Denmark Vesey and the Heart’s Project

The heart’s constant project is to hold hopelessness and hope together.

I recently visited Charleston, South Carolina, for the first time. The wonderful occasion was a reunion gathering of a beloved expat book club I was in during our three years living abroad in Amsterdam (from 2015-2018). Lots of laughter, tears, clinking glasses, and scrumptious Southern fare like barbequed brisket and fried chicken. Our generous host is a recent transplant from the Northeast to the South. Still, her Southern hospitality and thoughtfulness were apparent from the moment we arrived, and she had warm, homemade butternut squash soup and pumpkin bread at the ready for weary travelers. It was the week before Halloween. After walking through the French Quarter, visiting private residences with yard displays to rival any amusement park haunted house, and peeking into a local graveyard, I was already overwhelmed by the ghosts and horrors of this city before we made our way to the Boone Hall Plantation.

Two of the women were from Europe, and they were curious about visiting an American plantation. As the only BIPOC woman in the group, I had mixed feelings about it. I wanted to honor the lives of the enslaved people who lived and died there, to bear witness to their horrific experiences. I wanted to pay my respect by honoring their memory and never forgetting the impact of slavery, still reflected in the injustice and inequity evident to this day in the U.S. I just was not sure how comfortable I would feel being the only person of color in the group.

Of course, these were my friends, people I’d flown across the U.S. to be with, people that I care about deeply and feel comfortable with. But when it comes to these moments of confronting racism in the U.S.—this particular shameful history of slavery that for the most part has been buried and avoided in this country—my preference is to have these experiences where I don’t feel compelled to code switch or be the teacher or make someone else not feel bad. Although no one in our group actually expects me to do any of those things, from past experiences growing up in the U.S., it’s hard to convince my psyche. I anticipate it will be a painful experience, and the night before our visit, I wake with a surge of anxiety.

I pick up my phone and Google, “how to visit a plantation respectfully.” A pretty good Conde Nast travel article comes up, and I send the link to my friends. My friends all read the article in the morning before we leave, and I think it helps set the tone—this is not a sightseeing tourist visit to a medieval castle that you might take in Europe (although those also have their specific histories of economic oppression and torture).

Almost half of the U.S. population of enslaved people first arrived in Charleston, South Carolina. This plantation was a site of violence, domination, and, most likely, rape and murder. This plantation was owned by White people who captured, bought, and enslaved Black people as though they were less than human beings and considered their and their children’s bodies and labor to be the slaveholder’s property. White Europeans and Americans tortured, hunted, and murdered Black people. Many of the people committing these atrocities believed their god sanctified this behavior. After the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery in 1865, the inequity against Black people has continued through Jim Crow laws, red-lining and property withholding, the incarceration of Black people and control of their labor, appropriation and erasure of their artistic contributions, implicit and explicit bias in all aspects of society from education to healthcare, all of which can be proven by demographic and historical data. This is a factual reality. And yet, so many Americans today are unwilling to acknowledge it, let alone attempt reparations.

This knowledge buzzes around my brain like a fruit fly on steroids when we pull into the Boone Hall Plantation driveway. After we buy our $28 admission tickets, the first sign we see is a silhouette of a handgun with a red circle and slash, “No Concealable Weapons Allowed.” As someone from liberal Berkeley, California, that already puts me on high alert.

As we head down the wide dirt driveway, surrounded on each side by 280-year-old majestic oak trees oozing Spanish moss, I see another shocking site. A White couple, the young woman with long curled and dyed blonde hair, wearing a sleeveless, mid-thigh, lace trimmed, white dress, the young man with light brown hair in a blue button-down shirt and khakis, having their wedding announcement photos taken. They both wear oblivious grins as we drive past them. I learn later there is a one-and-a-half-year waiting list for weddings at the plantation. A system of education has evolved to erase history and turn plantations into wedding destinations.

Next is a tractor-pulled, open-air wagon Nature and Farm tour. As we drive through the cotton fields and into the surrounding forest, I imagine people running through those trees in terror, chased by barking dogs, or forced to dig trenches and plant crops in the southern heat. As the plantation is still an active farm, there are fields of corn, strawberries, grape vines, and other fruits and vegetables. There are family-friendly special events like the Lowcountry Oyster Festival and educational school tours year-round.

Since we are there around Halloween, holiday displays of giant purple spiders and orange jack-o-lanterns hang from the trees. Given the history, I’m repulsed by the plastic skeletons climbing walls, as if they, too, need to escape the tone-deafness. When we head back to the plantation buildings, our white-bearded tour guide in a baseball cap tells us about bricks made by “younger-than-teenage” enslaved people. I immediately think, “You mean children.” Later, my friend tells me that sometimes you can see tiny fingerprints pressed into the brick walls.

Not far from the two-story, white-columned, brick plantation mansion stand nine single-room brick buildings that housed up to 12 people each. Inside each house are educational, self-guided displays. I am grateful that they include these displays and can imagine that not all plantations open to the public would be willing to provide them. Sweet-grass basket weaving techniques with two young Black women, wearing masks and weaving silently at a table. Enlarged rosters of the Slave Ships that entered the Charleston Port from 1711-1858, with columns of Total Slaves Embarked and Total Slaves Disembarked, allow one to see how many people died on the horrendous journeys from Sierra Leone or the Gold Coast.

One poster featured Denmark Vesey, whose story is recounted in Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy, by historians Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts. A formerly enslaved man, Vesey bought his freedom after winning $1,500 in a lottery, then built a successful carpentry business in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1822, Denmark Vesey planned an uprising against the White enslavers that was scheduled to coincide with Bastille Day. The rebellion was inspired by the Haitian Revolution, which ultimately led to the end of slavery and French colonial rule in Haiti. Sadly, two of the enslaved people involved in Vesey’s plan revealed the plot in advance, and Vesey and his co-organizers were caught and executed.

One of the key points Kytle and Roberts make is that different versions of U.S. history are being presented to us—one features the White enslavers as benevolent and civilizing, the other, as a particular group of humans who treated other humans as property, and built their wealth on the backs of the enslaved humans. The impact of these different versions of history has profound consequences that we all contend with today.

At the end of the row of brick houses, there was an engaging live presentation by a Black woman elder celebrating Gullah language, culture, and artistic contributions. She told stories of how the enslaved people learned to communicate through song and secret languages to survive. It was a positive moment to end the day, and it reminded me that at least Denmark Vesey’s statue still stands, whereas Robert E. Lee’s statue has been torn down. It reminded me that at least today I can process these experiences safely and openly with other BIPOC writers in community.

It’s true: the heart’s constant project is to hold hopelessness and hope simultaneously.

 

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