“Too bad for you men who don’t notice that my eyes remember
slings and black flags
which murder with each blink of my Mississippi lashes
Too bad for you men who do not see who do not see anything
not even the gorgeous railway signals formed under my eyelids by the black and red discs of the coral snake that my munificence coils in my Mississippi tears”
— “Mississippi,” by Aimé Césaire
In the summer of 2014, I was able to participate in an Oral History project to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer. I love going to Mississippi, and am grateful for the opportunity to meet and interview elders and activists who were deeply and actively invested in the Civil Rights project of the mid-20th century. Every time I visit the Mississippi Delta, the way that I see the world is transformed. I am assaulted by the longue durée of racial slavery for every second that I breathe Mississippian air. I call it an assault because it is a particularly violent encounter — both emotionally and spiritually. But this is an important and necessary violence. The relentless visual assault of plantation pasts, presents, and futures reveal much about the fundamental antagonisms of the American racial state.
While consucting my dissertation research, I am living in New Orleans, the nexus where the Middle Passage meets the Mississippi. New Orleans is dominated by cartographies of slavery, antiblackness and its attendant genocidal processes (from slavery, to the responses to Hurricane Betsy and Hurricane Katrina, to the ongoing displacement and dispossession of Black New Orleanians). I drove from New Orleans to Natchez, Mississippi to meet the Oral History Project team and begin the field project. I chose to drive through Baton Rouge and along the Mississippi River to reach Natchez. This route allowed me to see much more of the scenic and beautiful Louisiana, but I really wanted to see the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary, otherwise known as Angola State Prison. I’ve always wanted to see Angola Prison, but the desire became more immediate after my first informal interview in New Orleans. This interview was with my neighbor, immediately after moving my last piece of furniture into my apartment.
My neighbor is African American grandmother who was born and raised in the Lower Ninth Ward, who was relocated to Houston after the storm, and now resides in our neighborhood, Gentilly. I shared with her my preliminary research questions, and some of the issues that are important to me resonated with her as a grandmother with children in New Orleans public schools. She shared with me that her 9 year old grandson had been having serious discipline issues in school. In order to teach him a lesson, the boy’s father had the police come to his home one day, handcuff and arrest his son, and take him to the police station. My neighbor told me that her son was in tears, watching his 9 year old wail as he was handcuffed and put into the back of a police car, despite the situation being an agreed upon “scared straight” style simulation. She said that her son kept saying, “I’m doing this now so he doesn’t have to go to Angola when he gets older. If I scare him now, he will never have to go to Angola.”
Angola State Penitentiary is a prison farm, and the largest maximum security prison in the United States (Keep in mind this is in Louisiana, which has the highest incarceration rate of any state in the country). Angola, the size of Manhattan, was formed by the consolidation of four plantations of West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana in the 1860s. The prison carries the name Angola because the bulk of the enslaved Africans who worked those plantations were captured Angolans.
What does it mean when the name Angola becomes associated with the terror and brutality of a plantation past, present, and future? What does it mean when Angola, named after a country in the ostensible motherland, becomes a place in the black imaginary where one must never go? A place of unspeakable horrors and deprivations? Here, I am pressed by geographer Katherine McKittrick’s work, particularly her article Plantation Futures (Small Axe 42, November 2013): “What are some notable characteristics of plantation geographies and what is at stake in linking a plantation past to the present? What comes of positioning the plantation as a threshold to thinking through long-standing and contemporary practices of racial violence?”
Driving up to Natchez, past Angola Prison, there are countless plantations, the sight of which are jarring. Long before this trip, I told myself, “You will never step foot onto a plantation.” I did not want to physically inhabit these sites of barbarism, antiblack genocide, violence, and suffering. Once arriving in Natchez and beginning the first round of interviews, unbeknownst to me, our team were invited to an actual plantation. I should have known something was foul, because on the road to the plantation, our van passed this structure:
This is an actual restaurant in Natchez, Mississippi, called “Mammy’s Cupboard.” By entering the door under Mammy’s skirt, visitors can dine inside of a 30-foot symbolic corpus of an enslaved Black woman. Consider the barbaric and necrophilic implications of such a monument. Who would eat here, and why? One consumes more than just food when dining in this space.
As we got closer to our destination, it was announced that we were actually visiting a plantation, much to my own consternation. The owner of the plantation worked at the site that we were conducting interviews, and wanted to show us the splendor of her multi-generational property (which is apparently the only plantation built with English-style architecture in Natchez, which was historically dominated by French and Spanish Creole architecture).
Frankly, this was a traumatic experience. It was unexpected and there was no way to back out of it once I realized what our final destination was. If the trauma is difficult to understand, the only analogous gesture I can make would be for a Jewish person being driven to a former concentration camp. Getting to the plantation, and hearing the owner speak of the plantation and its history, while simultaneously and strategically positioning her rhetoric to distance herself from and obliterate the black flesh that bore the brunt of the barbarism and suffering that occurred on this site. It was an appalling display. This rhetorical distancing is a performance — its purpose is to normalize the totalization of brutality that occurred on the plantation. With this move, the grotesque “plantation” is forgotten, an becomes a benign “farm”. A site to appreciate the beauty of the Mississipi forests and colonial architecture, sieving the racial terror that I could hear wailing behind this facade.
Luckily for my mental state, the “big house” was not part of the tour, but we were taken to the building that the owner actually inhabits. It used to be the plantation’s standalone kitchen, but there were additions made to the structure to make it more liveable by contemporary standards. At this point, some of us in the group began to press the owner on the issue of slavery, particularly since she would not speak of the very labor force that drove the plantation! Apparently, the enslaved Africans who were the plantation cooks lived directly over the kitchen, and this is now where the owner resides. How does one conscionably live within the very place where countless beatings, rapes, and murders occured with inpunity? What does it mean for a white person to not only inhabit a plantation space in 2014, but feel no qualms about bringing a multiracial group of students to “relive its splendor”? What kind of psychological distancing mechanisms are at play, that would allow one to not even consider the terror that a black person might feel while visiting a plantation?
At this point, the ignorance and chauvinism became too much, and I went back to the van. The owner then wanted to show us another building on the plantation, the church. I didn’t want to be there anymore, so I stayed in the vehicle while the group took pictures in front of the structure. My mind was racing, though. “What kind of lessons were taught to the slaves in this church? Or, were they allowed to worship in the church? How many people escaped this prison? How many died trying? Where are their remains? How many people were forced to resign to their fate as fungible commodities?”
In many parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, there an obscene, perpetual, highly performative reenactment of an American racial caste system dominated by slavery and white domination, and local geographies/cartographies become patterned around this preoccupation. From Angola Prison, to Mammy’s cupboard, to the Antebellum plantation tours, to the contemporary labor relations in the Mississippi Delta. Reflecting on this most recent experience in Mississippi, I think of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, to a passage that has always resonated with me:
Baby Suggs grew tired, went to bed and stayed there until her big old heart quit. Except for an occasional request for color she said practically nothing — until the afternoon of the last day of her life when she got out of bed, skipped slowly to the door of the keeping room and announced to Sethe and Denver the lesson she had learned from her sixty years a slave and ten years free: that there was no bad luck in the world but white people. “They don’t know when to stop,” she said, and returned to her bed, pulled up the quilt and left them to hold that thought forever.
When is enough, enough?