Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery

By John Michael Vlach | Go to book overview
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The Plantation Landscape

Beyond the white master's residence, back of and beyond the Big House, was a world of work dominated by black people. The inhabitants of this world knew it intimately, and they gave to it, by thought and deed, their own definition of place. Slaveowners set up the contexts of servitude, but they did not control those contexts absolutely. There were many chinks in the armor of the "peculiar institution." Taking advantage of numerous opportunities to assert counterclaims over the spaces and buildings to which they were confined, slaves found that they could blunt some of the harsh edges of slavery's brutality. The creation of Slave landscapes was one of the strategies employed by blacks to make slavery survivable. It is now widely accepted that blacks and whites both played important roles in shaping everyday life in the South. Many expressions of southern folklore--tales, proverbs, sayings, dance steps, tunes, recipes, beliefs, quilt patterns, house types, and the like--are known equally well by both races. Consequently, we can expect to accurately understand southern plantation landscapes only if the contributions of slaves are acknowledged and included. To study these places without including the slaves' perspectives would not only be inadequate, it would be futile.

The creation of a slaves' landscape was a reactive expression, a response to the plans enacted by white landowners. To mark their dominance over both nature and other men, planters acquired acreage, set out the boundaries of their holdings, had their fields cleared, selected building sites, and supervised the construction of dwellings and other structures. The design of a plantation estate was an expression of the owner's tastes, values, and attitudes. To appreciate what slaves eventually did with the realms fashioned by planters and to more fully understand the choices available to

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