Why the ‘romance’ of plantation estates is more dangerous than confederate statues

<span>Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

Like all symbols, monuments to the Confederate south, the lost cause, are not confined to the public square. On the contrary, they are projected onto the silver screen, in our backyards, making up the names of countless suburban developments, shopping centers and schools. In Charleston, South Carolina, in particular, they undergird a billion-dollar tourist industry.

Voted the No 1 city in the US seven times in a row by Travel + Leisure and the best city in the world in 2017, millions come for the beaches, the beauty and charm of Rainbow Row and its old-timey cobblestone streets (built by slaves), and last but certainly not least, for the romance and sweep of its great houses and plantations. The image of Scarlett O’Hara sauntering around Tara in a hoop skirt is imprinted on our collective imagination. Black or white, who hasn’t fantasized about being her? We are meant to. As sure as most monuments tend to obfuscate or deny access to history, on the contrary, these plantation estates invite us into the fantasy: for tours, for weddings, for re-enactments, for fine wine tastings.

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People of all backgrounds and ideologies can have an ice cream in the summertime, hot cider and cider donuts in the winter. In the fall, there is a pumpkin patch and a corn maze. You can really exalt in the beauty and quaintness of it all with a hay ride. If you do not wish to engage in the “slavery talk”, there are ways. You can skip a tour altogether and simply enjoy the beauty of the gardens. You can also, if you opt for the slavery tour, on the menu as they present it, argue with the tour guide about how bad slavery really was. I have seen it done.

I am being glib, but make no mistake; these dwelling places are a type of monument themselves. But they are potentially more dangerous than any marble statue because they pass as anodyne amusement.

Instead of fixating exclusively on cold, white statues that operate like dead fragments of history, we need to dramatically expand our understanding of what constitutes a monument. Otherwise, the narratives we wish to abolish by dismounting them will only be reinscribed in new ways. It has happened before.

The vast majority of confederate monuments only sprung up between the 1890s and the 1950s, “which matches up exactly with the era of Jim Crow segregation”, says Mark Elliott, a history professor at University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Literal chains were no longer allowed, so confederate monuments, many of which were financed by the efforts of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, founded in the 1890s, were introduced to telegraph to their communities and to the world the prevailing order of the land. With the strides of the civil rights movement, Confederate symbols began spreading in other ways, signifying a resistance to social change. In 1956, Georgia redesigned its state flag to include the Confederate battle flag; and in 1962, South Carolina placed the flag atop its capitol building. As I argued back in 2016 after the election of Donald J Trump, these symbols and their subtexts have a way of changing shape. We must, therefore, be as vigilant in our designs for what we want to build as we are in our efforts to deconstruct, burn down, take down and topple over. A part of that work is radically reimagining what a monument could be.

We must be as vigilant in our designs for what we want to build as we are in our efforts to deconstruct, burn down, take down and topple over

There are examples to draw upon. I recall seeing Kara Walker’s A Subtlety or The Marvelous Sugar Baby in the center of Williamsburg’s Domino Sugar refinery in 2014, dripping with the sticky sweetness of antebellum dreams (nightmares?). Now that was putting a historic site to good use. First of all, it was free, and you didn’t just pass by. Guests were lured in by the cloying scent of sugar, and led in a procession to gawp at the giant sugar baby – a colossal mammy-sphinx, cartoonish breasts flanked by her paws, and a giant vulva pitching up behind her. She was served by pickaninny workers, hauling bales of the sweet stuff, frozen in a death march from the entrance to her feet.

Putting the monumental back in monument, this temporary public art project engaged the senses and encouraged interpretation, memorializing the sugar trade and its attendant economic and social impacts, and implicating the fast-gentrifying community surrounding it in its indictment of capitalism.A similarly powerful temporary sculpture by Zaq Landsberg, who specializes in large-scale, site-specific sculptures, cast a replica of the Christopher Columbus statue at Columbus Circle in New York City from mycelium, a fungus which significantly speeds up the process of decay.

Steve Locke’s failed project offers another innovative example that is perhaps more relatable in this moment in time. The artist proposed a memorial at Faneuil hall in Boston, Massachusetts named after Peter Faneuil, who gifted the hall to the city of Boston with money he made as a “merchant”. For those who do not know, the term merchant is often used to describe business people of the 17th and 18th centuries, who, among other things, traded in slaves. This is the case with Peter Faneuil. Locke had imagined a 10 x 16 footprint of an auction block. Rain or snow, it would always be heated to a constant 98.6F, the temperature of the human body. The effort ultimately failed, Locke says, because he was “being leveraged … by the NAACP to embarrass the mayor”. Reports state that the NAACP objected to the project because of Peter Faneuil’s ties to slavery. This seems oxymoronic, I know, but more to the point is the notion that, in addition to not necessarily needing to be a permanent marker, perhaps a monument or memorial – dealer’s choice – doesn’t have to contain a human form at all. Consider that.

Last week, Charleston Wine + Food announced it would no longer hold events in Marion Square so long as the Calhoun statue was allowed to stand. They also vowed to stop hosting events at plantations. The very next day, on the anniversary of the Emanuel AME church massacre, after years of stalling on the issue, the city of Charleston announced the statue would come down and be relocated to a museum with proper historical context. One can only hope these measures are in good faith and not simply in response to an economic imperative, to secure future festivals in the square. Either way, I cannot stop thinking about a line from the 2015 play An Octoroon by Brenden Jacob Jenkins. Set on a plantation in Louisiana threatened with dissolution, the cast comes together at the end to sing a song written by César Alvarez, which casts and recasts the same question: “When you burn it down, what do you put there in its place?”