Inside America’s Auschwitz
April 9, 2016 7:35 AM   Subscribe

Smithsonian Magazine looks at the Whitney Plantation, the first slave museum in the United States.
“Often, plantation exhibits were established for those who lived through the Civil Rights era and yearned for a less complicated time,” says Ashley Rogers, director of museum operations. “And that’s an easy thing to accomplish when you have a ‘chandelier’ tour. Where the previous focus at plantations has been on the house and the culture of Southern gentility, things are changing.”
posted by frimble (41 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
Previous discussion around the NYT link.
posted by Miko at 8:36 AM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


2,200 children who didn't live to their second birthday. Unbelievable.
posted by witchen at 8:38 AM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


Calling these places "plantations" as obscenely euphemistic as calling Auschwitz or Birkenau a lager, as the Germans did with their "camps". These are mass-slavery farming estates, and the South had almost 50,000 just before the war. The United States needs a term to convey all the exploitation and misery they held.
posted by Doktor Zed at 9:33 AM on April 9, 2016 [25 favorites]


Don’t you think the story of slavery is important?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Holocaust_memorials_and_museums_in_the_United_States

Wikipedia has no equivalent page for memorials and museums about slavery in the United States.
posted by Slothrup at 9:36 AM on April 9, 2016 [9 favorites]


One of my father's hobbies is geneology. He has been very successful at it, tracking Scottish branches back into the 1600s (Catholic Church records on births and deaths of paritioners are crazy-deep. Also, the Mormons' records were a big help, he says). He's discovered Swiss and Irish and English ancestory as well.

Amongst the many papers he's collected are birth certificates, diaries, photos, and fragile, crumbling family bibles. He has also found many wills, which listing the posessions of the deceased.

One of the "items," on one of the wills, is a human name.

We're all clearly ashamed of this. No one on his side of the family are bigots: none of them want anything but equality for people of color. Yet for all the lack of bigotry, there is still racism. I've heard my father get really upset about how "gross" sagging pants look. He was in management for years, and to my knowledge, as never hired a person of color. He avoids neighborhoods that are perfectly nice, just too black for him to feel safe in. He agrees with my mother that interracial marriage is fine and all, but that "it's so tough on the kids" that it's irresponsible. Minor things in isolation, but spread over a population, they contribute to the structural oppression.

White folks, non-bigoted, non-hateful white folks, have to do better. It's not enough to be neutral. It's not enough to tolerate black folks as long as they act white and polite and don't speak up. White folks need to start by listening and learning. To learn to see the still-standing structure of racial oppression. To recognise the generation shattering effects of first, slavery, then Jim Crow, then the on-going war on drugs. Of calling children "super-preditors." To recognise the long economic and geographic shadows caste by redlining, of despising interacial marriage, of thinking affirmative action is somehow reverse-[centuries of structural opression].

Education about the historical roots of the problem is a great piece to add. I'm also glad to to read that other plantation tours are at beginning to acknowledge that the fine silver, gilt mirrors, grand columns and the gentile lifestyle all do look very nice, yes, but that they are not testiments to grace. They aren't reflective of the plantation owners' noble refinement, and they certainly are not the proud deserts of hard work. The only thing that these celebrated and cooed over buildings are testiment to is vast atrocity.
posted by wires at 9:37 AM on April 9, 2016 [23 favorites]


I don't think it's shameful for white people to acknowledge that their ancestors owned slaves. If more of us acknowledged our historical culpability, I think that would move the country forward. My position of relative privilege was in part supported by the members of my dad's family who owned slaves and fought in the Confederacy.

This is why reparations are a completely sensible way to heal the country. Just as I still benefit from my ancestors' slaveholding, Black Americans are still disadvantaged by their ancestors slavery. We need to acknowledge all our history, not just the comfortable parts.

A shift towards explicitly making connections between slavery and sharecropping and exploitation and beautiful plantation homes and well-to-do white folks in the past and today - like this museum does - has to have an impact.
posted by ChuraChura at 10:17 AM on April 9, 2016 [27 favorites]


Flippantly using the term "America’s Auschwitz" seems to deprecate the horror of both slavery and the Shoah. Isn't slavery bad enough on its own? It's not like Auschwitzes occur every day. They don't. What happened at Auschwitz is unique in human history. And so is slavery in America.
posted by My Dad at 10:30 AM on April 9, 2016 [6 favorites]


Flippantly using the term "America’s Auschwitz" seems to deprecate the horror of both slavery and the Shoah. Isn't slavery bad enough on its own? It's not like Auschwitzes occur every day. They don't. What happened at Auschwitz is unique in human history. And so is slavery in America.

I agree that the term is uncomfortable. But while it's not a perfect fit, it does convey the grave seriousness about slavery that (so far) history books and popular culture have skirted and elided. One of the biggest obstacles to getting major reparative efforts going is a collective shrug and "so what? the past is the past" by many Americans. If we took slavery as seriously in the US as they take the Holocaust and associated sites in Europe, we might see some action.

When I first read this title, it took me on a little thought experiment about looking at stately mansions among palms--currently with Gone With the Wind-style historical interpretation, and used as wedding venues (!!!!)--as equivalent to concentration camps. That's powerful.
posted by witchen at 10:37 AM on April 9, 2016 [26 favorites]


What happened at Auschwitz is unique in human history. And so is slavery in America
Except that it wasn't.
At the same time the Americans were running their forced labour death farms they were also commiting genocide against the Native American.
posted by adamvasco at 10:49 AM on April 9, 2016 [6 favorites]


Hampton House is a "great house" museum that very much acknowledges the role enslaved people played there. Even the basic house tour mentions it quite a bit.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:49 AM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


In California we have former Missions and what's left of the large land holder's ranches. They are admired for their architecture and beautiful plantings. All of them built with and on the backs slave Native American labor. This fact is generally ignored or superficially noted.

These crimes easily rank with Auschwitz et. al. in that, in many cases, the resultant genocide both physically and culturally was complete.
posted by shnarg at 10:55 AM on April 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


Shnarg- I was recently at Mission San Juan Capistrano and was aghast at the lack of mention of the atrocities committed. There was even a room full of items owned by, and glowing praise for, Junipero Sera. I asked someone who worked there and it turns out the Mission is owned and managed by the Catholic Church. They are under no obligation to make themselves look bad by telling the truth. I imagine/hope that if a historical landmark like that was under the jurisdiction of the state of California there'd be a little more information regarding the truth of what went on there.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 11:12 AM on April 9, 2016 [5 favorites]


He has also found many wills, which listing the posessions of the deceased.

One of the "items," on one of the wills, is a human name


That's how I found out about my ancestors' slaveholding, too. It was a real punch in the gut to see it there in black and white.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:29 AM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


They are under no obligation to make themselves look bad by telling the truth.

No legal obligation perhaps (but perhaps the state of California might not have a legal obligation to be forthcoming with awfulness in its past). An ethical and moral obligation to the truth - yeah, they have that, and they aren't fulfilling those obligations.
posted by el io at 11:48 AM on April 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


Also previously on Metafilter, a post about the former historic guide who tweets at @AfAmHistoryFail, commenting on plantation tours.
posted by bardophile at 12:33 PM on April 9, 2016 [5 favorites]


What happened at Auschwitz is unique in human history.

Means, yes. Ends - not so much.

We tend to focus on the holocaust more than other genocides because the documentation is more extensive, the survivors and perpetrators are western, and the countries heir to the guilt are open than most to facing up to the history. Indeed, holocaust denial is a crime in some European countries.

By contrast, Armenian Genocide denial is still a thing in Turkey, Japan still has problems with the Rape of Nanking.

As to equivalence, this place and Auschwitz - it was in the interest of slave owners to keep the slaves alive. Nazis- not so much.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:36 PM on April 9, 2016 [5 favorites]


Wikipedia has no equivalent page for memorials and museums about slavery in the United States.

That'd be an absolutely great project for somebody.
posted by Miko at 1:03 PM on April 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


I was recently at Mission San Juan Capistrano and was aghast at the lack of mention of the atrocities committed.

I recall that the tour of the Los Encinos Historical Park near my childhood home in the San Fernando Valley provided a subtle but illuminating insight into the status of the Native Americans of the region. (They did take almost too much pride in the fact that it was the center of a rancho that went from the control of the Mission to three families of "Mission Indians" in the 1830s) Still it was useful for a growing white boy in the 1960s to gain some valuable historical perspective.
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:07 PM on April 9, 2016


I don't think it's shameful for white people to acknowledge that their ancestors owned slaves. If more of us acknowledged our historical culpability, I think that would move the country forward.

Absolutely. If my ancestors were slaveowners, that says nothing about my character or my worth as a human being--it just underlines the already-existent responsibility that I have as a White person to overturn White supremacy.
posted by schroedinger at 1:22 PM on April 9, 2016 [15 favorites]


What happened at Auschwitz is unique in human history. And so is slavery in America
>Except that it wasn't.
At the same time the Americans were running their forced labour death farms they were also commiting genocide against the Native American.


While I understand what you're saying, I find it hard to agree. Calling "genocide" a regular part of human behavior throughout history is incorrect, and also glosses over the unique characteristics of each atrocity. History becomes mundane, like a series of car accidents.

The Holocaust, for one thing, was not a regular thing: the Final Solution was the culmination of hundreds of years of Antisemitism in Europe, the logical end (and, as we see in France, Antisemitism is far from (re)solved in Europe).

Slavery and the liquidation of First Nations (I guess Americans would say 'Indians') in North America are also both unique crimes, and should be regarded as such, not lumped together with other horrible crimes.
posted by My Dad at 1:37 PM on April 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


I agree that these things are important, and unique, My Dad. There can be no competition amongst atrocities like these. But when people call the plantation system "America's Auschwitz," I promise you that they aren't being flippant. They aren't denigrating that tragedy, or indicating that it isn't unique. The fact that we're confronting is that there still exist people who are willing to call a thing an atrocity if it happened far away, among Germans and Jews, but who turn away and suggest that that was just an ordinary part of life when it is suggested that their own fathers and grandfathers committed an atrocity right here in their own country. When we call the plantation system "America's Auschwitz," we are saying: no, we are culpable too. Hideous racial violence and injustice is not something we can brush aside by saying that our grandparents were not like the Germans of 1933. And we as a country have to face down that great tragedy and try to make sense of it.

In fact, when we look at the Shoah and say "Never Again," this is the only thing we can mean: that we'll dedicate ourselves to seeing when little Auschwitzes pop up, when hideous atrocities which we'd like to sweep under the rug occur - and that we'll take note, and remember, and keep fighting evil.
posted by koeselitz at 1:59 PM on April 9, 2016 [24 favorites]


Do you suppose that, in a hundred years, people will tour museums that show how today's workers were psychologically chained to their desks and 'voluntarily' worked 60-80-hour weeks, for salaries that were 1% of what their glorious leaders got?

Nah! Besides, they'll all be busy bailing.
posted by Twang at 2:14 PM on April 9, 2016


I went on this tour last year, after running into an article about it. I was teaching "Slavery in American Literature," and had read recent analyses of slave labor camps and the American antebellum economy, so nothing was surprising to me about the statistics. It was still one of the most genuinely moving experiences of public history I have had. I wanted to ask the lovely woman who was giving the tour about her experiences with people on it. In future semesters, I'd love to get the funding to haul my students there.
posted by LucretiusJones at 2:26 PM on April 9, 2016 [7 favorites]


I am among those who believe likening Auschwitz to slavery is a mistake by misdirection. Auschwitz, which really means the Holocaust, was a massive state organized efford to exterminate an entire people in every nation where they could fall into the hands of the Germans (yes. Germans and not just Nazis); slavery by contrast was, despite its horrors, an economic program in every respect. Slaves were valued and served as money, to be bought and sold. Slaves, like money, were used to breed. Slavery provided jobs for those in the enslaving business, for ship builders, for auctioneers, for jail tending (slaves often kept in jails pending selling), and for paying off debts if money not at hand.
Those surviving the Holocaust lived often full if troubled lives, worked, and passed on what they had experienced to warn against genocide. Those who descended from slavery confronted first the segregation imposed in the South, the broken families created by slavery, and the discrimination that continues today.
The survivors, if Jewish, from the Holocaust, had in 1948 an new nation they could call their, that is Israel; those outliving slavery had no place other than a second-place slot among white society. Our military kept Blacks segregated from whites till 1950. Our schools, our jobs, our politics--all relegated Blacks to a lesser place.
Survivors of the Holocaust are now mostly gone because of age; but the legacy of slavery is very much alive today.
posted by Postroad at 2:37 PM on April 9, 2016 [7 favorites]


Postroad

I see no difference from the Native American experience except that the slavers didn't have to transport the slaves across an ocean. A difference of convenience for the slavers.
posted by shnarg at 3:04 PM on April 9, 2016


"What happened at Auschwitz is unique in human history. And so is slavery in America."

This is actually a huge debate in Holocaust studies and among scholars and survivors and descendants -- whether the Holocaust should be completely held apart as utterly unique, or whether it should be noted as the most prominent example of horrors that DO happen with depressing and alarming frequency (notably the Armenian genocide). You guys in this thread have actually done a really good job highlighting the common arguments on both sides of the issue, and illuminating why it's a hard problem and one that people feel very deeply about and have strong moral arguments in both directions.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:14 PM on April 9, 2016 [19 favorites]


This particular analogy creates more heat than light. By conflating them it obscures the nature of death camps and chattel slavery. There are certainly things they have in common, but it's not an enlightening commonality. Chattel slavery did in fact exist during the Holocaust – many well-regarded European firms openly employed slaves hired from the Reich – but when we refer to Auschwitz we usually mean Auschwitz II/Birkenau, which was nothing more than a death camp designed to kill people as efficiently as possible. There were other divisions of Auschwitz, which was a huge complex of camps, but the death rate at those was also murderous: about a fifth of IG Farben's slaves died every month.

In contrast, I think a comparison between slavery in the Americas and the Germans' slave labor system would be insightful, particularly comparing American slavery with the piecemeal system that was being developed in Austria towards the end of the war. I can't find a good popular account online, but tens of thousands of Jews were dispatched to Austria rather than Auschwitz, mostly to be used as agricultural slaves and clearers of rubble. You can find some links with this Google search.

As to the substance of this FPP, I definitely think the US needs more institutional recognition of its history of slavery. It's already too late for the preservation of a lot of evidence, but that's no excuse to avoid the hard work of creating one or more substantial institutions that would collect, preserve, collate, and present a clear-eyed picture of that shameful period and its consequences.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:50 PM on April 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


Joe in Australia: "There are certainly things they have in common, but it's not an enlightening commonality."

I doubt it's enlightening to you and me - we're relatively educated about the history of both of these events. But it is enlightening to certain woefully large segments of the American public who have been told since they were very small that hideous racist atrocities are a thing that happens far away, never here - and who, I'd guess, have never heard of the conscription of Jewish prisoner-slaves in Austria.

I totally agree that these are not the same kinds of events, that they have their own unique character. I only say that, at least in some limited degree, this utterly futile question - "which is worse, four hundred years of continuous slavery and torture, or the almost total eradication of a people through the murder of six million in a decade?" - can actually be productive, if only to bring people to the necessary conclusion: good god, who the hell knows, there is no way of reckoning such terrible events against each other, so let's just make sure they don't happen again.

But yeah - "America's Auschwitz" is not a phrase that teases out some groundbreaking nuances of history of which historians were previously unaware. I agree with that. Equating events is almost always a bad idea with history anyway. In this case the only purpose it serves is to underline the enormity of both events.
posted by koeselitz at 5:29 PM on April 9, 2016 [8 favorites]


I enjoyed being provoked by the phrase, myself.
posted by Lyme Drop at 7:13 PM on April 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


My personal feeling is that comparisons are odious. The evils of slavery are bad enough to be shocking all on their own. No hierarchy of oppression, and all that. It's really giving the New Orleans mayor's comment much too much weight.

I wish we could be using this space to talk about slavery and the Whitney Plantation's interpretation.
posted by Miko at 7:54 PM on April 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


Probably true. It's an amazing and important thing they're doing at Whitney. I have to say that I found the pictures of their representative art - particularly the clay sculptures of children - incredibly striking. It's hard to imagine someone not taking that seriously, or looking at these children and thinking the human toll was negligible. The maximum impact of the place is impressive and valuable.
posted by koeselitz at 7:58 PM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


I had visited state schools for work and then went to the genocide museum in Cambodia, and the physical layout is identical because it was of course a school building repurposed into a torture prison, but to have that overlaid across the ordinary schools still full of living students was as though all the war suddenly multiplied and spread across everything I saw in a translucent physical layer from the theoretical history and individual narratives of friends and family. I learned very little in the way of facts but I comprehended a lot more of what I had already learned because of the museum.

Physical monuments matter because they tether the past in place. We tend cemeteries and build museums for the living who need to have somewhere to touch and see and stand.

My cynical side wonders how much security the place has.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 8:23 PM on April 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


This is brilliant and so very badly needed.
posted by desuetude at 11:15 PM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


My cynical side wonders how much security the place has.

Most sites like this, especially such well-funded ones, have a pretty sophisticated security plan and have done risk analysis. There are consultancy firms that do this kind of planning. They usually recommend not foregrounding/bragging about how good your security planning is, because that can incite certain weirdos to test you. The people who work in them are also aware that their sites can become targets of hate and violence. The very best of them conduct training on this - not only safety drills, but also how to handle the stress of doing this work while remaining psychologically safe, and communications training on defusing tense situations, etc. Not all sites, of course, have such resources. The group International Sites of Conscience is really well known for its dialogue training.
posted by Miko at 5:39 AM on April 10, 2016 [10 favorites]


I used to work in the administrative side of a museum, and my experience is that it's really tough to get good insurance if you don't also have excellent security.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:53 AM on April 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


"...we could be using this space to talk about slavery and the Whitney Plantation's interpretation."

Agreed. I'm glad I deleted my disappointment at using a death camp phrase just to what, provoke conversation?

The Ships used are of note for the transportation/ dehumanizing process. (Linking seems broken or dodgy on this end for cites)

First off, Auschwitz was in occupied territory. The slave trade was practiced for economic reasons, the mass killing of various groups was economic, political, and religious in nature and conducted in "secrecy" which served as a deterrent to those who question in general. The slave trade was conducted in the open for the most. One is a state run enterprise the other private with state help.

Now, using law to supress people and take rights could be a good comparitive discussion.
posted by clavdivs at 8:12 AM on April 10, 2016


"Who lives, who dies, who tells your story", indeed.
posted by jokeefe at 1:15 PM on April 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


It has been really striking to me in the last few years to see a shift in perspective in public representations of slavery.

I grew up in Virginia and went to all the standard monumental sites there - Mount Vernon, Monticello, etc. In those sites they did have some discussion of slavery on the educational tours, but it tended to be "this was a slave cabin, conditions were incredibly terrible, slavery was really horrible, now moving on"... not exactly sugarcoating, but just sort of compartmentalizing, so they could still deliver the other educational stuff (let's look at Jefferson's library and how the family in the big house used the bathroom).

I think the Holocaust comparison is useful mainly in the limited sense that it shows in sharp relief what's offensive about that kind of "moving right along" approach to slavery sites. Similar to the uncomfortable sexual explicitness of the sugar sphynx statue installation from last year - it is really arresting and forces one, if one thinks it's an inapt way of presenting the material, to grapple with some difficult questions about why, and whether one is maybe conveniently underestimating the gravity of what was really done. (I'm not saying anyone here is doing that - I'm saying the comparison is useful to me in my own thinking about these topics, and how to present them and how to frame the public conversation about this part of US history.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:12 PM on April 10, 2016 [5 favorites]


On Friday, in my senior English class, I taught the last link (the NYT Magazine bit) alongside Cummins's own Op-Ed from the WaPo about why he transformed the Whitney as he did & the following Gawker piece about a state senator trying to take an AP lit teacher, & Toni Morrison's book Beloved, to task for being "moral sewage" & "vile." The takeaway from the discussion, which is by no means over, was that Cummins is doing something wonderfully disruptive & educational, which could counter the sort of close-mindedness of the state senator mentioned in the Gawker piece. His museum, like Morrison's text, tries to offer the maximum amount of sensory human detail so as to render indelible & unforgettable the personal -- in every massive sense of the word -- cost & lost of American slavery. As well as the "hangover" from it. A student just tonight shared a link to a Texas Tech student newspaper blog in which "Person on the Street!"-type quick Q&As had COLLEGE students FAILING to identify WHO WON THE CIVIL WAR. That's a side issue. In short, I give Cummins all kinds of kudos & credit. Morrison too. We have to maximize the issue, still & always & forever.
posted by foodbedgospel at 5:49 PM on April 10, 2016 [3 favorites]




There's some sort of Confederate museum in New Orleans, near the D-Day museum. I kinda want to go, because I like museums, but ... I guess I don't want to give them money, I don't want to implicitly approve of it, I don't want other people to see it as something people go to. Maybe I'm making too much of this, I don't know. So I've never been.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:35 PM on April 11, 2016


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