The Aesthetics of Bliss and Trauma in Plantation Weddings
Between 1938 and 1945 the little Bavarian town of Flossenbürg was the home for a Nazi concentration camp that held political prisoners, German criminals, and, near war’s end, Hungarian and Polish Jews. About 30,000 prisoners died in Flossenbürg and its neighboring subcamps by the time the camp was liberated in April, 1945.
Perhaps one of the most unexpected dimensions of Flossenbürg today is that it is a beautiful little Bavarian town that departs from our imagination of a landscape of genocide. Nestled in the Bavarian forest near the contemporary Czech border, Flossenbürg was a small medieval village that was home to granite quarry laborers by the late 19th century. Atop the village’s highest point sits the picturesque ruins of Flossenbürg Castle, which was built in about 1100 and eventually was burned in 1634 during the Thirty Years War.
Many dark tourism sites associated with death, tragedy, and disaster are likewise aesthetically appealing contemporary spaces. Sites like Flossenbürg acknowledge our anxieties about death, violence, and injustice, and interpretation at such sites usually paints a sober if unsettling picture of historical experiences. Nevertheless, many of these preserved places inevitably have been purged of most of the material trappings that made them horrific places, and some of them like Flossenbürg are once more visually appealing spaces despite their heritage.
The American landscape is dotted with places that witnessed enormous tragedies, and much like Flossenbürg they have now been absorbed into the everyday landscape. Unlike Flossenbürg, though, many of these American sites clumsily negotiate their dark heritage or simply ignore it in favor of aesthetically pleasant contemporary landscapes. Some of the most interesting examples are Southern plantations, where surviving buildings, landscapes, and archaeological materiality are the products and expression of captive labor. Yet few if any plantations conceive of themselves as sharing the mission of dark tourist sites whose stories revolve around trauma and tragedy. Some plantations have embraced a critical analysis of the relationship between captives and White slaveholders, but many have not really pushed beyond painting the plantation as a relic of the antebellum South.
For instance, one of the largest antebellum Southern plantations is Louisiana’s Nottoway Plantation, which was completed in 1859. Nottoway was built by John and Emily Randolph, who owned 155 captive African Americans in 1860 and had the 53,000 square-foot house built by those captives. In 1858 Randolph advertised in New Orleans’ Times-Picayune seeking the return of one of those captive craftspeople, the escaped 30-year-old carpenter Sunny, who was identified by Randolph as being “very black, with shot marks on his back.” After the war, Randolph left speech notes for a lecture on the White League, a paramilitary organization that resisted the Republican party and Black voting through violence, intimidation, and murder (though Randolph’s views on the White League are unknown).
Some hints of captives’ presence are provided in the home: for example, a row of 15 bells with distinctive tones summoned captives to particular rooms in the mansion, and nine reconstructed slave quarters are on the plantation grounds. Nottoway’s web page says nothing about its heritage of captivity, but like many plantations Nottoway hosts a prosperous wedding trade. Nottoway has a detailed page on its wedding services, and The Knot estimates that a wedding at Nottoway will cost about $11,000 for a party of 100 people. Like most plantations, many other events are held at Nottoway. In 2016, for example, a “murder mystery dinner” was held during a Nottoway visit by a convention group. In 2013 singer Ani DiFranco was forced to cancel her “Righteous Retreat Song Camp” at Nottoway, expressing surprise at the “high velocity bitterness” with which critics greeted the proposal.
In contrast to Nottoway’s clumsy evasion of captivity, the Belle Meade Plantation near Nashville details the history of captivity on the plantation and the post-Emancipation African American community that lived and worked on the farm. Yet Belle Meade also hosts a lucrative wedding trade that reduces much of the plantation’s heritage to an aesthetic “backdrop.” Belle Meade’s wedding page uses relatively typical rhetoric to define the plantation setting as a visual frame for the wedding experience: “Belle Meade Plantation is an award winning wedding and reception venue with the backdrop of a historic farm setting, framed in beautiful flowering gardens (Boxwood Gardens).” One couple indicated that “Belle Meade Plantation is the epitome of Nashville Southern living. The venue was the perfect backdrop for our wedding and celebration, and had such a historical factor that our out-of-town guests loved.” The Knot describes Nottoway in similar rhetorical terms as “an 1850s style sugarcane estate delivering notorious southern charm with enormous white columns and majestic balconies that belong to the largest mansion in the south. … Couples can use the mansion as a backdrop in the Nottoway’s historic front lawn or share their vows under massive oak trees on the plantations awe-inspiring rotunda.”
One of Nottoway’s best-known rooms is the White Ballroom, a room bathed in white reputedly to “show off the natural beauty of his seven daughters” (six Randolph daughters eventually were wed in the room). The Knot notes that “Many couples use the elegant White Ballroom as a backdrop to their bridal portraits,” and the ballroom is indeed a staple of Nottoway wedding photography. That theatricality was always part of the broader antebellum experience of Nottoway: Richard J. Follett’s study The Sugar Masters: Planters and Slaves in Louisiana’s Cane World, 1820-1860 argues that the Randolphs imagined that the Nottoway “mansion served as a stage upon which Randolph could portray a hierarchical social structure and conspicuously perform his role as master of sugar, slaves, and households.”
Contemporary discourses frame plantations as aesthetic “backdrops” or “settings,” and for wedding planning those backdrops are staged photographs partly chosen for their capacity to foster visual memories. In that sense they probably do not differ significantly from any wedding setting. The departure may be in plantations’ invocation of “pastness,” an ambiguous sense of historicity that in the case of plantations is strategically untroubled by concrete definition or the concession of historical brutality. Cherry Lynne Pyburn Levin’s 2012 dissertation (PDF) argues that the contemporary tourism industry markets weddings by leveraging “plantation mystique”: that is, the plantation wedding portrays the Southern landscape as a setting in which every woman can be a Southern belle living out her ideal romantic wedding. Levin convincingly argues that the contemporary imagination of the plantation wedding is drawn from a rich range of popular cultural sources; these are fused with an ideological notion of Southern womanhood and the antebellum traditions of weddings as performances of ancestral White affluence.
The South looms in wedding photographs largely as an aesthetic invoked by the likes of old trees, Spanish moss, towering mansions, and riverfront or field vistas. In a 1996 study of wedding photographs Lili Corbus Bezner concluded that such wedding images show couples as they wish to be seen rather than how they actually look. Plantation wedding photographers situate brides on the Southern landscape in the role of Southern belles alongside the aesthetic signifiers of plantation history. Outside of Charleston, for instance, Boone Hall plantation’s Avenue of Oaks was planted in 1743, and the three-quarter mile boulevard is today commonly used as a backdrop for wedding photographs (as well as engagement photography). Boone Hall recognizes that the oak-lined avenue is “an awesome spectacle and creates a spectacular backdrop and the perfect setting to let those memories for a lifetime unfold in a variety of ways” (the plantation’s wedding planner has a pinterest page featuring a broad range of ways it stages images). A bride enthused on The Knot that “the Avenue of Oaks is the perfect backdrop for amazing pictures!” Photographs at sites like Boone Hall often place newlyweds at the plantation’s gates, as though the landscape is possessed by the couple. Boone Hall has appeared in several Hollywood films including The Notebook, and one bride indicated that “being featured in The Notebook makes this location the epitome of romance!”
Most wedding parties ignore the most prominent material remains of captivity that disrupt the untroubled aesthetics of plantation materiality. Nevertheless, Boone Hall has nine standing slave quarters, and those quarters are sometimes used as the backdrop to wedding photographs, including pictures of the newlyweds inside the quarters’ exhibit space. One wedding party ceremoniously signed their marriage license in Boone Hall’s slave quarters. A photographer capturing a wedding in Florida’s Dixie Plantation noted that the bride’s “cousin told us about the old slave quarters on the plantation. We took her in this horribly gross hallway…and it was beautiful. Slave quarters. Who knew they would ever be useful?” In 2011 a wedding dress designer decided to display her newest designs with images of models wearing them in “the haunted slave quarters” at Jamaica’s Rose Hall.
Online discussion of plantation wedding sites tends to revolve around physical descriptions and aesthetic beauty. The romanticization of the natural and built plantation landscapes masks or naturalizes their history of bondage. In his analysis of South Carolina’s Magnolia Gardens plantation, Michael A. Chaney argued in a similar vein that the plantation “offers a visual story of the South which, like a landscape, seems politically innocuous and promises worry-free consumption, but which also conceals an erasure of the brutalities upon which the New South, like the Old South, was founded.” Magnolia has five surviving slave dwellings and conducts a booming wedding trade.
The scores of online plantation reviews nearly never mention their heritage of captivity. One review of a Belle Meade wedding did note that the “grounds are expansive, with old slave houses (this is the South, after all).” After touring Nottoway one person was disappointed by the apparent absence of captivity, concluding that “The landmark is beautiful. Well kept. There are very little original pieces to home-disappointing. No original inventory either. No slave quarters exist- disappointing.”
In some venues like Nottoway, wedding guests have the run of the mansion grounds after the day’s tourists have marched through the home. Dropping the velvet ropes from tours allows wedding guests to entertain fantasies of themselves living in the mansion in antebellum times. One visitor enthusiastically indicated that “if you’re staying in the mansion you are allowed to roam freely through any of the open rooms in the house (which was most of the house as only a few rooms were closed).” Another visitor to Nottoway enthusiastically told Yelp readers that “My favorite part was that they left [sic] you actually touch a lot of the stuff inside. You could even sit on most of the furniture.” In 2017 a Nottoway visitor also remarked that “You can take pictures and even touch/sit on furniture.” E. Arnold Modlin argues that the physicality of plantations is important to visitors, but the sense of ground and stairs underfoot, furniture textures, and scent of the home and grounds risk masking the experience of antebellum captivity. Modlin suggests that “touch inside the plantation-house museum misleads us from what the felt experience of slavery was like back in the antebellum period and before.” Nearly all of these plantation venues have a tourist trade that hazards disrupting the antebellum wedding fantasy. One bride at Boone Hall was upset that a tourist interrupted her possession of the landscape, complaining “I have a tourist BANGING on the door to the plantation in my wedding video, in my photos, and in my memory.”
Willing and naïve misconceptions of captivity shape plantation weddings and popular heritage fantasies, and they are clumsily concealed by appeals to the aesthetics of plantation space. The distinction between the beauty of Flossenbürg and Southern plantations is rooted in the former’s conscious acknowledgement of its dark heritage, and the unsettling message of Flossenbürg may even be heightened by the village’s contemporary banality. American plantations seem much less willing to imagine themselves as dark tourism sites narrating the heritage of trauma, but it is difficult to separate plantation heritage from the contemporary color line. Before murdering nine African Americans in a Charleston church in June, 2015, Dylann Roof visited a series of historical sites around Charleston including Magnolia Plantation, Boone Hall, and McLeod Plantation. At Magnolia, Roof posed for a selfie on the red Conservatory Bridge where numerous couples have posed for wedding pictures. On April 13, Roof visited Boone Hall and his photographs included a selfie in front of the Plantation House where scores of weddings have been held. The specter of a mass murderer in the footsteps of a wedding party is understandably unsettling, but there seems to be somewhat less anxiety over the numerous captive African Americans who lived and died on the grounds of these and many more plantations. Instead, their stories risk being subsumed in an ideological makeover of the plantation and a romanticization of the aesthetics of the Southern wedding.
Derek H. Alderman and E. Arnold Modlin Jr.
2014 The historical geography of racialized landscapes. In North American Odyssey: Historical Geographies for the Twenty-first Century, eds. edited by Craig E. Colten and Geoffrey L. Buckley, pp. 273-290. Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland.
2017 On the political utterances of plantation tourists: vocalizing the memory of slavery on River Road. Journal of Heritage Tourism 11(3):275-289.
2011 Dream Weddings: Fantasy, Femininity and Consumer Desire. PhD Dissertation, Boston College. (Preview version)
Lili Corbus Bezner
1996 “Divine Detritus:” An Analysis of American Wedding Photography. Studies in Popular Culture 18(2): 19-33 (subscription access)
Michael A. Chaney
2002 Touring the Spectacle of Slavery at Magnolia Gardens Plantation. Southern Quarterly 40(4): 126-140.
Renee’ Anita Donnell
2014 Interpreting the African American Experience on Charleston County Plantations. Master’s Thesis, University of Georgia.
Jennifer Eichstedt and Stephen Small (editors)
2002 Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museum. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.
Richard J. Follett
2005 The Sugar Masters: Planters and Slaves in Louisiana’s Cane World, 1820-1860. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge.
2014 Shedding light on dark truths: The interpretation of African American history at Tryon Palace in New Bern, NC. Master’s Thesis, East Carolina University.
2014 Why Aren’t Stories Like “12 Years a Slave” Told at Southern Plantation Museums? Collectors Weekly 28 February.
Cherry Lynne Pyburn Levin
2012 Wedding Belles and Enslaved Brides: Louisiana Plantation Weddings in Fact, Fiction and Folklore. PhD dissertation, Texas A&M University.
Arnold Modlin, Jr.
2008 Tales Told on the Tour: Mythic Representations of Slavery by Docents at North Carolina Plantation Museums. Southeastern Geographer 48(3):265-287. (subscription access)
Belle Meade Plantation 1940 Historic American Buildings Survey (Lester Jones) image from Library of Congress
Boone Hall Avenue of Oaks 1940 Historic American Buildings Survey (C.O. Greene) image from Library of Congress
Boone Hall Avenue of Oaks image from bluesurf1311
Boone Hall Slave Quarters image from denisbin
Flossenburg Camp image from author
Flossenburg Castle image from Nikater
Magnolia Plantation Stereoscope circa 1870-1895 image from New York Public Library
Nottoway Plantation image from Elisa.rolle
Nottoway Plantation White Ballroom image from Kermit K. Murray