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What does “plantation” mean today?

February 14th, 2008 · 27 Comments

Maurie McInnis
director of American Studies and
associate professor of Art History, University of Virginia

View of Mulberry, House and Street by Thomas Coram
  Thomas Coram, 1756–1811
View of Mulberry, House and Street,
ca. 1800
Oil on paper, 4 1/19 x 6 1/16 inches
Gibbes Museum of Art
  See larger image >

Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art brings together an astonishing array of images spanning more than two hundred years. Despite great stylistic divergence, the thematic consistency results in an extended conversation about the meaning of the plantation across chronological and cultural divides. In the exhibition, we wanted both to interrogate the historical genesis of the image of the plantation as well as explore its continuing resonance. Our strategy for this was to seek a variety of perspectives on what “plantation” has meant at different times and to different artists. In many minds the historical plantation is synonymous with slavery. Yet, we did not want to do an exhibition about slavery broadly defined, but rather one more narrowly dealing with the plantation as a real place, an imagined place, and a remembered place.

As an art historian whose research is centered on the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century South, I have long thought about these works in terms of what they reveal about earlier attitudes about race, slavery, and politics. Now that the exhibition is up and the works are together for the first time, I am struck by the conversation that is going on between the artists of the recent past and the artists of the nineteenth century. Deeply conversant with both the history and the images of the past, the contemporary artists in the exhibition confront the visual past to explore the legacy of plantation slavery.

The exhibition explores the plantation as a historical place. It is a term, however, that is still very much alive in contemporary rhetoric, often with conflicting meanings. For example, “plantation” is used to describe an imbalance of power, like when Hillary Clinton described Congress as a plantation. Simultaneously, there is another definition at play, one that implies exclusivity. Countless real estate developments rely on “plantation” in the title to suggest some sort of grace and refinement. For your new plantation home you can buy plantation furniture and shade yourself from the sun with plantation shutters. I am struck by these divergent perspectives, both in the art and in the language, and I invite others to share their thoughts on the different perspectives of what “plantation” means.

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Posted in: Cultural Landscape, Curators' Comments, Plantation, Race Relations

27 Responses to 'What does “plantation” mean today?'
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  • Jennifer Van Winkle said:
    on February 21st, 2008 at 9:25 am

    For me the word “plantation” conjures up both seductive and sinister images.

  • Sharon Elizabeth Crews said:
    on March 17th, 2008 at 8:13 pm

    Firstly, I appreciate you bringing this discussion to surface as it is something, that, despite the loaded nature of the word, even within contemporary contexts, receives little discourse. As a child, having heard the word, I always wondered what is the modern day plantation, and being from an area where there is a Patrick Henry Boy’s Plantation I based my implications on that facility. At young ages, we knew little about these places other than the rumors that misbehaving and parentless boys were sent there. In fact, given that being disobedient was premise to be sent to the Boy’s Plantation was incentive enough to behave. We were under the impression that they earned their stay by working to support the place as a whole. And, the epitome of all these assumptions was when we were shown an outdated video depicting the happy nature of its residents working in the gardens.
    Fortunately, this assumption of the P.H. Boy’s Plantation was an ignorant one of childhood, solely based on the word “plantation.” It is actually, a safe environment for children when faced with threatening or unacceptable domestic environments. However, despite the actuality of the P.H.B.P being a home, the associations of it even at a childhood level, because of the word alone, are creepily similar to those of antebellum Southern plantations: an unhappy, labor intense place, where even the threat of being sent to, served as motivation to change behavior.

  • eeb. said:
    on March 18th, 2008 at 4:26 pm

    Though I grew up in an area famous for its rice cultivation, the cultural idea of the plantation never occurred to me until I saw Gone with the Wind. Plantation, to me, was always just an upscale farm. We devoted a year of middle school history to studying Drayton Hall, not as a plantation, but as an architectural work. Most of the other plantation houses in the area had been burned in the Civil War, so we never even bothered to learn about them. I didn’t grow up with the idea of a plantation, instead the different elements were never really tied together for me. I had never considered the idea of the romanticized rice plantation, and perhaps that idea came with the later cotton plantations of the deep South. But currently, the cultural plantation idea, I think, comes from later plantations in the Deep South along the Mississippi and of course in Georgia, with Twelve Oaks and Tara.

  • Jim Hutchisson said:
    on March 19th, 2008 at 11:18 am

    I am always struck by the irony of the use of the words “plantation,” and in historical discourse, “planters” and “the planter class,” since it is a reference to the actual work that went on, day by day, on the property. It was all achieved through slave labor, and so those white “planters” were not planters at all. They were not even overseers. They were not connected, so to speak, to the land in the painful and concrete ways that the laboring class was. We speak of the intersection of family and land in southern history. Yet the slave families were the ones connected to the land, as it were, and connected in a much different way than the “planter class.”

  • ERO said:
    on March 22nd, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    Plantation for me implies different things because of where I come from and what I have learned. Plantations are elegantly old and graceful, enriched with beautiful architecture, an endless landscape, and strewn with timeless stories from both the black and white perspective. I’ve walked through many old “big houses” and the historical feeling embedded is irreplaceable, yet I also have an idea of what used to go on inside and outside the big house. The grandeur of a plantation is impossible to ignore, but so are livelihoods of the countless slaves that inhabited the surrounding landscape. “Plantation” is a means of separation, white and black, slave and owner, but it is also sophistication, refinement, and order.

  • HC said:
    on March 23rd, 2008 at 11:31 am

    The term “plantation” is one that invokes beauty and suffering at the same time.

  • natalie said:
    on March 24th, 2008 at 1:21 pm

    I think Ms. McInnis made an interesting point in mentioning the use of “plantation” in suburban community development names. I am from Richmond, Virginia and I know I have seen a couple new communities using “plantation” as part of their name. How interesting that we generally accept the romantic, affectionate view of the old plantation rather than the negative connotation it carries as well. The word doesn’t first evoke images of the awful landscape that black men, women, and children were faced with every day.

  • ETB said:
    on March 26th, 2008 at 11:14 pm

    McInnis’s comments on the word “plantation” beg for our attention. Because of its deep seated relation to a haunting and tainted era, should we forever see its meaning as something evil and racist? While public figures such as Hilary Clinton may reference Congress to that of a “plantation”, should we tolerate the tossing around of such a word that evokes such ill feelings in so many people?

  • Katie G. said:
    on March 30th, 2008 at 7:49 pm

    My senior year in high school was my first trip to a historic plantation. My family took me to Middleton Place Plantation in Charleston, SC. While walking up the polished front drive, I truly got the sense that landscapes such as this one were places full of immense wealth and power. Many of the paintings in the recent art exhibit on grounds evoked similar feelings of nostalgia for the past – a time full of great refinement and seemingly noble character. At this point in the tour it did not fully occur to me that plantations could also be great places of oppression and darkness. I was caught up in all the extravagance and beauty. After walking through the main house though, we followed a path to the old slave quarters. This area contrasted so greatly with the one we just viewed minutes before. It was completely overwhelming to try and understand the juxtaposition of these two landscapes. The complexity of an old plantation is astonishing as whites attempted to order race and class. These separate black and white views of a plantation are important in contributing to the bigger picture of a’grey’ plantation in which the two landscapes ultimately merged to form one great economic powerhouse of the past.

  • alf said:
    on April 14th, 2008 at 8:42 pm

    The word “plantation” is obviously heavily loaded. It carries with it different, seemingly opposite or contradictory meanings. One one hand, the plantation is the pinnacle of gentility and refinement (and thus exclusivity). This plantation symbolizes idealized visions of the South (a la Twelve Oaks). On the other hand the word “plantation” can also carry more sinister, complicated, realistic meanings–of white and black relations and slavery. What I find so interesting about the word “plantation” is how dependent its meaning is on context, how dangerously easy it is to separate the meanings of “plantation.” Walking around the Landscape of Slavery exhibition it is impossible to not engage both meanings; yet, real estate developments using the word plantation aren’t necessarily offensive to our sensibilities–in that context the word “plantation” doesn’t always recall the larger meaning of slavery. The question is, should it?
    In brief, I would argue yes. The plantation is both the pinnacle of Southern, white refinement and the site of the most un-refined of institutions. Idealized visions of the plantation (such as Gone with the Wind) are instructive for what they show as much as what they don’t: the burden is on the observer to engage both meanings.

  • Kelly said:
    on April 27th, 2008 at 10:04 pm

    what i find most interesting is the reality that the plantation was much more than just a home or a place to reside and relax…it was its own, fairly self-sustaining world. food was produced, clothes were crafted, and the slaves worked to support those of the main house. The plantation maintained its own mini-economy, social hierarchy, and daily routines, and the diversity of the activities taking place here made the plantation much more than simply a home.

  • Laura Nix said:
    on April 29th, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    Growing up in Atlanta, GA, the first images conjured in my mind when I think about the word “plantation” are scenes from “Gone with the Wind,” not because this movie accurately portrays life in the South, but because it is so commonly associated with the antebellum South. Everyone knows that slavery was far more horrifying and cruel than the move portrays, but it is easy to hide behind interpretations like these instead of confronting the uncomfortable truth. In reality, there are many faces to the antebellum plantation. This exhibition manages to complicate and round-out our view of the Slave South by offering a series of portrayals of what life was like. No isolated image can convey to us the reality of the plantation. The more interpretations we see, the closer we can come to understanding its subtleties and implications.

  • MJS said:
    on April 30th, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    I grew up in a place where there were no plantations, subsequently, there are no housing developments with the word “plantation” in their titles. I have lived in the South for 10 years now, but I still recoil every time I see one of those new developments with a plantation name spring up, and I wonder why this keeps happening? The dictionary definition of “plantation” says nothing about slavery, so, technically, the word does not mean “a place where slaves do all the work,” but in the South, I think that is what comes to mind when someone sees the word “plantation” attached to a place. If southerners don’t want to be thought of as stereotypical, they might make more of an effort to be sensitive to the meaning of “plantation” in the South. I know some African American families who would never choose to live in a housing development called a plantation. Is the word plantation, when applied to modern place names in the South, a subtle way for people to segregate themselves?

  • TM said:
    on April 30th, 2008 at 9:53 pm

    I often think about what the term plantation means today. It clearly has negative connotations because of its history. When I hear the word plantation, or read it in text, an image comes to my mind of a cotton field with slaves laboring heavily with an overseer yelling in the background for them to work even harder. Therefore, when I hear the term today, I automatically think of the image I described. But on another note, I often hear my grandmother saying, “Well, it looks like I’m gonna have to go to the plantation today” or “I’m goin back to work for the master today”. My grandmother is far removed from slavery, but not so far removed from segregation and the Jim Crow South where racism was present and harsh working conditions were prevalent for many Blacks. According to her connotation of slavery, she thinks of it as a place where she is about to be overworked and underpaid. This has many similarities to the historical version of a plantation. In this sense, it is still impossible today to sever the term plantation from a mindset of hardships inflicted on many Blacks for so many years. This is still a sensitive idea and concept for many people including myself.

  • Khandice said:
    on May 1st, 2008 at 9:47 am

    I love this topic because the word “plantation” has so many meanings which have all been stated. Growing up, my parents were big on history so… we were always in Williamsburg or some others historical site in Virginia. I feel that ALL of the plantations I visited, had negative connotations of the plantation due to slavery (Shirley plantation, Bacon’s Plantation, Berkley, Mount Vernon, Monticello, smithfield etc.) It’s ironic because the big house was always overemphasized in my opinion. Yes they are beautiful, but I never realized the hidden architecture until ARTH 263.

    Many southerners especially in historic areas use plantation to name neighborhoods, blinds, dishes at restaurants, etc. This summer I spent part of my birthday in Williamsburg with some friends, and while we were eating breakfast at one of the many pancake houses… a dish was called “Plantation Breakfast”. Jokingly some of my friends called it wrong because the term was being used lightly, others said that it was for historic use only. I realize that it was called a plantation breakfast because it was a HUGE meal, yet it carries such emotion with it because slavery took place ON plantations. Who fixed the HUGE meals? Slaves… I think southerners simply have to be careful when it is used and the context it is being used in.

  • CWThomas said:
    on May 1st, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    My definition of plantation is bound in something Professor McInnis breifly mentioned– that is, imbalanced power relations. A plantation equates to an institution that thrives because of an imbalance in power allocation amongst the people involved. This necesitates that a plantation includes at least one group who holds an excessive amount of power, at least one group who holds a disproportionately low amount of power, and the success of the former based on the work of the later. This definition of plantation is not temporally bound. For instance, one could argue that the modern university could be considered a plantation, where administration hold a large amount of power and benefit from the work students put into the university. While that example may be unconventional, it shows the potentially diverse application of the term plantation as defined by relationships of power.

  • JM said:
    on May 1st, 2008 at 3:24 pm

    The modern use of of the word “plantation” has always struck me as somewhat odd. The mere frequency one comes across it suggests the weight still carries. In my encounters, I have been surprised at how mainstream culture has held on to the plantaion of the last image of the old south. It has become the last stronghold of southern decadence, and has become largely disassociated with the negative imagery of slavery of these sites.

  • Effie said:
    on May 1st, 2008 at 9:18 pm

    What remains interesting to me is the idea that it is the cultural differences of regionally divided America that dictate the views of plantations. For me, being from the North, the idea of a plantation as a place of refinement is utterly foreign. Growing up in New York, the image of a plantation was embedded in my mind to be and probably eternally will remain a place of hardship, prejudice, and above all, slavery. Discussing this with my Southern friends and classmates, however, I have come to realize that the meaning of a plantation cannot be reconciled due to these regional differences. To many of them, the plantation does conjure the images of refinement that have been discussed on this board. What the plantation truly means, then, remains a product of the still present cultural divide within our nation.

  • hh said:
    on May 1st, 2008 at 9:48 pm

    Being born and raised in a northern city, I remember my first trip to New Orleans. I was in the 7th grade and educated in a northern middle school. Outside of New Orleans, my parents took me on a tour of a plantation, and for the first time, I learned about slavery through a southern lens. The plantation was Oak Alley, and to this day, just finishing up my third year in college, I still have never seen anything like it. Overwhelmed by the size, the trees, the buildings, I was intrigued. Even as a seventh grader, I was intrigued. From that experience forward, plantation to me, meant slavery, southern, and wealthy.

  • JKL said:
    on May 1st, 2008 at 10:29 pm

    I would be of the school of thought that equates plantation not so much with a building as a way of life and a state of mind. When I think of the “old south,” I think of lemonade and red-checked picnic table clothes; I smell fried chicken and hear the church bells; I think of a hammock under and oak tree wearing all white, linen clothing. The extent to which this ideal life is romanticized and unrealistic matters little to the image of the plantation. The uncomplicated, idealistic South is far more swallowable. I guess it is similar to visiting the white sand beaches of the Bahamas. One can be on a hammock sipping pina coladas from a coconut-turned cup completely separate from the terrible poverty located only a few minutes away. Plantation lacks all negative images in my mind. As a side note, I certainly do recognize the terrible institutions that went hand-in-hand with the plantation image. I am more commenting here that often times an uncomplicated image of the plantation is incomplete, and the over-looking of several aspects of Southern life in the ante bellum period is egregious. At the same time, I would think that most people living in the South think of the uncomplicated plantation. It is in our nature. I also think one can have an idealized image without ignoring slavery. Plantation does not take my mind to the big house per se; plantation takes my mind to a carefree lifestyle, one that was made possible by the institution of slavery.

  • Edward said:
    on May 2nd, 2008 at 12:02 am

    I think, interestingly, plantation has an extremely wide array of meanings. For example, there is the negative image of slavery, and the romanticized, “Gone With the Wind” image. I think people tend to think of both simultaneously, rather than blend the two, and the context determines which one is dominant. Additionally, the term is still used in reference to large holdings of land which were once plantations — more like “country houses,” while at the same time, the word can be neutrally used to refer to, effectively its original definition — rubber plantations in Brazil, etc. The word means many different things to many different people in different situations, and trying to pin one connotation to it is incorrect, I think. More important is to appreciate the many nuances of perception.

  • Edgar said:
    on May 2nd, 2008 at 1:44 am

    To me the ambiguity surrounding the word plantation stems from the two polarizing view points – that of a slave and that of a plantation owner.

  • Natasha said:
    on May 2nd, 2008 at 6:32 am

    I also find the word “plantation” to have various meanings and interpretations based on the context of an image. As seen in the exhibit, it can represent a truly beautiful landscape until the viewer realizes the horrific institution that occurred there and is forced to reevaluate their conception of that landscape. In seeing the ways artists painted and represented plantations, both with and without slavery included in the images, adds to the continuing discourse regarding the plantation and its role, as well as its symbolism, throughout earlier American history.

  • ashley said:
    on May 2nd, 2008 at 10:02 am

    “Plantation” evokes the a diverse list of feelings because of the negative connotations that it has gained over the years. In the past, a plantation served as a self-governing institute defining the social status of slave owners, visitors, slaves, planters, etc. The plantation’s landscape also defined the daily tasks and lives of slaves on the property. For example, Low Country rice plantation slaves were alotted time to preserve their African culture through the use of the task system, but also endured tedious, mind-numbing work. Virginia slaves worked tobacco fields which utilized the gang system–decreasing hard labor. In order for a plantation to be successful, all parts must work together and are vital to the proper operation of it. Artwork displays slave work as a positive force and conceals the hardship of slavery. This creates a negative connotation to the word plantation.

  • dmh said:
    on May 2nd, 2008 at 10:31 am

    The word plantation is portrayed differently by differenet group of people . For most Blacks/African Americans it is a place of suffering and negative history. Whites look at it as symbol of power and superiority.

  • Adrienne said:
    on May 2nd, 2008 at 11:52 am

    Focusing on one plantation in particular, George Washington’s Mount Vernon,I feel plantations are complex representations of the planter that reverberate for centuries later. A planter constructed his plantation to reflect the image he wanted to portray. In George Washington’s case: a fortress on the hill.

  • Marlon said:
    on May 2nd, 2008 at 12:19 pm

    For a lot of people I think the word “plantation” just brings up a lot of the bad memories associated with the mistreatment of African American slaves before the Civil War. I think that, while plantations were the sites of many of the horrors of the institution of slavery, they were very much still a part of the growth in the southern economy, and thus an integral part of United States history as a whole. The offensiveness of the word depends on the context. If someone were to refer to, and venerate, plantations as a model for racism and oppression, then I would say that it would be very offensive and unnecessary. However, I think for historical purposes it is really important to reserve that part of the history of our country because of the contribution the institution of slavery had on the culture of our nation. If nothing else we should conserve the culture of the plantation culture because of its great contribution to the American economy in its early stages.