Plantation Tales

Old and New

By way of introduction, three epigraphs:

a) “I used to say My name is also Jack the Rabbit because my home is in the briarpatch, and Little Buddy (than whom there was never a better riddle buddy) used to say Me my name is Jack the Rabbit also because my home is also in the also and also of the briarpatch because that is also where I was also bred and also born. And when I also used to say My name is also Jack the Bear he always used to say My home is also nowhere and also anywhere and also everywhere.”

---from Albert Murray’s novel, Train Whistle Guitar (1974), p. 4

b) Milan Kundera’s idea: when people are walking and trying to remember something, they slow up; when people are trying to forget something, they speed up. In his novel, Slowness.

Fiber optics may speed things up so much that it all loops around to becoming a new way of remembering (?).

c) "Our ties to beings and things are so fragile they often break without us noticing."

"You try to be free through writing. How wrong. Every word unveils another tie."
---Reb Léca

Léca is a rabbi and commentator, one of the characters in Edmond Jabès' The Book of Questions, p. 37. Trans. Rosemarie Waldrop. Hanover NH: Wesleyan UP, 1991. Jabès' texts were originally published in France in 1964-65.

A trip to Louisiana (especially Lafayette and the surrounding bayous, plus New Orleans) and Mississippi,

April 25 - May 3, 1996.

1. Around Lafayette, Louisiana

The expanded highways, built in the 50s and 60s, follow the train tracks and plow through the poorest black section of Lafayette, small wooden one-story houses and other buildings. The road splits and many people live inside the “median” between the two highways, in some cases with the cars traveling at 50mph right off the steps of their front porches. A few have responded by turning a former home into a restaurant (“Mama’s Fried Chicken”) or drive-in Daiquiri stands (legal in Louisiana): “Bogart’s Daiquiri’s.” Cars are lined up outside of these at all hours in the evenings.

A new Comfort Inn in the 1980s is constructed in the middle of one of these neighborhoods, just up from the river from a sewage plant constructed a decade or so earlier but screened from it by a stand of trees. The city just took the land it needed, displacing houses.

The Comfort Inn is a set of landscaped motel room complexes surrounded by a parking lots and a high fence. The parking areas are floodlit all night. The light also floods into the neighborhood on the other side of the fence, wooden one-story houses like those split by the highway nearby. They have open porches, a window or two on the sides and front, a peaked roof. Many need paint. The yards are often bare, from all the pets and children constantly moving about, though some have small gardens out back. At night, the yellow-tinged light from the Inn is so strong that it must come into the front rooms of these houses even through shades.

One morning I see a boy with a German shepherd puppy on a leash walking away from the motel apartments carrying a white styrofoam food container. Is this leftovers from someone’s room service or from the main kitchen, gathered by one of the “housekeepers” (note the euphemism) or kitchen workers, maybe even by his mother or sister? He holds it in his hand carefully, as his dog frisks beside him. He’s angling toward a corner of the parking lot, where there may be a break in the fence. He’s clearly taking something that was carefully and secretly packed for him, taking it back to one of the houses on the “other side” of the Comfort Inn’s fence.

Comfort Inn as new/old plantation Big House, with the Slave Quarters behind—or rather the Big House after Reconstruction, when the economics of slavery became slightly modified to accommodate paying wages, thus putting the power relationships on a more “modern” basis while social relations changed little. What percentage of adults from the surrounding neighborhood work at the Comfort Inn as housekeepers or in food service and the dining room, or the laundry rooms? (The men and women employed at the front desk are on the other side of the color line and are dressed in suit jackets to signify they belong to a different class of employee.) Mostly, this new Big House seeks to have nothing to do with the world on the other side of its fence, except that it needs it for contract labor.

The “American” right to free passage, movement, travel (and to find a “comfort inn” at the end of the day): freedom for us tends instinctively to mean freedom of movement, to take to the road. Of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we think that in many ways these aren’t three separate terms or “rights” but three names for the same thing, and the greatest of these is “pursuit.”

(We rarely examine or are comfortable with other possible meanings for “freedom” that don’t involve movement, that involve staying put or in discovering the network of relations that links things together. Or the meaning of freedom that involves movement in another way, dissent from the majority---this makes us too uneasy, despite all the mouthings we make about valuing freedom of speech as much as freedom of movement.)

Liberty as freedom-of-movement thus also means the freedom to bulldoze through others’ homes if they can’t stop you.

Question: When in 1999 is the word "plantation" used as a point of pride, to signify prosperity and enhanced real estate values?

Answer: look at the upscale housing developments/gated communities/golf courses that have taken over the various "Sea Islands" (such as Hilton Head) off the Georgia and South Carolina coasts.

Formerly actual indigo and rice-growing plantations, these islands became mostly free black communities after the Civil War, renowned for the "Gullah" speech and their retention of African traditions. (For one contemporary portrait, see Julie Dash's movie early 1990s movie Daughters of the Dust plus the novel of the same title she published in 1999 continuing the story of the Peazant family.)

By the 1990s, however, they are increasingly becoming gated communities for rich whites. Dash's work captures history at its vanishing point.




















2. Teche’d

South of Lafayette, we drive by “Shadows on the Teche,” a stately plantation Big House built with money from sugar cane. The house has two impressive facades showing wealth and leisure, one facing the road and one the bayou Teche behind, a vista of slowly flowing waters and live oaks with their swaying moss.

“Shadows on the Teche” is a haunted name. Shadows as dreams of leisure on the bayou, softness and the play of light and dark for contemplation from the back patio with a drink in hand. Versus a different vision: shadows as fears of slave uprisings, as the hidden movements of guilt and nightmares: these had to shadow the Big House’s self-regard as well.

Sugar cane is still the main crop in the fields. The new-growth cane is just emerging from its humps, while stalks from last-year’s crops turn gray in the sharp sun as they litter the fields. Mexican primroses dance in the wind along the edge of the fields, near the roads, where chicory would grow up North.

3. New Orleans

At the Camellia Grill, New Orleans: the black waiters’ code for new white customers coming in through the door is “two more malteds in the house!”

A crucial book bought in New Orleans: Jerah Johnson’s Congo Square in New Orleans (Louisiana Landmark Society, 1995).

Is there anything more important in American history than the story of this square? At least, its story juxtaposed with that of the Constitution and its history (its ideals vs. its realities)?

This is the site where the history of how the African and the European were combined can be told—or, rather, the story of how they could be combined in a different way, undoing the color-line or a least redrawing it in a way very different from how both the white North and the white South wanted it drawn. And even more crucial than the history of the square is how its history of survival and resistance and transformation is the story of how this synthesis was carried away, was made portable when the square itself was calculatedly destroyed by the New Orleans authorities as a place for revolutionary interaction. Drawing on the square’s performance traditions but now no longer linked to one site: moveable, on the move, first to Storyville and then to the rest of the country.

Been here and gone.... Jerah Johnson’s book sketches all these histories....






SECTION: LOCAL NEWS; Section B; Page 1

HEADLINE: J.M. Wilson, Marietta's mayor, dies


Joe Mack Wilson, a first-term mayor of Marietta and a former chairman of the Ways and Means Committee of the Georgia House of Representatives, died Monday while taking a nap. He was 73. The apparent cause was heart trouble, a relative said. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Mr. Wilson, a jeweler, was elected Marietta mayor in 1989. "All I wanted the job for was to show them I could get it," he said later. He proposed a commuter rail station for the city, reversing an earlier anti-MARTA stance in the Legislature, and vetoed a $ 5.5 million line of credit the City Council approved in 1990, saying the risks outweighed the benefits. "The greatest accomplishment of the Wilson administration is the atmosphere, procedures and mechanics in making the city of Marietta a well-run business administration," he told the Kiwanis Club in January. "We're not there yet, but give me five more years and we'll get there."

Mayor Pro Tem Marion Rigo will serve as acting mayor until a special election can be called, according to City Manager Ken Vanderslice. Mr. Wilson served in the state House for 26 years, from 1962 until losing the office in 1988. He headed the powerful Ways and Means Committee from 1983 to 1988.

A self-proclaimed "old mossback conservative," [Mr. Wilson] needled the city of Atlanta often in the Legislature, co-authoring a 1966 "Stop Atlanta" ballot measure that voters approved. It required the approval of a majority of the county's voters before Atlanta could annex Cobb land.

In 1968, Mr. Wilson and others wrote a law creating the 10-foot-wide mythical city of Chattahoochee Plantation along the river. They took advantage of a state law prohibiting any city to cross another in an annexation move; their target was Atlanta.

[The object of this mythical but legal plantation city is not clearly described here in Mr. Wilson's obiturary. But it can be inferred: it was to stop Atlanta from expanding northward into Cobb County---and, more specifically, to draw the line on blacks moving in. For similar reasons, efforts to build an area mass-transit systems uniting Atlanta and Cobb County (which presumably would have benefited everyone in the area) were repeatedly blocked by Cobb County legislators, who wanted a clean "color-line" between too-black Atlanta and white Cobb, though of course they hardly described their motives in such terms. Atlanta built more and more highways and now, in the late 1990s, has some of the worst traffic congestion in the United States.]





5. Aunt Jemima and the Blues Highway, 1996

On the famous Highway 61, just south of Natchez, Mississippi, I come upon a classic “roadside attraction” in which a building imitates something else, something that it sells, like a hot dog or a burger.

In this case, it is a brightly painted 2-story restaurant in the shape of Aunt Jemima.

The second story—really an immense, sculpted roof—is Aunt Jemima’s torso and head, with wide eyes, lips a bright red to contrast with her white teeth and eyes and black face, and a large kerchief tied on one side of her head, flaring upward. There are dimples in her cheeks, so great is her delight to be of service.

The first story is the restaurant itself. It has a row of windows on either side and a central door. But what is so amazing about it is that the eating area is shaped like Aunt Jemima’s voluminous skirt. It is bright red and billowing (and punctured by window!). Those who eat in the restaurant go “underneath” her skirt.

Was there ever a better illustration of what the black woman as “Mammy” meant to whites? (But maybe I should use the present tense.) She was defined by the bodily needs of whites she had to nurture, from suckling other people’s children to supplying a warm touch or a retreat when their real parents didn’t give it. Later, she became a brand name selling syrup fer yer pancakes. (She's not an actual person, though historical mammies existed by the thousand, but an expected role---desires and demands as "embodied" in a cultural icon.)

This restaurant is startling not just because it so slyly links needs of the stomach with other, more sexual, demands, but that it does it so openly, unabashedly, unselfconsciously. Go under that skirt and get your eats, chile!

And the restaurant does this while reassuringly saying that the past lives on even as it becomes modern, becomes an icon associated with a modern highway, not the old plantations. This "roadside attraction" is not just advertising the food the restaurant sells but a whole world that goes with the food: an easy modern "drive-in" to the lost world of the Big House's porches and dining rooms (and bedrooms)....

Three men in bright white shirts stand outside the main entrance in the sunlight, chatting after lunch. What time IS it, anyway?

Highway 61 revisited... bringing it all back home....


illustration above from the story "Aunt Anniky's Teeth" in Sherwood Bonner's collection
Dialect Tales



Packaging: Container as Context

by Gail F. Stern

The evolution of the Aunt Jemima image offers an interesting case study of how a package can change over time. Figure 5 is an advertisement for Aunt Jemima Pancake Flour as it appeared in a Ladies Home journal of [OCTOBER] 1924.

Round-faced, grinning and wearing a kerchief wrapped around her head, Aunt Jemima was meant to represent an experienced cook and was reminiscent of a stereotypical slave "mammy." (The term "aunt" connotes the closeness, affection and trust in which black servants were held.) The image of Aunt Jemima figured prominently in the design of the 1924 box.

By the 1940's, although the painted illustration of Aunt Jemima had become a more realistic photograph, her portly appearance remained essentially the same. She was still portrayed as a servant and her portrait continued to be a salient feature of the package design. On today's package, Aunt Jemima, who has been relegated to a small oval on the comer of the box, is no longer represented by a photograph. The portrait on the current box is a younger, slimmer image of a black housewife (a checkered sweatband substituting for the familiar kerchief). [For one example of these more "modern" Aunt Jemimas, see the repeated background images repeated in the Betye Saar construction, below.]

While the Quaker Oats Company, which has owned Aunt Jemima Mills since 1926, has transformed an outmoded representation of a black "mammy" to a younger, more upbeat stereotype, she is still recognizably Aunt Jemima. The continuity of the brand name has been maintained while the image of the product has been changed to minimize the suggestion of social inferiority and gain acceptance in today's market.

Gail F Stern, a specialist in American material
culture, has been Museum Curator of the Balch
Institute for Ethnic Studies since 1979.

another meaning


a Mammy's

"feist song"?

banner ads
bandana ads
send away for your "rag dolls" today!
Seizing the Power of Images


Betye Saar, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima
1972, mixed media, 11 3/4 x 8 x 2 3/4 inches


We [anonymous, connected to the J. Paul Getty art museum in California] asked Martin Rosenberg, professor of art history at the University of
Nebraska, Omaha, to discuss a work of art from four points of view--those of
the artist, the critic, the aesthetician, and the art historian. These four
disciplines form the foundation of discipline-based art education, an
approach that can open up new ways of making, seeing, and understanding art
for students of all ages. Dr. Rosenberg chose Betye Saar's The Liberation of
Aunt Jemima

Dr. Rosenberg's comments:
Betye Saar's The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, created in 1972, is a work of
mixed media, a series of images layered one on top of the other in a box.
Overall, it measures about 11 3/4 by 8 by 3/4 inches--about as big as a
book. Yet, this assemblage of found objects, with the artist's significant
choices and alterations, overflows its rather small and intimate space with
a disruptive, even magical, intensity.

An artist looking at this work begins to ask questions from the perspective
of his or her own artistic values, such as: Why did the artist present this
content in this way? Does it work? Is there something I can use here? All
artists manipulate visual elements to convey a concept, and so they ask: Do
these elements work together to make a clear statement? And--the critic's
question also arises--how does the skillful way Saar has combined these
images affect how I see the work? Will others see it in the same way?

In part, this work is about stereotyping. It is also about the power of
images and who controls them. At the back layer of this nesting of pictures
and objects in Saar's box are commercial images of Aunt Jemima. She is an
emblem of American consumerism, the smiling, benign, light-skinned symbol of
hearth and home--and of the happy African-American woman confined to one of
the only roles allowed her--that of a household servant. By the repetition
of images, as in the work of Andy Warhol, Saar dehumanizes the image of Aunt
Jemima even further, reducing her to pure facsimile and thereby making us
question the relationship between image and reality.

Looming in front of these images is a "Mammy" doll--formidable, large of
girth, and very Black. It is the sort of effigy that out of this context
might be used to denigrate, much as the painted, cast-iron Black jockeys
decorating the lawns of certain homes in White neighborhoods served as
reminders that Blacks were once the slaves who held the horses. But,
provocatively, Saar has placed a broom in one hand and a gun in the other.
And by doing so she has utterly altered the image: What now lies behind that
innocent smile? With these alterations, an African-American artist has
transformed a negative image into one of power.

We are drawn to the box's outer layer by a picture of an entirely different
Aunt Jemima. This one stands assertively with a squalling White child held
nonchalantly on one hip and with a don't-mess-with-me smile on her face. She
stands behind a white picket fence with a white sheet (an object with
complex associations) draped over it. The sheet is almost obliterated by a
brown fist raised in the Black power salute. So, as we move outward through
this palimpsest of images, the picture of Aunt Jemima is transformed from a
negative stereotype to an assertive, independent human being. Saar has, in
effect, seized control of the power of images to define identity.

What framework do we have for considering the aesthetic questions raised by
Saar's work? We could talk about formal elements, but that wouldn't get us
very far. Artists in the twentieth century have constantly redefined art,
and Betye Saar demonstrates the dadaists' belief that art happens at the
conceptual level. Perhaps the most useful aesthetic stance would be a
postmodern one--one that looks at how images construct what we perceive as

But, to me, the most interesting question about our critical response to the
work is: How does the gender, race, ethnicity, experience, and age of the
viewer of The Liberation of Aunt Jemima affect his or her response to it? It
is an extraordinarily profound work, and if we have open enough minds and
hearts to let it in, we cannot see it without confronting our own values and
morality, whether one is a Black female or a White male of European descent.

As an art historian, I see Betye Saar's work in a variety of perspectives.
First, the Harlem Renaissance of art and literature in the early part of the
twentieth century brought Black culture and Black consciousness to a wider
audience, setting the stage for artists who, like Saar, wished to express a
distinctly African-American voice. Also, Saar, who started out as a graphic
designer, emerged as an artist during the civil rights movement of the
1960s, a time that helped shape her political outlook.

When she was a girl, Saar lived in Los Angeles, where she watched Simon
Rodia incorporate discarded scraps of glass and metal into his famous Watts
Towers. The idea of using found bits and pieces to construct art goes back
at least to the years between the world wars. An example is in the work of
German artist Kurt Schwitters, who made collages out of trash.

Magic and the occult were also part of Saar's early life. Her mother, who
traced her lineage back to New Orleans, believed herself to be clairvoyant
and was interested in Afro-Caribbean culture and in voodoo. Later, Saar was
strongly impressed by a late 1960s exhibition of the art of Joseph Cornell,
who built boxes combining commonplace objects to create a magical quality.

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima draws its remarkable energy and mystique from
all of these currents. And in raising the issues of power and otherness, it
has wise things to say about our society, its values, and its history. Its
meaning is still as provocative today as it was twenty years ago.
© 1999 J. Paul Getty Trust

[Interpolations in brackets are neither authorized nor trusted by the Getty Trust. They are not meant to mock Rosenberg or Saar, but they are meant to raise questions about Getty's "interest" in this work.]

Betye Saar, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972
saar feist song
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