So they reinvent a fake history for ourselves that doesn’t deal with the complexities. And I think in some ways that’s what the south and the upper Midwest have in common is that there’s a delusion at work about who we were. And that’s why we have a hard time about who we are. So that the kind of self congratulatory history that passes for heritage keeps us from seeing ourselves and doing better.
There was a moment last night when I realized—this is all so remarkable, all so totally unlikely. I mean, in general, human life itself—the fact that we’re generally able to sustain ourselves on this rock spinning around in an unknowably vast conglomeration of other spinning rocks—quite often seems remarkable and totally unlikely to me. If I think about it too straight-on I feel dizzy and pointless. But on a microscopic personal level, yesterday morning I voted, which is something I alternate between taking for granted and feeling totally gobsmacked that I get to do, given all the people in the world who cannot do it even still and how women in this country weren’t allowed to until less than one hundred years ago. It was a long time ago, but also not a long time ago. And then last night I came home from work and ate a dinner that my husband cooked, which is just, you know, really cool (also: delicious) and also not something a woman in history has generally been able to say for herself. We were safe and warm and dry and healthy, which we almost always are, but which things like Sandy remind me we could very easily not be, just in the blink of an eye. And then we sat there watching the returns on a preposterous number of screens, just the two of us there in our house, but with friends at a bar down the street and friends in states far away and strangers all over the world just a few taps-on-a-screen away. I (in Georgia) learned that Obama won Ohio from a text message my high school best friend (in North Carolina) sent to me instead of to her brother (in New York City). Re-electing this black man as president somehow seems more important than getting him there in the first place. Two points make a line. And then all over the country there was suddenly pot being legalized and gay marriage being approved and women taking offices from hateful old men—it’s like the difference between a glass being cracked and being shattered. I’m not saying this is the best time to be alive. I don’t know. But it’s a time, and to me right now it seems like the only time that all of this could happen in this particular way, and here we are.
July 24, 1919
GA’s General Assembly rejected the 19th Amendment, denying women the right to vote.
It’s so cute how this state is pretty much forever on the wrong side of history!
The outbreak of World War I expanded the demand for condoms, but they remained technically illegal until 1918. Progressive purity advocates instructed GIs to exercise “moral prophylaxis” while overseas, advice that was about as effective as the Lysol douches that women used to prevent pregnancy in the 1920s. Schmid and his rival, Trojan producer Merle Youngs, teamed up in a failed attempt to ask the military for legitimacy. They were rebuffed, and the United States was the only Allied country to send its soldiers into battle without arming them with condoms. As a result, almost 10 percent of American soldiers contracted a venereal disease over the course of the war. Schmid made a bundle off the war nonetheless. Germany had been Europe’s top exporter of condoms, and when the German economy became isolated, Schmid was ready to step in.
Just learned my office is partly in “area of MEDIUM probability for containing intact archeological resources”! This is because the Georgia Tech campus is basically built on a Civil War battlefield. I also just learned that. (Related: The thing I wrote for the Burnaway party about Atlanta’s weirdly/maybe not weirdly lacking sense of its own history.)
I’ve been thinking a lot more about that Amanda Hess post about plantation weddings at Good yesterday, and my main issue with the piece now is just the fact that it really, really oversimplifies an issue that, in my experience, is actually quite tricky and also very present in the lives of a lot of Southerners I know—which is, how are we supposed to live here, in these states and on this land and in these cities and, often, in these buildings, that were either once the direct result of the enslavement of other human beings, or that at least sprang up because of or thanks to the economies of slavery, or the war that the issue of slavery was partially responsible for?
And I don’t mean “how are we supposed to live…?” rhetorically or dismissively, like, “Ugh, how am I supposed to live with this?” I mean it practically: What does it mean to us as humans, as Southerners, as possibly the descendants of either the white people that owned the slaves or the black people who were owned, to live in this world where vestments and monuments and attitudes of that world still exist?
The issue of negotiating history and our current contemporary lives and the huge but also sometimes not very huge gulf between those two is something that I think, in one way or another, most thoughtful Southerners engage with on some level in their lives. (Yes, probably even the people who Hess chastises for having their weddings on plantations, a “trend” that Good’s Twitter account quite simply calls “bad.”) It’s hard because so much of the very troubling legacy of the South’s past is so deeply interwoven in its present that I know I, for one, don’t even always notice it.
It seems like this is in part what Hess was troubled by about the plantation weddings—the spin that some of the venues put on their own pasts, which they may not even be doing consciously but just because that’s how the place has always been run and thought of itself (or maybe they’re more deliberate, focusing on the business savvy of the onetime white owners rather than the hundreds of human chattel he owned). She takes issue with just the flat-out misremembering of history, the glossing over, the shoving-under-the-rug of very very terrible things, even the outright flaunting and celebrating of those terrible things for glamor. I don’t doubt—in fact, I know for sure—that there are people, brides and grooms and whoever else, that engage in this all the time, and that it’s troubling and weird and is something that would probably be best if it was curbed. I agree that this should be talked about and called out. (And also the aesthetics of the South is a really complicated thing—the fact that the “old, rustic South” is gaining popularity as a wedding theme for folks not from the South is probably something that should be unpacked both from a design and a sociological/historical standpoint).
But it’s only one sliver of a very broad and strange and complicated spectrum, a spectrum that I feel Hess has reduced to one of its most glaringly terrible parts and condemned outright with a really stunning lack of nuance for a magazine and website and writer that I generally really respect and cheer for.
Something I also felt Hess skimmed over is the fact that plantations have modern functions well beyond hosting weddings, and what are we to make of those other activities that happen there in part because of the place’s natural beauty? What else is not OK to do there? Does it depend on the budget of the event, the number of guests, the lavishness of the decor?
Also frustratingly unrecognized is a fact that very much complicates her argument, which is that plantations are not the only remnant of the Old South where celebrations take place—therefore not the only venues that, in her logic, should be perhaps absolutely out of the running for any kind of celebratory or festive event. A friend pointed out on Twitter that the UNC Chapel Hill campus was built by slaves—there’s a monument to them, but should the campus refrain from hosting lavish events of any type? That seems ludicrous, but doesn’t Hess’s logic suggest that? Is it hypocritical or disrespectful that many thousand (mostly-white) students over the past hundred or so years have paid many many thousands of dollars to receive an education that was not made available to the very people who built the place, and that for lingering terrible reasons is not even available to many of those peoples’ descendants’ descendants’ descendants? That sounds like a flip question but, well, yeah, it is massively hypocritical and disrespectful. It’s a huge contradiction, one of so many that define the history of and modern state of the South, most of which are so big you can’t even really see them so you don’t know you’re looking at them, but that even when they’re glimpsed and recognized, what are you supposed to do but live with the contradictions every day, sit with them, know that it’s never going to be resolved?
It’s easy to rag on wedding-planning-people because they can get ridiculous and there’s this cultural bridezilla strawman that everyone loves throwing punches at. And it’s easy to feel uncomfortable about plantations, and plantation weddings, because those places were the epicenter, the place where all the commerce and the humanity intersected, perhaps where the divide between slave and slave-holder was most pronounced with the slattern slave quarters and the elaborate owners’ manse. But pretending the issue starts and ends there is horribly reductive, and horribly frustrating and insulting to the people whose weddings are being called racist, or those who sympathize with the people whose weddings are being called racist.
Up at the top of my post here is a link to a Wikipedia entry about a home and property that has been in my dad’s mom’s family for generations and generations and generations. They were one of the first families to live in the area that eventually became the town where my dad grew up. The house and land has been lived in pretty consistently, I think, for more than 150 years. When the original family lived there, it was not a plantation—they did not grow cotton—but they had slaves. The woman who lives there now is a caterer and throws big parties there and rents out the land to people outside the family for events and club meetings and weddings. A step-cousin of mine was married there a few years ago. We had my grandmother’s surprise 80th birthday there earlier this year. These parties happened in a house and on a property where at one point in time human beings that were owned by other human beings lived and worked and died. Not only that—all the life that happened there over the last 150+ years, the life that keeps happening even today, because people still live there, happened in a place where human beings that were owned by other human beings lived and worked and died.
I guess you could call that “racist.” But that just seems too easy.
I was going to post this as a comment on the actual piece itself—something I haven’t done in… years, maybe?—but it was too long.
But, some thoughts (using HANNAHJSTEPHENSON’s comment as a jumping-off point):
I wonder, too, if following this logic would mean that any celebratory event at a historic site tied to slavery or any other terrible human event should be reconsidered. And I’m not trying to be flip, here. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the South where it seems like there are more places like this—used as wedding venues and for many many other purposes—but I sympathize with and respect people who successfully marry places’ checkered pasts with enduring modern function.
So if you’re asking “why are people still getting married on plantations?” don’t you also have to ask, “why are people still doing anything on plantations?” or “why are people still doing anything on properties or in buildings directly linked to slavery or slave trade or institutionalized racism?”
As a kid, I went to plenty of 4th of July fireworks parties on Civil War battlefields—where thousands of people not only died but died, in part, defending their right to hold slaves. It’s not such a problem in Atlanta, where I live now—thanks, Sherman, etc—but in cities like, say, Charleston, there are still buildings in use that once housed slave auctions (like the King Street market, which I think is still an active marketplace for local artists and vendors).
It’s pretty easy to rag on wedding-planning folks for engaging in seemingly mindless, culturally/historically/racially insensitive behavior—I know, I’m planning my own wedding right now, and I know how people can get “in my state.” Folks in the throes of wedding planning can forget about the feelings and needs of the people closest to them… to say nothing of considering really really tricky matters of race and history and privledge. And that Colonial Africa wedding the other day makes a good peg to talk about plantations as a venue, I guess. But I’m not sure it’s totally fair to compare that with weddings (like the ones linked here) that just happen to take place on a plantation, not that went all-out with horribly insensitive antebellum trappings.
Setting up your venue like the set of a Hemingway short story and hiring what seems to be an all-black staff of waiters and not seeming to have any awareness of the weirdness of that is one thing. Praising a plantation venue’s beauty and deliberately spinning its history to make it more inviting as a wedding venue is another. And living with historical properties, in all their blotchy past and uncomfortable associations and enduring beauty (and, often, friendlier prices) is another altogether.
Having thought about it a little bit, I’m kinda disappointed that this post seems to forego a bit of much-needed nuance seemingly just for the snark factor.