Imagining Plantations: Slavery, Dominant Narratives, and the Foreign Born

Article excerpt

This article examines the responses of over 1000 tourists to an exit survey at Laura Plantation, a tourist museum site located outside of New Orleans, Louisiana. Using Critical Race Theory, we evaluate visitor interest in slavery at the plantation compared to other, more dominant narratives commonly associated with promoting plantation history throughout the U.S. South. By separating the respondents on the basis of race and country of origin, we examined the relative importance of different narratives between these various socio-demographic groups. Findings from some white visitors were not surprising; they outranked other visitors groups in their interest in dominant narratives other than slaves. However, the responses from sub-groups of black and foreign born visitors were surprising in that the foreign born group was most interested in slavery at the plantation, even over that of some blacks.

KEY WORDS: plantation, tourism, slavery, Critical Race Theory, the South

INTRODUCTION

Butler (2001) completed a textual analysis of brochures and associated marketing materials from tourist plantations throughout the United States. His analysis found that plantation museums promoted several key, dominant narratives to visitors. Plantations frequently mentioned the architecture of the "Big House," furniture, and the role of the original owners of the site in local politics. Unmentioned in the majority of plantation marketing narratives were the historical contributions and struggles of the enslaved. From a marketing (supply) side, the owners and operators offered a view of the plantation that they believe would attract tourists. It is a view that carries a "whitewashing" of the history of slavery and the enslaved at the sites. Butler (2001, pg 174) concluded his article with the following statement:

   Even though this preliminary study
   demonstrates the extent to which
   many plantations eradicated the history
   of slavery from their own worldview,
   it fails to answer many questions
   regarding the tourist. For example,
   who actually visits these plantations,
   where are they from and what are
   their demographic profiles? Do these
   tourists bring with them pre-conceived
   notions of slavery at plantations?

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As a memorial landscape and museum space, tourist plantations play a central role in directing how the public values, interacts with, debates, and experiences the past (Alderman 2003). There is perhaps no better place to study how the public, in the form of tourists, interacts with (or fails to interact with) the memory of slavery than historic plantations, sites built upon the labor and sweat of the enslaved.

Picking up where Butler (2001) left off, we seek to identify the typical visitor to tourist plantations and his/her relative desire to learn about aspects of slavery. Our study is unique in that, to date, no other research has directly surveyed perceptions of slavery held by visitors to historic plantation sites. The site for the research was The Laura Creole Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana, located outside of New Orleans, Louisiana (hereafter Laura Plantation) (Figure 1).

LITERATURE REVIEW

This research draws its theoretical influences from Critical Race Theory (CRT), in particular the tenet that focuses on the role of narratives in the social construction of race and how whiteness and white-centric views become the norm in society through the storytelling process. Moreover, CRT has more of an activist tendency than other theoretical perspectives, drawing on narratives to better understand and critique how Americans see race and suggesting that storytelling is important to challenging racist views (Delgado and Stefancic 2001). As Delgado and Stefancic (2001, pg 43) articulate, "Stories can name a type of discrimination; once named, it can be combated. If race is not real or objective, but constructed, racism and prejudice should be capable of deconstruction. …