A year and a half ago, my friend and December birthday brother, Greg Greenway, told me about a place not far from New Orleans, Louisiana, that was being restored and re-interpreted as a site to tell the story of slavery’s plantation past in a real and unfiltered way.
Greg said that the Whitney Plantation (originally known as Habitation Haydel) had been purchased from one of the sugar companies, by a lawyer, John Cummings, who, inspired by the lack of candor and a need for more historically accurate physical evidenced based examples of this history, had spent sixteen years and over eight million dollars of his own money, to research and restore this site to represent its real truth.
It is a powerful story of human bondage.
Cummings did this to honor the lives of those who, as slaves, made this place what it was and who were integral to the growth of this nation.
And while there are many “plantation experiences” throughout the south, most tend to celebrate “the way things were” during the time when the “peculiar institution” was at its height in America. They choose to focus on the opulence and glory of the period by displaying these large beautiful homes of fancy interiors, house paintings from https://www.myhousepainter.com/painters/florida/ and expansive gardens (here is the best way to keep carpenter ants out), framed in a period charm that focuses on the stories, possessions and lives of the owners. (read: slavers)
The Whitney, scheduled to open in about a year, at that time, and would not be one of those.
Greg suggested that we go to see the place, together.
Now, at the time, I had a number of other things on my plate and so the info drifted into that place where “interesting, but non-critical information goes to hang out and maybe die!”
But, as often happens, I stumbled upon an article in the NY Times about 7 months later and found myself in the position of having more time. I was fascinated by the project.
So I called Greg and said, “When do we go?”
We managed to find a weekend this October that was perfect for us both and, in a burst of synchronicity, our timing was more outstanding than we could ever imagine.
Greg reached out to Rev. Deanna Vandiver, co-director of the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal (www.celjsr.org) who offered to help us make connections for a concert and a church service in New Orleans.
But Deanna also made arrangements for us to take part on an anti-racism workshop that was being sponsored by the center and local UU churches. Too good to be true. It was “Synergy Central” in its most vibrant form.
The trip was on!
Greg and I have shared a lifetime of expansive conversations about history race, culture, music, sports and justice over the course of our 30 plus year friendship. All remarkably connected issues in this land of complexity.
We were born just 3 days apart in 1952 and though our lives began on different sides of the historical and racial divide (with me, as a descendant of a slave named Bibhanna and her “relational physical encounters” with her owner, Williams Carter Wickham of Ashland, VA. and
Greg, a White male child into a family in the racist Southern city of Richmond, VA) our origins were separated by only a few miles, but also by a universe of history and life experience.
Music brought us together years ago and we quickly found that we share a passion for exploring those connections and conversations that will be the only thing that helps our nation transcend our troubled and stories history.
We are a nation founded on oppression and slavery… of many kinds!
And in all of this, we have found our voices, identified our pain and we’ve used education and passion to inform our emotional drive as fuel for inspiration.
We forged a friendship that took us to Louisiana. All in all, 1418 miles of a trip where we took another step into the fire of knowing. We will both be writing about and unpacking this journey for as long as it takes to figure the vibrant reality of making a difference, NOW!
This conversation and the reflectons that surround it, are not easy to express. But this is my start. This is my re-opening of the door. The goal is to make this ongoing conversation the key to our mission to reduce the level of animosity and solve this ever-deepening divide that our present political events have made such a frightful arena of hate, fear and destruction.
There are lives are in the balance. Our lives and the very nature of what we are to become as people, as a country and as a world. Greg and I committed ourselves to the fight against prejudice and racism years ago. With this journey we committed ourselves anew to being part of a community that finds solutions and creates new ways to keep our eyes on the prize of justice and hope.