Melancholia to Mourning: Commemorative Representations of Slave Dwellings at South Louisiana Historical Plantations

Article excerpt

Introduction

In honor of Labor Day 2002, Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Blanco made an announcement that was carried by local media throughout the state publicizing the ongoing archeological research at the slave quarters site at Rosedown State Historic Site, a one-time antebellum cotton plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana. Lt. Governor Blanco's announcement was her way of recognizing the labor of historical enslaved African Americans that helped found and build Louisiana's economy, marking a renewed place for historical enslaved African Americans. The Lt. Governor's announcement was an indication that Louisiana recognizes African American history as central to the state's identity and central to the history of Louisiana's plantation heritage. In this study, I will show how this proclamation is an indication of a significant postmodern transition unfolding in south Louisiana.

A remarkable pattern of slave life representation has emerged in south Louisiana. As of this writing, I have counted 25 historical sites that interpret slave life, 13 of which exhibit slave dwellings. Most of these opened with interpreted tours for visitors after 1990. (1) The significance of the relatively recent appearance of historical slave life interpretation in south Louisiana is more than a trend led by the region's tourism industry. Silenced African American slavery history is re-surfacing, along with the unearthed slave dwelling artifacts at Rosedown and the emerging slave cabin exhibits, bringing to light more stories about who we presently are as Louisianans and Americans.

In this paper, I analyze four south Louisiana historical sites and show how the appearances of the slave life exhibits at these sites are symptomatic of the region's changing identity from an exclusive melancholic European American identity to a mournful racially integrated regional identity. Slave cabin exhibits are indicative of white grief working through mourning the losses of economic and social control. The appearance of slave life exhibits at European American history museums in south Louisiana suggests that these 21st century museum workers are part of that generation able to begin letting go of their ancestors' losses and move into a mournful process of reckoning.

My research spanned from 1999 to 2003. I have been a visitor, worker, and researcher at four historical plantations in the Baton Rouge metropolitan area that have added slave dwelling structures to their landscapes. My methods included giving tours to visitors; going on tours as a visitor; walking independently among the slave dwellings; reading the tour training manuals from these sites; and interviewing the directors and docents to discuss their thoughts about slavery representation at their respective museums. (2)

Methodologically ethnographic, my field work revealed present day grieving patterns within slave life representations. These signs of grief were evident in museum workers' conversations and tour narratives that oscillated between lofty testimonies to white patriarchal plantation achievement and reverent commemorations to enslaved African Americans. I used a psychoanalytic framework, in the spirit of Britzman (1998), Eppert (2000), and Morris (2001), to analyze my field work data to identify representations of melancholia and mourning in south Louisiana.

The next section briefly examines two preconditions for the relatively recent appearance of slave dwelling exhibits: the rise of social history in American academia and the increase of historical site museums and African American history museums in the nation. The third section describes the four publicly owned historical plantations used in this study: Magnolia Mound Plantation (MMP), LSU Rural Life Museum (Rural Life), Oakley Plantation at Audubon State Historic Site (Oakley), and West Baton Rouge Museum (WBR Museum). The fourth section, Inaugurating Mourning, analyzes how the slave dwelling exhibits at the four sites represent a major paradigm shift that works to signify an emerging racially-integrated regional identity. …