A new look at Old South -- from slaves' perspective

March 03, 1996|By Glenn McNatt

THE NOSTALGIC image of the antebellum South that has come down to us through popular books and movies so outrages many African-Americans that the mere reminder of it late last year was enough to cause black employees at the Library of Congress to force the cancellation of an exhibit on plantation life.

The exhibit, titled "Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery," was based on a book by John Michael Vlach, a professor of American studies and anthropology at George Washington University.

Mr. Vlach, who is white, represents the younger generation of American historians who have greatly enlarged the conventional view of who the main actors of the Old South were and how they exercised their power. Last week, he presented a lecture and slide show at Goucher College during which he frankly acknowledged the debt his work owed to the historiography of the 1960s, which put new emphasis on examining the past as it was lived by ordinary people.

Thus Mr. Vlach set out to describe plantation society not from the masters' point of view, but from the perspective of the slaves, who did the work and created the wealth on which the system was built. Through words and pictures, he demonstrates convincingly that the plantation was a "contested" culture in which blacks took an active role in defining and claiming their territorial domains as well as the terms of their servitude.

In the narrowly circumscribed but fiercely defended regions of -- autonomy the slaves managed to carve out for themselves, they created a distinctive and complete culture invented out of their own genius. In doing so, they empowered themselves, transformed the landscape in which they lived, and forced their masters to acknowledge their common humanity.

Using photographs, drawings, contemporary reports and oral histories of former slaves, Vlach described a plantation landscape that, while chiefly the creation of slaveholders, was imbued by the slaves with their own meanings and uses. Their subtle acts of appropriation constituted one of the more effective strategies of slave resistance and one that provided a locus for the formation of a distinctive African-American culture in the South.

This view of the plantation is, of course, sharply at odds with the image portrayed in "Gone with the Wind," the quintessential popular American representation of the antebellum South. In that mythical land, the white members of the planter class, which never constituted more than 1 percent of the Old South's population, were the only active agents. All others -- blacks, ethnic whites, poor yeoman farmers -- were passive instrumentalities to be dominated, exploited or simply pushed aside.

It should go without saying that "Gone with the Wind" represents a dangerous oversimplification of a complex reality. Its facile falsehoods blind us not only to the day-to-day character of life as it was lived on the plantation, but also to the deeper meaning of that history, which, if it were more clearly understood, might enable us to draw strength from its great truths and transcend its horrors.

Yet the image of slavery and the Old South presented in "Gone with the Wind" is practically impervious to change. It seems a myth that Americans, black and white, can't quite do without -- perhaps because even though they know it is false, they have nothing to put in its place.

History nevertheless has a way of punishing us severely for refusing to learn its lessons. A persistent and willful avoidance of what the writer Edith Hamilton once called the "hard facts of this world" can only deepen the moral crisis that confronts us each time we are compelled to address the continuing social consequences of the plantation's tragic legacy.

If we cannot clearly see what has gone before, if our vision of the past remains clouded and uncertain because it has been refracted through a distorted lens shaped by guilt and shame, we shall never be capable of grasping our present or transforming our future.

The image of the plantation presented by "Gone with the Wind" offers the comforting illusion of a past shorn of cruelty and injustice and the bitter, life-and-death struggle that daily was waged between master and slave to impose or resist these evils.

Mr. Vlach, by contrast, shows that the battle shaped the very landscape over which it was fought, that it was embodied in the architecture of the plantations' buildings, in the geometry of their layout, in the placement of fields, roads, fences, mills, stables and smokehouses. His is a vision stripped of platitudes that offers a compass far more reliable than myth for a moral reassessment of the origins of America's racial dilemma -- but only if Americans, black and white, can put aside the childish fiction of "Gone with the Wind" long enough to discover it.

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