughly powered by the thriving institution of slavery” (American Civil War Museum).
The United States was also based, more than any other country in the Americas, on the physical depopulation of Native peoples for generations (The Nation).
Still, because of its staggering wealth inequality, people in the U.S. continue to die of exposure, hunger, and preventable disease next to the largest accumulation of wealth in human history (Columbia). Those most likely to suffer and die are those whose ancestors suffered from the atrocities listed above. Those most likely to instead gain privilege and comfort are, by and large, those whose ancestors benefitted the most from commissioning such horrors (NYTimes).
Celebrating the Thanksgiving genocide initiation or attending a plantation wedding is especially grotesque when committed by white people who were given land through ethnic cleansing and given wealth through the slavery economy. It is dancing and dining on the graves of the people their ancestors tortured and killed. It is also spitting in the face of their descendants. Ghoulish plantation weddings and macabre Thanksgiving genocide parties should remind us that Indigenous dispossession continues today and more Black men are incarcerated today than were enslaved (The Root). We must uproot the systemic injustices that birthed the U.S. empire in order to leave our descendants celebrations of liberation and solidarity instead of mutilation and death.
• Festivities are held on plantations because slavery is presented as the distant past.
• Thanksgiving is celebrated because Native genocide is whitewashed and denied.
• Casually celebrating such events is morally indefensible, particularly for the beneficiaries of such atrocities.