The curator of Whitney Plantation Museum, America’s only museum dedicated solely to the history of slavery, has a message for the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville.
“We should bring them to the Whitney. Something will change in their minds,” says Ibrahima Seck, who began working on the museum in Edgard, Louisiana, 14 years ago. The Whitney finally opened in 2015.
In an era when white supremacists rally to protect Confederate monuments, questions of how America should reckon with its history of slavery are more relevant than ever. The Whitney Plantation offers up the history of the 1811 slave revolt — reportedly America’s largest-ever slave rebellion — as well as a glimpse into the lives of child slaves, an explanation of the roles African leaders played in exacerbating the slave trade, and much more, all through the eyes of slaves themselves.
Seck came to the museum after it was purchased by John Cummings, a wealthy lawyer. “Like every white boy here in the South, he wanted to own a plantation,” recalls Seck, who began curating the Whitney after earning his PhD in history.
Seck, who is black, describes Whitney as a spark. His spark has already begun to catch fire, changing the national discussion on how history is presented to make slave stories relevant — including at the many other famous plantation homes surrounding Whitney, whose “history” tours used to all but ignore the issue of how all that white Southern opulence came to be.
Seck and I discussed the Whitney’s history and the difference between this monument to slavery and Confederate monuments. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Michael Patrick Welch: After my first visit last year, I came away feeling like the Whitney Plantation was one of the few feasible medicines for the problems we’re currently suffering in America.
You don’t get everything when you go there for an hour and a half. But this will be the spark that ignites something new in your mind. And that’s why it’s important.
Michael Patrick Welch: One thing the Whitney confronts well is how not only were slaves’ bodies taken from them, but also their histories, their lineages, not to mention their names. I feel like that didn’t sink in for me until I visited the Whitney, even though technically I’d already known that.
I always tell people, they did what they could to erase your past. Even if you run away, you cannot go home. And one day you just surrender. But that doesn’t mean that home doesn’t exist anymore inside you, because you don’t need a suitcase to pack your culture; it is in you. But they erase your identity, your past; you cannot trace your family back.
Michael Patrick Welch: You’ve traced a lot of famous slave names back to Africa — I remember seeing Toussaint on the marble slabs, and Batiste, all of New Orleans’s famous musical dynasties. But then, unlike at, say, the Vietnam War memorial, you have the slaves’ names listed on the marble slabs in complete disarray. Is it symbolic that they are not listed alphabetically or chronologically?
Yes, the names appear chronological in our database, but when we printed them on the granite the slabs they were just random, to show the way these people’s histories were.
But I tell African Americans, don’t worry about knowing exactly where you came from. Consider every country of Africa your home — just manage to travel to Africa if you can, one time. Remember that these people [slave owners] did break you physically, but they were never able to own your soul. You kept your soul. You did the job; you built this country. This country was initially built on slave labor — everywhere, North, South.
But beyond that, remember that you contributed tremendously to the making of American culture and identity. And what makes American culture so attractive outside the world has something to do with things that were born on the plantation, that Afro-Creole culture. It is in the food, in the music, it is in the religion. It’s in storytelling, folktales. It’s in the link between Br’er Rabbit and Bugs Bunny — it’s the same bunny!