So I spent a couple of days this week acceeding to my best high school friend D's wishes and heading on up the series of winding highways known collectively as "the River Road", and I have many, many love bug carcasses squished on my windshield to prove it. Not to mention a near-overheating of the car that had us driving back to New Orleans with the windows down and the defroster going on high heat.
I myself am not the kind of person who would go running off to tour all the different plantations all by myself. Something in it all sort of reeks of a glorification of these days that were extremely harsh, backbreaking, and, indeed, cruel for nearly all but a privileged few of the population. The folks who owned these big houses and the thousands of acres surrounding them had, for the most part, worked hard for their success, but it came through breaking the backs of many, many others. People were treated like commodities to be bought, used, and sold with no regard for their well-being at this point in our history, and we are still reeling from it all.
Plus, it's a long drive.
Even so, what's more important is that I spend time with my friend, who got married late last year. I had shown her my city, devastated areas and all, first off, and talked her ear off about the issues I've been immersed in for a while here, so it was only fair that I take her on a nice, lazy drive on winding roads with the river levee at our side. I had no clue we were driving towards a few interesting palimpsests when we headed towards Houmas House on one day and Laura Plantation the next.
Through a bit of a navigatory mistake on my part that still resulted in a nice drive, we headed to Houmas House first and walked through an idealized dream of an antebellum mansion that is owned and operated privately by a businessman and preservationist who still inserts some of his own touches into the decor of the place. If the gardens weren't enough to wow the first-time visitor, walking into the entrance hall of the main house and seeing the current owner's dogs in the hand-painted murals of local wildlife amidst the fields of sugarcane gives one the hint that historical accuracy on these grounds has been stretched a tad. Especially when one walks into the men's parlor...
...and spies a recent acquisition in the far corner of the house that a mid-nineteenth-century plantation owner would probably never have in his/her home. It isn't in the above picture, but it was a striking sculpture of Abraham Lincoln sitting on a bench in a relaxed pose, his iconic top hat resting on the bench beside him. It was only when the sculpture was carefully cleaned and restored that the sculptor's name was revealed on the surface of the bench next to Honest Abe...and then, it didn't seem so farfetched to have the sculpture there once one knew the sculptor's history.
It was a Gutzon Borglum piece, the look of which was heavily influenced by one of Borglum's artistic mentors, Auguste Rodin. And though it is a fact that Borglum had strong associations with the Klan in the 1920's, there is some debate as to whether it was a move calculated to get the sculptor more commissions (baldly deplorable in itself), or whether it was indicative of his actual views (seriously disgusting, that). A taste for the monumental that resulted in the partial realization of his vision for Mount Rushmore coupled with a naked opportunism, perfectionism, and arrogance that repulsed most of the people he met made for a conflicted icon-maker whose unexpected presence in a plantation in South Louisiana was serious food for thought for me.
It is also amazing what one can acquire on eBay...
We were too late to make the tour of Laura after lunch in the Cafe Burnside, so we headed downriver in time to pick up the little guy from school and drop D. off in the Garden District so she could conduct her own self-guided tour of the area (the kid has no patience for that kind of thing at 3:30 in the afternoon on a hot day...hell, he has little patience for that kind of thing on any day at any time), and made plans to return to Laura the next morning.
In the case of Laura, the tours conducted of the place reveal a family business that went for the smartest people in the Duparc-Locoul dynasty for its presidents - the smartest ones being the women of the family. Changing times and this preference towards brains over traditional first-born-male-centrism had to lead to these women becoming so smart that one who was groomed for the presidency turned it down flat - and that woman was, ironically, the one for whom the house and grounds is named. Laura Locoul saw how the business of running a sugar plantation had turned her grandmother into a horrible, domineering harridan from hell who abused her slaves and wanted no part of it. Naming the plantation for her was supposed to be an inducement for her to stay, but what could they really have expected from a woman who made her debut dressed as the Devil at a Carnival ball in New Orleans...
...and who (gasp!) married a Presbyterian, sold the property, and went off to live in St Louis for a number of decades, only returning to the place when she was in her seventies. The tour itself is based on the memoirs she wrote for her children about life on the plantation, both the ease of it
....and the cruelty of it.
Pictured above are the remains of what was once two rows of slave cabins that stretched out for at least six miles on the property. Each cabin consisted of two rooms, one family of no more than five-six members to a room. Since there was no cooking allowed in the cabins, the very loud bell by the woman in the hat was rung at mealtimes to call everybody to get their food from a kitchen located just behind the big house.
This was a family that did nothing halfway, even when it came to renunciation of a life that had kept 'em tied to the riverside for so long. When Laura was gone, she was gone. The memoirs she left behind were mainly written to satisfy the curiosity of her children and grandchildren, who were more familiar with a Margaret Mitchell/David O. Selznick-ized view of plantation life, but she also couldn't deny the hold her memories had on her.
To ignore these properties that still run along the River Road(s), some of which are working plantations to this day, is to ignore a significant part of what makes the South tick. It ain't all wine and roses, for certain. And it isn't easy to face.
But it does make me grateful for what we have in the here and now, and why it is worth striving for better for all.