Tapestry

'I didn't feel like I even existed': One young black man's experience touring a former slave plantation

Nygel Turner was expecting a history lesson when he toured a Louisiana plantation with his dad. His experience illustrates the harm that can come when parts of the story are distorted or erased.
(Teo Ducot)
Listen21:45

In the last several years, plantation weddings have become big business in the Southern United States.

But in the midst of those beautiful celebrations and lavish ceremonies, the horrifying history of those slave plantations often ends up being papered over or completely ignored.

It's why wedding-planning sites like Zola, Pinterest and the Knot have decided they will no longer post content that promotes plantation weddings on their pages.

Nygel Turner experienced a similar white-washing of history when his father announced they were going to visit an old slave plantation in Louisiana.

Turner was 17 years old at the time and he wasn't sure what to expect.

"[My dad and I are] from the Bay Area in California and never really talked about plantations like that, but I knew what they were from school," he said.

But as their tour of a Louisiana plantation got underway, they found out it wasn't going to be quite the history lesson they had bargained for. 

The house

Turner said that when he arrived at the plantation property, he was first greeted by a gift shop and a restaurant advertising all-you-can-eat pancakes.

He said he was struck by the lack of acknowledgement that slaves had lived and worked at the plantation, including in the gift shop.

"They had beaded bracelets, a couple of books… it was everything but anything related to slaves," he said. "They were just brushing over that part of history."

Turner said the erasure continued as they walked into the "big house," which is where the slave masters would have lived.

"All the employees were white and everybody was wearing these slave plantation owner outfits. And there was this weird ominous music playing in the background from that time period," he said.

"It was almost like slaves just didn't exist."

As the Turners and their tour group walked through the house, he said he noticed the other guests — all white — marvelling at the house's beautiful architecture.

"It was a lot of oohs and ahhs," he said. "Ultimately the tone of everybody was pretty disrespectful because it was almost an admiration and not [a] reflection. They weren't acknowledging the fact that slaves were there."

How we remember

For Turner, the attitude of the other guests demonstrates how Americans have chosen to remember that moment in their history.

He said this avoidance of the truth is evident when you look at the different ways historical events are discussed.

"It's not like you would go to Auschwitz or a concentration camp and see people in Nazi uniforms celebrating [the] things that happened there. No, it would be a reflective thing," he said. "And I can't understand why slave plantations weren't given the same respect." 

Turner said being in that house as a young black man forced him to confront who was being left out of the story that was being told at that plantation.

"They don't have pictures of the livestock and they don't have pictures of animals because that was property right? And so slaves were basically looked at as property, like a tool," he said.

"They wouldn't have a picture of a shovel hanging on a wall, so that's why they didn't have a picture of slaves hanging on the wall. [It] made me feel like I almost didn't exist in history."

As horrifying as the legacy of slavery and slave plantations is for many black people in America, Turner said we all suffer when this history is distorted and misrepresented.

"Everybody's harmed when they're not getting the correct information," he said. "And so when you're going on this slave tour - even as a white person - and you're not getting the correct information about the slaves that were there and what happened, you're leaving that place still ignorant, which is harming us all together as a people."

Turner is the co-host of Adult ISH, a podcast produced by YR Media and Radiotopia. He first shared his experience on the plantation on the podcast, and said he felt a duty to tell his story.

"Maybe somebody will read it and feel differently about going on a slave plantation tour," he said. "And hopefully it changes the culture."