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A New Kind of Education

I have to admit something. I used to love “Gone With the Wind.” I loved Scarlett. I loved the swelling overture music. I loved the epic love story. I loved Clark Gable. Now I can’t even look at the DVD.

It glorified a piece of American history that has been groomed for nostalgia and revery of a simpler time. Plantations from the antebellum south have been preserved for weddings and sorority reunions. The white pillars and rolling landscapes mask the torture, murder, and the war on humanity that was slavery in America.

John Cummings has attempted to reveal the realities of our past in a tangible way in order to force Americans to reckon with where we’ve been. Cummings is a very wealthy entrepreneur who was born and raised in Wallace, Louisiana, 35 miles west of New Orleans. He is the descendant of Irish immigrants. In other words, he is very, very white. His surprising latest project is covered in detail in an article in The New York Times, where he says, “If ‘guilt’ is the best word to use, then yes, I feel guilt,” he said. “I mean, you start understanding that the wealth of this part of the world — wealth that has benefited me — was created by some half a million black people who just passed us by. How is it that we don’t acknowledge this?”

Cummings bought the 220 year-old Whitney Plantation for $8 million, which produced a huge portion of the state’s sugar cane throughout the 18th and early 19th century. He has turned this into the largest scale and mostly widely publicized, often called “the very first,” slavery museum in America.

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The Wall of Honor

In the NYT article, Laura Rosanne Adderley, a professor from Tulane who specializes in the history of slavery says, “’Everything about the way the place came together says that it shouldn’t work…And yet for the most part it does, superbly and even radically. Like Maya Lin’s memorial, the Whitney has figured out a way to mourn those we as a society are often reluctant to mourn.’”

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Cummings in the Church

There is a baptist church on the land that is filled with statues of young black boys and girls whose lives were taken by slavery looming near the pews. There is a wall of honor with a list of the names of every slave who is recorded to have worked on the plantation. The WPA recordings of interviews with former slaves are played aloud throughout the tour. There is also a memorial to the German Coast uprising, when 125 slaves walked off their plantations and marched along River Road towards New Orleans, only to be slaughtered. Dozens of their decapitated heads were placed on spikes along the river to ward off further disobedience. So there are 60 ceramic heads on steel rods on the island of the seemingly charming lagoon at the Whitney. Cummings says, “’Just in case you’re worried about people getting distracted by the pretty house over there, the last thing you’ll see before leaving here will be 60 beheaded slaves….It is disturbing…But you know what else? It happened. It happened right here on this road.'”

It’s $22 to go on a guided tour of the Whitney. My real education of my ancestry as a  White American begins here. All that money for public school textbooks could have been saved with a $22 ticket.

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