Of plantations, mythic pasts, and wedding presents

In 2008, my grandfather asked that I meet him in Washington, DC for his WWII ship’s reunion. I did. The first day was scheduled group sight-seeing (imagine 28-year-old me and about a dozen octogenarians, driven via small bus from site to site). The next day was free. Individual parties could do what they wished. I proposed we (my grandfather and his bff’s Flo & Ralph) visit nearby Mount Vernon, home of George Washington. When I mentioned our plans, one of the other navy wives suggested the possibility of a similar trip to her husband. “Okay, but we’ve been there before,” he said. “Oh, yes,” she recalled. “We went there after our honeymoon. In 1954.” “Well,” I said, “I imagine it’s changed some since then.” Fingers crossed.

While the presentation of Mount Vernon has, indeed, changed dramatically in the last fifty plus years, there’s evidence to suggest that other plantation sites have failed to keep up with anything resembling even remotely accurate representations of their past sins. And there’s a population happy to engage in the mythic pasts perpetuated and celebrated at these venues. A recent post from Facebook friend JE points to the intersection of southern hospitality, contemporary wedding culture, and total historical amnesia. A wedding promoted on the site OffbeatBride.com, “Nicole & Sean’s vintage-inspired, handmade, casual southern wedding,” speaks directly to this confluence of forces.

Nicole and Sean’s 2009 Charleston, South Carolina celebration took place at Magnolia Plantation. Their wedding is a perfect example of what I’d argue are some of the primary trends in contemporary wedding culture: focus on personalization, some measure of DIY, budget consciousness, and integration of community participation. And that’s great. You’ll find a live-and-let-live approach to weddings to be a primary theme in my posts and in my views of wedding culture more broadly. But for a couple claiming to have been so thoughtful in their celebration and preparation, Nicole and Sean’s seeming inability to historicize the location of their wedding – and recognize the problems that location presented to their desire to have lots of “fun” pictures – blows my mind. Their focus on Harry Potter wedding elements seemingly displaced any recognition of the horrific realities attached to the site on which they chose to wed. Facebook friend JE rightly noted the irony of the couples’ “working out” the problems they had with the idea of a wedding as a time when one is given away: “They [their parents] gave us their blessing, rather than passing us like property.” How nice to have that option.


Magnolia Plantation, site of “Offbeat” wedding, http://offbeatbride.com/2010/10/south-carolina-vintage-wedding

Even as I can’t understand it entirely, I appreciate the challenge southerners face in claiming pride in their home, when, very clearly, it’s a region fraught with tension on any number of levels. As a New Jersey native, I often find myself in a position to defend my homeland (I will cut you, shit talkers [Sorry. Old habits.]). But, for southerners (and for all of us) there are ways of demonstrating sensitivity to the past without ignoring it entirely. And Offbeat Bride should be ashamed for their half-assed defense of plantation as venue when a commenter offered (to my mind) a very gentle critique. The administrator’s feedback: “Anita, you bring up a really interesting point. On Offbeat Bride we’ve featured several weddings in locations with potentially disturbing histories — castle dungeons, prisons, and cemeteries come to mind. This is in no way a defense or negation of the atrocity that is America’s legacy of slavery, or an attempt to divorce the history of a space from its current uses … but I wonder if for some people, shifting the way a space is used is potentially a form of reclamation. I’d definitely be interested in hearing more about this from brides who’ve chosen to have their weddings in venues like this. An alternate question: in places like Europe, is there any patch of land that HASN’T had an atrocity on it happen at some point during the last 2000 years?” Give me a break. I suppose Paula Deen’s appreciation for a restaurant whose wait staff was composed of entirely of middle-age black men, a restaurant, she said, that “represented a certain era in America,” aka the years surrounding the Civil War, can be seen as a reclamation of the past as well?

When Oak Bowery, a plantation venue in Alabama, suggests couples can “jump the broom” in a spot “where a cabin of the plantation stood,” there is no sense of “reclamation” of the past. A gimmicky idea that ignores entirely the history of jumping the broom – and eliminates any sense of what life was like for those who lived in that anonymous “cabin” – does nothing to rectify or even admit past wrongs. Again, live-and-let-live is my view of wedding culture. But when decisions are made – thoughtfully or not – celebrants should be prepared when wedding publics (especially those invited by the internet) offer their responses.


Oak Bowery, suggested broom jumping site, http://oakboweryreserve.com/weddings.html

Sidenote: for those interested in the creation of a mythic southern past, I highly recommend Karen L. Cox’s Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture (UNC Press, 2011).