I picked up a couple of books on my upcoming university year’s reading list. I chose ones that looked most like holiday reads. Modern, relatively slim, escapist in nature. How wrong I was to consider Octavia Butler’s Kindred as some kind of rollicking science fiction adventure.
The short summary of the book may sound like it promises something escapist. The protagonist finds herself transported mysteriously to the antebellum American South, with no idea why. What I discovered after reading the book was that the character is black, that her husband is white, and that it does not flinch from showing that just over a hundred years ago, we were treating people worse than we treat cattle. That there are people alive today who had grandparents born into slavery. That the success and wealth of many people in America, very buildings that still stand today, are not only borne of the fruits of slavery, but unspeakable things happened within their walls.
My reading of the book was timely, considering my holiday was to the American South. The further south I went, the more I had to confront this experience I had just read about. It’s not that I hadn’t considered slavery previously. There was just something about the book, it was so intimate despite the fantasy of the plot. I felt the anger, the reasons I don’t think America has resolved this part of their history. Only weeks ago, Michelle Obama spoke about watching her children grow up in a house built by slaves. There are still people who find it perfectly acceptable to say things like “Well, the slaves were treated well” or “it wasn’t only slaves that built the White House”.
We sat in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. We sat next to people who fifty years ago would not have been allowed in the building. We visited the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was shot. I naively wondered why he hadn’t stayed in a more prestigious venue. I hadn’t considered he wouldn’t have been allowed to. That the Lorraine Motel was notable, because it was a respectable venue black people were allowed to stay in. The hotel now sits trapped in time, in practically the same state it was when Martin Luther King was shot there. I see someone insensitively spitting next to Dr. King’s memorial plaque. A family pose by the motel sign, for a photo, cheering, one of the family members sitting on the others’ shoulders. We put things behind glass and suddenly people think it’s Disneyland.
So do we just let life continue? Do we turn everything into a museum? What are we sweeping under the carpet, without realising the thread that runs from the horrors we perpetrated to the unrest we are living in now?
New Orleans forces me to consider this more fully, like no other city I have been in. The French Quarter is equal parts hedonism and elegant charm. My first shock is in our hotel, where the “charming romantic luxury cottage” at the back of the hotel’s courtyard turns out to be former slave quarters. The hotel describes this nonchalantly. It turns out the house was built by rich slave owners, this part is not shocking. Yet their portraits hang in our room, watching us. I wonder what quiet, domestic horrors happen within the walls, repainted for our relaxation and enjoyment. I am at least satisfied to think that two men sleeping in their old bed would disgust them.
We visit a restaurant claiming to be housed in one of the oldest buildings in New Orleans. There’s a lot of that here, wanting to lay claim to a piece of history in a country that has a history in its infancy, at least where the textbooks are concerned. Next to the appetisers is a little yellow block of text, orating on Andrew Jackson the war hero. Oh and by the way, this building was also used as a slave exchange. I’m not sure if these fast sentences on such a brutal part of American society are embarrassment or oversight. Perhaps both.
For a city so wrapped up in its past, the romance of the antebellum era stomps all over how the luxury was attained. St Louis Cathedral overlooks Jackson Square, formerly known as Plaza De Armas. Andrew Jackson sits in the exact centre, atop his horse in statue form, looking for a fight. Beyond that, the river and Cafe Du Monde, where we sit and drink chicory coffee and eat beignets. Surely in the centre of all this, there is at least one museum, one exhibiton, dedicated to slavery.
I have a curious desire to stand in the spot where people suffered, without the distraction of luxury romantic cottages or seafood gumbo. I want to see a “slave quarters” (let’s be honest and call them prisons…cages…) for what they were, to close my eyes for a second and fully appreciate what human beings are capable of doing to each other. I think that’s why places like Auschwitz are so important, we can never afford to forget. I can’t find anywhere that hasn’t been converted into a kitchen, a bathroom. Nowhere that isn’t tucked away in the back of some courtyard and forgotten.
On the train we met a couple from Baton Rouge, who told us to visit the plantation houses. The very word plantation turns my stomach. A little later in the conversation, the husband complains about all the Asians on the West Coast, how they’ve “taken over”. The wife looks at her feet.
All I can find online are “plantation adventures”. Their words, not mine. For $90 you can hop on a boat and be taken to a plantation, where actors sit around in period clothing and you can relive the romance of the antebellum South. How quaint. I don’t know if it’s worse that they have no black actors, or better. The only plantation offering a focus on slavery is the Whitney plantation. We don’t get a chance to go this time.
We do, however, visit several famous buildings. Among them, the LaLaurie Mansion, site of the infamous Madame LaLaurie murders made famous by American Horror Story. I had no idea Madame LaLaurie was a real person. Some of the depictions of slavery in American Horror Story turned me off as bombastic, I found it difficult to see. It then turns out Madame LaLaurie may have mistreated a few of her slaves, she was definitely guilty of murdering some of them, but there was no torture chamber. Nobody had their mouths sewn shut or skin torn off. Instead, a fire was started in the kitchen, and when the authorities came to investigate they found a slave woman tied to the stove. She claimed to start the fire, preferring to die than continue to be mistreated in this way. What’s the need for stories of secret attics, when the truth is much worse?
There’s something here about legends. Sitting on our terrace, we overhear a tour guide explain about The Dungeon bar which is opposite our hotel. In 2003, a man met The Vampire King and Queen of New Orleans, who he took back to his hotel room. They cut his throat and drunk his blood, then ran away, eventually caught outside a Denny’s in Tallahassee. He tells it exactly the same way the night after, warning people to be careful about New Orleans and its vampires. Anne Rice has a lot to answer for.
I google the story, thinking the specifics are much too specific to just be completely made up. It turns out to be partly true. A Microsoft employee did meet a group of people in The Dungeon bar in New Orleans in 2003. They did go back to his hotel room. They hit him over the head with a champagne bottle and he died in the hot tub. They were caught outside a Denny’s in Florida. Motivation has never been discovered, just people being brutal to other people.
Do we need the embellishments to make the story more tolerable? Must we turn ordinary people into monsters in order to cope with the truth, that anyone is capable of being brutal to each other? That the most respectable of women with the tallest of buildings in 1800’s New Orleans can have a slave tied to the stove, and that the entire French Quarter was built upon the suffering of others. So we turn her into a monster, to make ourselves feel better about what we’re sweeping under the carpet, and we build a statue to Andrew Jackson in the middle of a town square instead, to disguise the fact a terrible man became “the people’s President”, and at least he was a war hero.
Perhaps American Horror Story isn’t as insensitive as it looks at first glance. Every aspect of its five seasons has dealt with real concepts. School shootings, how we treat our disabled, affairs, freak shows, asylums, women, people of colour, slavery, drugs, serial killers. This is the lore of America, except it didn’t happen long enough ago to still not resonate. I found the serial killer dinner at the end of season five uncomfortable. Jeffrey Dahmer was among the invited, and the victims’ families are still alive. How would you feel, to turn on the television and see the man that killed and ate your son turned into a character on an Emmy award winning show?
Except maybe, psychologically, this is the only way we can cope with Jeffrey Dahmer, blonde all-American well-to-do boy from suburban America, with professional parents and a good education. Who managed to continue his killing spree due to police incompetence. Who literally ran after one of his victims and had the boy handed back to him by police, who thought it was some kind of weird gay thing. Perhaps its a more comforting world, to turn these people into otherworldly monsters, to mix them up into urban legends, to know that as long as you follow the rules (don’t walk down the street alone at night, don’t go into the basement) you’ll be safe.
In the same week as 9/11, a Texas mattress company gets into trouble for a comedic advert depicting their “twin tower” sale. Where employees jump off mattresses screaming. Pretty disgusting. Yet we have bars glorifying the Cuban Revolution, we have Titanic jokes, we have Soviet-themed vodka. What’s the statute of limitations on good taste? Are some things always hallowed, like the Holocaust? It seems there are buttons we are not allowed to press.
Later in the week, my boyfriend proposes on the terrace of the building. We make happy memories in a house that probably did not have many happy ones for some of its residents. We can leave through the front door, while the ghosts of others stay in the back, hiding in the luxury cottage.
Maybe the greatest achievement is this freedom we have, to either bury our ghosts or confront them head-on. If the slave quarters are now kitchens, and the descendants of those kept inside can walk in and out of them without a shudder, perhaps we have some form of progress. If Madame LaLaurie gives us chills but we can turn the television off, that horror isn’t around us as much it used to be.
In the movie The Final Girls, the protagonists get sucked into a 70’s horror movie, where they are forced to watch as the main villain hacks a couple to death in the woods with a bayonet. One of the characters remarks that the people they are watching aren’t real, so it’s not actually murder. It’s probably just corn syrup. He takes his finger to a wound and realises in horror that it’s real blood. It’s played for a joke, but it’s something to ponder. I have more questions than answers right now, but at least I have a good idea.
It’s a start.