This past weekend I visited St. Francisville, Louisiana for a family wedding. The wedding was held in a church built in 1860 and re-built in 1880 after shelling by Union troops. Later, the wedding reception was held at Greenwood Plantation. I asked my sister-in-law: “Hey, did you see the plaques commemorating the slaves who built the church and the plantation?”*
Her: “No, I didn’t”
Me: “Yeah, I didn’t see them either.”
As you’ll see from the links above, there’s loads of information about the botanical, architectural, and white familial history of these places, but, as far as I saw, no physical acknowledgement of the black Americans (slaves) who created the gardens. There are places in Louisiana that address slavery head on. Still, walking around St. Francisville, a town of fantastic architectural heritage largely built by slaves of wealthy slaveowners, I didn’t see any public displays recognizing slaves. Buildings were “Built by wealthy planter X in 1834.” To be fair, the failure to mention the workers who actually constructed buildings isn’t southern or even racist, but part of larger erasure of working people’s contributions to our country.
Still, focusing on the beauty of the architecture without acknowledging the horrific violence that created it seemed like a pact of forgetting, akin to the Spaniards not talking about the Franco period after the transition to democracy in 1976-1978. Walking around everyone commented on the beauty of landscape, which to me felt akin to commenting on the beauty of the forests around Buchenwald.
So I came back to Normandale, and I had a Muslim student chat with me about the difficulties of navigating the holiday of Eid al-Adha. Eid isn’t a holiday that my school has off, so she’s faced with observing it and asking professors for the day off, or only partially observing it and coming to school. We talked a bit about how employers frequently had floating holidays that let people of multiple faiths take time away. I let him know the minor accommodations I made to facilitate religious holidays that weren’t on the calendar, such as the High Holidays for Jews or Eid al-Fitr. Still, we wondered together about how culture builds in acknowledgement of some people and asks others to do more work to have their culture acknowledged.
The two experiences coming hard upon each encourage me to think about how I build in acknowledgement of certain groups into my assignments and why that matters.
* As a matter of historical accuracy, at least one source I read indicated the current Greenwood Plantation main house was rebuilt in the 20th century after a major fire.