A few monuments to the Confederacy had already come down when I got in my car in New Orleans on a chilly, damp morning in November 2018. A year earlier, mayor Mitch Landrieu had declared “no more waiting,” and the statue in Lee Circle, one of the last to be removed in New Orleans, was taken off its pedestal and trucked to an undisclosed location. 1 Now, at 3:30 pm, roughly 80 miles up the Mississippi River, I was about to start my second plantation museum tour of the day, standing with four White women from Ohio on the downriver side of what was then known as Houmas House Plantation and Gardens. (The word “Plantation” has since been changed to “Estate.”) Our guide, wearing a hoop skirt and carrying a folding fan, walked toward us between the fountains. A thicket of trees obscured our view of the neighboring Burnside alumina refinery, which I would pass that evening on my way back down River Road, its exhaust stacks seemingly suspended in the orange glow of low-pressure sodium lights reflecting off bauxite-coated surfaces and refracting through a mist that flowed over 20-foot levees holding back the Mississippi.
Our guide, wearing a hoop skirt and carrying a fan, walked toward us between the fountains. Trees obscured our view of the neighboring refinery.
A month later, I approached another museum in the valley, this time well north of New Orleans, near the Louisiana-Mississippi line. Modest Christmas decorations hung from the columns at the entrance, and, in the gift shop, a coffee mug caught my eye: “Angola: A Gated Community.” These nine-dollar souvenirs are sold just outside the Louisiana State Penitentiary, established in 1901 on the composite lands of multiple former plantations and nicknamed for one of them — which, in turn, had been named for a place where Africans were kidnapped. The mug does not depict the security booth in a barbed-wire-topped chain-link fence that actually guards the prison entrance, but rather an imaginary set of decoratively curved gates.
Across the Mississippi from Angola stands the Old River Control Structure, or ORCS. Built in the mid-20th century, the ORCS is a key technology in a federally coordinated flood-protection system that dates back to the end of Reconstruction. The Mississippi River Commission, or MRC, was established in 1879 as an agglomeration of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with other governmental and private representatives. 2 Prior to this, flood management had relied on the disaggregated efforts of (sometime warring) landowners and state and local governments. The MRC unified administration of the levees. And it did so just as Reconstruction — which, when backed with federal force, had held out a promise of multiracial democracy — was ending in a reunion of North and South that prioritized White reconciliation over reparations for slavery. 3 In the flood-control system of the Jim Crow era that followed (the system to which ORCS belongs), White reconciliation found an infrastructural analogue. Levees that had been built by people enslaved on antebellum plantations like Houmas House were expanded by people incarcerated at postbellum prisons like Angola, whose labor was offered against their will by the state of Louisiana, for lease by private contractors, federal bodies, and the state itself. 4
Across the Mississippi from Angola stands the Old River Control Structure, part of a flood-protection system that dates back to Reconstruction.
In 1927, floods devastated the Mississippi River Valley. Angola LSP was inundated. Yet the levees did protect one segment of the valley, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. This stretch was a patchwork of sugar-cane fields, hamlets populated by sharecroppers and wage laborers, and oil refineries that had sprung up on former plantation lands. Such facilities, including plants processing other extracted resources like the bauxite at Burnside, continued to proliferate through the next decades, and by the time the ORCS came online in the 1960s, Plantation Alley had transformed into a chemical corridor. 5 Indeed, the ORCS aimed not only to control high waters; the Army Corps of Engineers also sought to avoid low waters so that the industrial machine of the Lower Mississippi could grind on uninterrupted. Today, more than 200 plants processing petroleum, bauxite, phosphorous, and other chemicals operate along the Baton Rouge-New Orleans corridor, emitting toxins at levels that require governmental reporting; some of the highest rates of cancer risk and the most polluted air in the United States course through communities here. 6 The area is now known as Cancer Alley.
Yet despite its heavily industrialized character, this same length of the Mississippi is home to a number of plantation museums, which began to be established at refurbished plantation sites as early as the 1940s. 7 Into the agricultural, carceral, and industrial assemblage of the valley, these museums with their gracious verandahs and ancient oak trees infuse a cultural paramnesia, disguising distortion and denial not only as entertainment, but as historical truth.
Back on the lawn at Houmas House, our guide recounted to the Ohioans a recent visit to their home state, during which she had been a passenger in a traffic stop. They laughed as she described how the officer declined to give her sweet mom a speeding ticket. She then rang a large cast-iron bell, a tool for the time management of enslaved labor now used to announce the beginning of the tour, and we proceeded to the big house porch via a retrofitted ramp that brought the antebellum structure into compliance with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. 8 The faux-marble finish on the exterior plaster walls, our guide explained, looked real to 19th-century steamboat passengers on the Mississippi, itself no longer visible behind levees whose expansion had destroyed most of the original oak-lined allée in the aftermath of the 1927 flood. 9 We moved into the entrance hall, and the Ohioans discovered I had traveled from Michigan. The inevitable talk about college football began. Our guide complained that Alabama was just too good. It’s because they make illegal payouts, one Ohioan remarked.
In other words, just a few minutes in, we’d had talk of a traffic stop as humorous rather than potentially deadly, and of compensation for college athletes as unfair, while a would-be plantation mistress welcomed us to an interior that is undoubtedly a thing of historic preservationists’ nightmares. Past and present kept unnervingly colliding as we meandered through the house, hearing about the halcyon days of the 1850s; and the Bette Davis room (Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte was filmed at Houmas House in 1964); and the current owner’s dogs’ wedding, which marked the site’s reopening after renovations in 2003. 10 We viewed belongings meant to approximate those of the slaveholding elite, on display alongside those of the mansion’s current owner-occupant.
Agrarian visions of the Old South abound at these sites, but oil refineries and prisons do not in fact represent breaks with the antebellum plantation system.
As a historian of the built environment in the long 19th century, I’ve been doing archival research in New Orleans for several years. Visits to preserved plantations like Houmas House and former plantations like Angola LSP help me to consider how the built past is interpreted for public understanding. While agrarian visions of the Old South abound at these sites, oil refineries and prisons do not represent breaks with the antebellum plantation system. Indeed, as Jeremy Zallen has noted, the Confederacy in the 1860s was not far from becoming a slave society capable of large-scale carbon extraction. 11 A centralized and industrializing military state, surviving well past the mid-19th century, enjoying access to practically limitless coal and oil and poised to combine expropriative racial capitalism with fossil capital, was a real and terrifying possibility. The threat of an industrial slave state was averted — but the United States developed other means for exploiting racism in the production and reproduction of inequity. As W.E. B. Du Bois explains in his monumental study Black Reconstruction in America (1935), in the decades that followed the Civil War, a new industrial feudalism engineered and built, quite literally, a “dictatorship of capital.” 12
Visitors do not learn this history at museums along the refurbished Plantation Alley, many of which remain steeped in a White-supremacist nostalgia of the moonlight-and-magnolias variety. A few plantation museums have reoriented their scripts to more accurately portray the realities of chattel slavery; even in these reformist narratives, however, an historical short circuit skips from the antebellum South to the post-Civil Rights era. Reconstruction and Jim Crow are hidden in the gap.
In these ostensibly beautiful places, Whiteness reproduces itself by reifying history; it persists precisely by pretending it does not.
Yet, as Ta-Nehisi Coates argued in 2014, any project of reparations — that is, material and ideological reckoning with the long legacy of racist expropriation and exploitation in the U.S. — must reckon with connections between the antebellum past and the nation’s enduring inequities. 13 The Lost Cause fantasies on offer at plantation sites are obviously a minor element in these massive issues. Furthermore, while narratives still promulgated at these leisure attractions are disturbing, they are not surprising. The inscription of White supremacy into material culture and political economy will not be rewritten by giving up romanticized plantation scenes. Nonetheless, as the theorist of racial capitalism Cedric Robinson would say, “the first attack is an attack on culture.” In working for the transformation of society, one must first refuse the terms of a culture premised on “violence, domination, and exploitation.” 14
Following Robinson, this essay mounts an “attack” on one element of Lost Cause culture that persists even in attempts toward reform at plantation museums: the historical short-circuit. In these ostensibly beautiful places, Whiteness reproduces itself by reifying its history as something closed and distant. Whiteness persists by pretending it does not persist. As Sara Ahmed observes, Whiteness is “a category of experience that disappears as a category through experience.” 15 In this erasure, Whiteness also obscures the material continuities of racial capitalism — from the fields where sugarcane or cotton were grown, to the levees, the prison, the refinery, and the tourist site — because Whiteness is itself grounded in material conditions, “inherited through the very placement of things.” 16 The plantation museum is a small part of this “placement,” but a revealing one.
What I felt at Houmas House is certainly not unique. Over the last two decades, numerous studies of Southern plantation museums have been published by historians, sociologists, geographers, and journalists. 17 The phenomenon of White couples holding plantation weddings has been rightfully denounced, as have online reviews by White tourists that complain about even mild attempts at truth-telling at these institutions. 18 Tiya Miles, in the Boston Globe, recently considered the particularly unnerving paradox of a plantation museum in Virginia that last summer posted a “Black Lives Matter” banner on its website. 19
In 1782, the French-American John Hector St. John de Crèvecour described with disgust the gentleman slaveholders of Charleston, South Carolina: “their ears by habit are become deaf, their hearts are hardened: they neither see, hear nor feel for the woes of their poor slaves, from whose painful labours all their wealth proceeds.” 20 Crèvecour understood the literal desensitization that enabled enslavers to ignore the facts of how their livelihoods were earned; as Marx would explain more than half a century later, “capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” 21 Unsurprisingly, Crèvecour’s rejection of plantation oligarchy stopped short of a critique of Whiteness. He was not unique in this, of course; as Édouard Glissant observes in his study Faulkner, Mississippi (1996), for modernist Southern writers, anxieties about White consciousness impinge as a kind of vertigo. 22 Arlie Russell Hochschild’s recent Strangers in their Own Land (2016) astutely explores the intersection of populism, anti-regulatory politics, and racism in the contemporary Lower Mississippi River Valley. But even Hochschild seems hesitant to name the power of Whiteness in the right-wing politics of the Cancer Alley region, preferring instead to see her subjects as guided by “disaggregated . . . freestanding small narratives” rather than a coherent if self-dissembling racecraft. 23 As Ahmed reminds us, Whiteness exists in its avoidance of seeing itself as Whiteness.
These histories purport to distinguish explicitly racialized slavery from supposedly race-neutral capitalism.
Du Bois famously describes Whiteness as a “public and psychological wage,” and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, in her account of lynch law titled Southern Horrors (1892), explains how anti-Black violence has created a totalizing “disregard of human life” in a Whiteness unable to comprehend its own brutality. 24 James Baldwin warns in The Fire Next Time (1963) that when White people are forced to see ourselves as who we are, the backlash can be vicious. 25 Much important work has gone into understanding the very real, material wages garnered by Whiteness. What Du Bois analyzes, however, is not just economic difference between poor Whites and Blacks in the post-Civil War South, but also difference in the cultural acknowledgement of human worth afforded to these populations. While some recent books have focused on the psychological effects of Whiteness (its self-maintenance through “fragility” for example), Du Bois describes the publicness of this wage, its institutional and historical force. Today, in the post-Jim Crow South as in the rest of the nation, part of the power of Whiteness lies in its reliance on histories that purport to distinguish explicitly racialized slavery from the ongoing functions of supposedly race-neutral capitalism in order to retroject into the story of U.S. industrialization a fictional colorblindness. Whiteness in the neoliberal present conceals its material and institutional reproduction through this historical differentiation. And where the specter of racial capitalism haunts, the phantasmagoria of the plantation museum plays its part.
In addition to considering the wages of Whiteness, contemporary historians have emphasized the extensive and intensive ways in which Black and White spaces intersected on the antebellum plantation. 26 These studies show how physical design worked to dissemble — and continues to dissemble — the basic fact of inescapable proximities. Historically, the axial approach to the big house was created for fellow planters, as well as for White people of lower classes. The front of the house was an architectural and landscaped machine for projecting status to those possessed of presumed racial (if not economic) equality. Behind the house lay the more explicit areas of enslavement — a factory town/concentration camp operating through the violent expropriation of land and labor. The genteel front and barbaric back overlapped inside and beyond the house, and within and beyond the plantation’s bounds.
The present-day approach to plantation museums on the Lower Mississippi River is almost universally from the side. Practically, this adjusted orientation results from the placement of parking lots and the configurations of revenue management along River Road. The frontal axis — the best spot from which to take the quintessential photo — is visible as the car or bus passes by, although full access is usually controlled by an entrance fee. Aesthetically and ideologically, the sideways approach reorients history through strategic placement of features like the gift shop. The winding, oblique advance from the entrance picturesquely obscures and reveals the mansion, a set piece to be experienced as something between an authentic historical site and a folly in unexploited nature. The tourist’s meander from parking lot to porch reinterprets the rigid-yet-porous front-back division between genteel manse and concentration camp into a leisurely stroll. At several Louisiana estates, the area back of the house has been revamped with richly landscaped gardens, where sugar-boiling kettles — apparatus for the physically demanding task of converting cane to raw sugar — have been repurposed as waterlily and goldfish ponds. Originally, in these houses, comfort was sustained in the humid summers of the Gulf Coastal Plain by means of deep overhanging roofs and punkah fans powered by enslaved labor. The modern mansion is almost always electrified and air-conditioned, a climate-controlled retreat for tour groups. 27
Describing White lifeways, our guide said ‘we.’ The few times when she mentioned enslaved people, she said ‘they’ — as in ‘they worked hard.’
The sidelong stroll into the grounds and the experience of moving through the big house thus establish for the visitor a particular comportment, which is that of neither the enslaver nor the enslaved. The contemporary White tourist is invited into a subjectivity that can imagine itself as adjacent to, yet apart from, the place’s original owners. Enslavers were millionaires — not like us middle-class day-trippers who can shake our heads at the unsavory past while imagining what it might be like to be rich on such a scale. 28 At the same time, tours tend to be dominated by hagiographic descriptions of planters and their families. Their portraits hang on the walls; their furniture fills the rooms; their genealogies are recounted. At Destrehan Plantation as at Houmas House, the guides — mostly White women — still wear period costume; Oak Alley abandoned the practice only in 2018. The clothes allow the guide’s body to oscillate between the fee-paying present and a mythical past. Speech can create the same slippage; when describing White lifeways in the big house, my guide at Houmas House said “we,” and when the tour entered the men’s parlor, she singled me out for inclusion in historical exploits — “you, sir, would have retired to this room to smoke and drink whiskey.” Unsurprisingly, the few times when she mentioned enslaved people, she said “they,” as in “they worked hard.” 29
This transhistorical White identity-making at Houmas worked for the guide and her sympathetic listeners from Ohio as they engaged in some light, pleasurable time-travel. It also worked for me, acting as a critical Crèvecourian avatar. The antebellum past was presented to us as a world apart, interpretation of which could intrigue or repulse. In either mood — untroubled enjoyment or righteous indignation — attention was deflected from continuities in extractive racial capitalism that afford Whiteness its long history of profit.
Most of the sites along Plantation Alley became public-facing parts of the culture industry only in the last few decades, though institutional grounds were laid over the proceeding century as individual owners, oil companies, and groups like garden clubs and historical societies took over private houses. Lost Cause apologetics stretch back, of course, to the Civil War. But the oblique approach to the plantation house was advanced as an aesthetic in the Jim Crow era. 30 Take, for instance, the photographs of Walter Tebbs in the 1920s and Frances Benjamin Johnston from the 1930s, or the drawings of William P. Spratling in Old Plantation Houses of Old Louisiana (1927) or J. Frazier Smith in White Pillars (1941). In these and many other publications of the interwar period, the sidelong view is primary. Blending into the natural surrounds, with its decay embedding it all the more deeply into the southern climate, the big house appears not as the citadel of chattel slavery but as a leisure landscape, naturalized and almost timeless.
This 20th-century architectural aesthetic belonged to a much broader cultural project in which the Old South was reimagined as refined but antimodern — not only by White Southerners but also by Northern and Midwestern White tourists seeking the comfort and preindustrial authenticity of this legible yet “foreign” place. 31 In addition to the touchstone example of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, published in 1936 and turned into a blockbuster film in 1939, Old South representations proliferated in popular media and advertisements. In 1941, a short educational film titled Life in Old Louisiana (1830-1850) used Oak Alley for its plantation scenes; under the guidance of James J. A. Fortier, who three years earlier had published Carpet-Bag Misrule in Louisiana: The Tragedy of the Reconstruction Era following the War Between the States (1938), the film foregrounded White gentility and naturalized Black subservience. Fortier’s book carries a second, laudatory subtitle: Louisiana’s Part in Maintaining White Supremacy in the South. 32
In photographs from the interwar period, the big houses appear not as citadels of chattel slavery but as landscapes of leisure, refined yet antimodern.
In analyses of plantation spatiality over the last decades, historians have sought to upset this discourse by centering the agency and embodiment of enslaved people. 33 Even so, in 21st-century plantation museums, these figures remain, by design, only fleetingly visible. The owner-occupant of Houmas House, Kevin Kelly, is the most outspoken of the current owners; he responds personally and prolifically to reviews that point out such elisions on Tripadvisor.com, and in so doing relies on a few recurring tropes. First, Kelly says, the most basic physical evidence of slavery at Houmas — the cabins — were destroyed before he purchased the property, so there is no way to tell the story. 34 This excuse depends on the imagined segregation of White and Black spaces, as if the big house and its lands existed independent of the people whose labor created and maintained the wealth on display. Responses like Kelly’s also betray a particular view regarding what can be recovered architecturally or experientially. The demolished cabins cannot be reconstructed, apparently; yet the interior of the recently completed Great River Road Museum next door to Houmas House was designed to “feel like the grand ballroom of a steamboat.” 35 Moreover, in 2018, Kelly proposed to spend a million dollars to move the statues of Robert E. Lee and two other Confederates, banished from New Orleans, to Houmas House, although the city did not take him up. 36
A second defense mounted by Kelly is that the history of slavery is simply not the one they choose to tell at Houmas. My guide several times referred to the enslaved as “servants” — a euphemism that is obviously chosen carefully. Kelly suggests that reviewers who want to hear about slavery visit other plantations, like Whitney or Laura; when talking about his Great River Road Museum, he meets the pressure to acknowledge slavery by deferring: “the subject will be part of an exhibit the museum plans in the future.” 37
Kelly attracts attention, but such equivocation is commonplace in the plantation-tourist industry. Further upriver, Nottoway Plantation and Resort is owned by the Paul Ramsey Group, part of the corporate empire of a recently deceased Australian billionaire. At Nottoway, one can enjoy fine dining, wine tastings, murder-mystery dinner theater, an outdoor pool, tennis courts, and a salon and spa; accommodations promise “enchanting luxury” in the mansion as well as in the surrounding cottages, whose exteriors closely resemble those of typical slave quarters. Houmas House, Oak Alley, Nottoway, and Destrehan all continue to host weddings.
At other plantation museums along the Lower Mississippi, interest in issues of social justice on the part of younger visitors has begun to exert influence. At Laura Plantation, the standard tour now includes slave quarters, which were previously seen only on separate self-guided tours. Oak Alley now pursues a dispersed approach, rather than presenting a single narrative. The big-house tour has been dramatically shortened and rescripted, in order to make time for (self-guided) visits to reconstructed slave cabins — which are installed with an extensive exhibit about those enslaved there — and to other parts of the site, where interpreters are stationed. 38
Most notable is Whitney Plantation, whose homepage states that it “is the only museum in Louisiana with an exclusive focus on the lives of enslaved people.” Here, a wholly different interpretive plan has been designed. 39 This tour begins in an African-American church, Antioch Baptist, which was built by freed people in 1870 and relocated to its present site in 1999, having been donated to the museum by its congregation when they erected a new building. 40 Visitors then proceed to two monuments to the enslaved, and arrive at the big house from the back, after moving past retaining ponds that imitate sugarcane-field drainage and hint at the swampy conditions that bordered the carefully kept antebellum grounds — swamps into which escaping enslaved people often fled. Along the way, tours pass slave quarters, a late 19th-century mobile iron jail, and the freestanding plantation kitchen. Perhaps not coincidently, Whitney’s executive director Ashley Rogers explained to me that audiences at Whitney are more diverse than is typical at plantation museums. Nevertheless, while White visitors are not in the majority here, they do represent the largest single demographic. 41
An inconspicuous fence divides the reconstructed slave quarters from the restaurant, bed-and-breakfast, gift shop, and bar.
Another problem of representation at plantation sites concerns the fact that those once held in bondage can still seem abstract in tours that include them, figured as they often are in precisely the terms intended by 19th-century paternalism — that is, through anecdotes of faithful house slaves, benevolent masters, and cases of manumission in which a freed person remained with the planter’s family. At Laura Plantation, such stories are passed along through references to a 1936 memoir by Laura Lacoul Gore, the museum’s namesake, which was published in 2000 and is available in the gift shop. (Originally the Duparc Sugar Plantation, this site was renamed in the early 2000s as part of a branding campaign.) 42 Such tensions are particularly acute at Oak Alley, where they still sell mint juleps on the big-house porch. Oak Alley’s dot-org website is the domain of the Oak Alley Foundation and presents the museum as an historic site. But the dot-com website — which appears first in Google search results — is the domain of a private LLC that touts a “tranquil retreat in the heart of plantation country” where visitors can expect brunch and daily chef’s specials at a restaurant a short walk from the mansion. These two websites track a real property division between financially distinct enterprises, mapped along an inconspicuous fence that divides the reconstructed slave quarters from the restaurant, bed-and-breakfast, gift shop, and bar.
Even at Whitney, White visitors may implicitly — or explicitly — expect Black tour guides to perform a Black identity specifically in relationship to Whiteness. Rogers told me that Black guides consistently get better tips than their White counterparts; once in a while, apparently, they also get hugs and apologies for slavery. Perhaps, suggested director of research Ibrahima Seck, for White visitors this is an attempt at some personal practice of reparation. 43 But while hugs and apologies are the exception, not the rule, such gestures make visible an understanding of reparations not as structural social and economic transformation, but as a means toward personal absolution for sins of the racialized past.
Plantation museums absolutely should create more interpretive space for antebellum Black life. But, as the cultural geographer Katherine McKittrick notes, simply introducing Black realities into established White narratives tends to reinforce a formulation of Blackness as itself a locus of discomfort and disorientation, “as a discreet (and hostile) racial category that routinely ‘troubles’ an already settled whiteness.” 44 Karen and Barbara Fields describe such sleights of hand as a substitution of “race” for “racism”; race and racialization are converted into qualities inherent in the racialized other, rather than understood to be the products of racist acts. 45 This is why a Robinsonian “attack on culture” — including the culture of the plantation museum — is important. Insisting on racial capitalism as fundamental to the continuing histories of Whiteness in the Lower Mississippi Valley returns us, likewise, to consideration of the carceral state and the extractive industrial economy.
At Angola, which occupies the composite lands of several former plantations, a mansion and a section of slave quarters stood well into the 20th century.
Angola LSP is little over a hundred miles upriver from the museum corridor, occupying an 18,000-acre site where one of the original mansions and a section of slave quarters stood well into the 20th century. In its early years, these buildings were used by the penitentiary. 46 Currently more than 5,000 people are incarcerated at Angola, the majority of whom are Black and serving life sentences. 47 In its conversion, first, from a plantation worked by enslaved people to a private farm worked by incarcerated people leased as laborers, and then to a contemporary prison where some inmates still perform agricultural tasks, the LSP has always sought economic gain, although the prison has reframed this as an imperative for institutional self-sufficiency.
It is not uncommon to hear critics describe labor conditions at penitentiaries like Angola as modern-day slavery; indeed, the similarity has been pointed out by imprisoned people themselves. 48 Tour guides at Whitney draw connections between slavery and mass incarceration. 49 But I want to stress that, at Angola, the comparison is deliberate on the part of the administration itself. 50 In The Farm: Life Inside Angola Prison, a 1998 documentary about the facility, we see Burl Cain, who served as warden from 1995 to 2016, driving a dirt road between prison fields. “It’s like a big plantation in days gone by,” Cain says. “We hate to call it that, in a way, but it kinda is.” Indeed, the controlled public access now allowed at Angola — which began with production of The Farm and continues today with tours, rodeos, a public golf course, a museum, and the gift shop — is calculated to perpetuate this vision of a benevolently paternalistic Old South. “It’s essentially still like a plantation,” a guard-slash-tour guide is quoted as saying in a recent report about the prison. He says this while describing a pay scale for inmates that begins at two cents an hour. 51
In 2014, Warden Cain restarted sugar production at Angola, using an antiquated mule-powered mill and cane grown on a single acre of the property, to produce artisanal cane syrup for sale in the gift shop alongside the “gated community” mugs. “It’s about history,” Cain told a reporter. “It’s about seeing our past.” 52 Directing incarcerated workers to produce syrup using antebellum methods mirrors in a demonic fashion the hiring of a White woman to wear a petticoat and carry a fan while conducting tourists around a plantation house.
When French colonists seized indigenous territories along the Mississippi River in the 18th century, they instituted an arpent system of property distribution to maximize the number of parcels with riparian access. These long, narrow slices of land connected to the river and fanned out from the natural levee into lower-lying swamps — conditions that, in the 20th century, provided ideal conditions for chemical refineries that require river access for shipping, water supply, and waste discharge. Standing on the lawn at Houmas House, one gazes downriver at a stand of trees; just beyond them is one of these plants and its deepwater port. Built in the late 1950s by the Ormet corporation, the Burnside refinery was bought and sold several times before shutting down in August 2020. The plant extracted alumina powder from bauxite mined in South America, Australia, and Africa, then shipped the refined material to smelters upriver and beyond. One of the many byproducts of this transnational supply chain was a toxic red mud, and at Burnside this “minutely radioactive” heavy-metal waste is still stored in massive open retaining ponds. State regulators warn that “nothing green will ever grow in the red mud in Burnside.” 53
The oaks have been replaced with chain link fences, signifiers of a putative industrial containment.
Chemical plants on the river process various materials, but along the stretch where Cancer Alley coincides with Plantation Alley, one is surrounded by oil. 54 Whitney Plantation was purchased by the museum’s founder, John Cummings, from Formosa Plastics in 1999, when the company’s plans to construct yet another chemical plant were successfully opposed by environmentalists and preservationists. 55 San Francisco Plantation is still owned by Marathon Oil Company, whose storage tanks flank the site on three sides, while leaving the river-facing view intact. 56 Destrehan, closer to New Orleans, was for a time at the turn of the last century the site of the Mexican Petroleum Refinery, or Mexpet (a subsidiary of Amoco), constructed in 1914 as one of the first oil refineries along this portion of the river. 57 The big house at Destrehan served, at first, as the residence for the refinery’s superintendent. 58 After the refinery was torn down in 1958, the house was donated by Amoco to the River Road Historical Society; a plaque commemorates the gift.
Other refineries on River Road, like Mosaic’s Uncle Sam fertilizer plant, retain the names of plantations that once occupied their sites, and are sometimes marked, as Destrehan is, by an historical plaque. 59 But the oaks have been replaced with chain link fences, signifiers of a putative industrial containment that dissemble the air- and water-borne pollutants produced by these factories. Nearby Black communities like Morrisonville remain vulnerable to these toxins; Revilletown was polluted to such a degree that its residents were displaced and the town was razed. Such exposure results from centuries of political, financial, and infrastructural decisions that benefitted first the planter elite and later multinational corporations. 60
In November 2019, performance artist Dread Scott presented a participatory project titled Slave Rebellion Reenactment, restaging parts of the 1811 German Coast Uprising, the largest slave rebellion in United States history. One of the most powerful photographs I’ve seen of the reenactment shows marchers on the east-bank Mississippi River levee with Shell’s massive Norco facility in the background. 61 Behind the performers representing enslaved men and women carrying guns and cane knives stands the refinery, in operation since 1920 — a landscape of storage tanks, flare stacks, distillation columns, coke drums, and miles of piping, leaching water for its processes from the Mississippi and returning it laced with additives to the river and the air. “In the early 1800s, slavery was the foundation of the economy in Louisiana,” Scott says in an interview about the project. “In the 1900s, oil became the foundation of the world economy — but centered here. There’s a reason why that region is known as Cancer Alley. These petrochemical plants were put down literally on top of the graves of enslaved people that had died in that region.” 62
We can and should get angry about the retrograde content of plantation tours; about mint juleps served in the shade at concentration camps; about cosplaying belles and soi-disant genteel wedding parties. But framing the problem and its solution solely in terms of museological truth-telling about the antebellum past belies pernicious continuities between and amongst capital, material culture, and life as lived along River Road from Reconstruction to the present. Rather than interpretative schemes that conjure an agrarian South, however truthful about the brutalities of slavery, we need forensics that help us to see industrial modernization as a direct development from this antebellum past.
We need forensics that help us to see industrial modernization as a direct development from this antebellum past.
The racialized, extractive project of the plantation carried on in myriad ways. We should tell this history in public ways, and possibilities for doing so are already inscribed in plantation museum landscapes. They are visible in material traces like the now empty cutout for a light-switch box — likely installed in the 1950s and removed sometime after the plantation shut down in 1975 — in a building at Whitney. Once a slave cabin, this small structure continued to house the families of wage laborers, which could have included the postbellum Chinese workers who are almost entirely absent from public interpretation in the Lower Mississippi River Valley. 63 Material traces persist, as well, in the infrastructural scars on reforested land behind the mansion at Destrehan, where the Mexpet oil refinery stood. Or even in extant structures like the store built at Whitney in the 1890s that accepted the plantation scrip with which wage laborers were paid — converting the bonds of chattel slavery into those of working-class debt. 64
Baldwin warned that “an invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.” 65 To let dissociation from the past, much less White romanticization of it, stand unchallenged is to guarantee that reparations will not be made and reconstruction will remain incomplete. But it’s also true, as Toni Morrison reminds us, that the engineering of Whiteness has its limits:
You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places to make room for houses & livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. “Floods” is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. 66