Travel is enlightening, it’s eye-opening, and sometimes it’s painful. My first time to the American south was all of these. I had been wanting to visit Charleston, South Carolina after seeing it on countless “best of” lists from my favorite travel publications. When my grandmother suggested going somewhere new for our annual trip, I took the opportunity to finally plan a vacation to this historical American city.
One of the landmarks that we both wanted to see was a plantation, that southern symbol of both wealth and slavery that was unique to this part of the country. Our trip to Magnolia Plantation was made upon recommendation from our concierge after he advised us that they did a good job of telling the whole story of the plantation and not “sugarcoating history”.
As we toured past swamps, sticky with humidity, our guide provided a thorough review of the plantation’s evolution, showing us where the slaves lived, while giving us insight into the logistics and inner-workings of this horrific phase of America’s past. I knew from my childhood textbooks that slavery was inhumane, but it was during this visit to Charleston that I had an epiphany about its economic importance to American history.
As much as I had learned the lessons throughout my youth, trying to memorize names and dates to pass my tests, I had quite a different perspective as an adult. I was now an entrepreneur, struggling to keep my business profitable. As I listened to our guide talk about the importance of this free labor source to the plantation owners here in Charleston, I thought about my own profits and losses as a small business owner.
Only a month before my trip to Charleston, I began a search for a public relations agent. I interviewed three different PR firms, all of whom promised to propel my business forward, ensuring growth and exposure guaranteed by “placement in the right publications.” But this placement in well-known travel magazines would come with a huge cost of an average of $250 per hour, which I couldn’t afford. This important facet of my marketing plan was also endorsed by a colleague when he advised over a business lunch, “PR is not necessary, but it really can make all the difference.” Oh, if I could have even one of these three agents working for me!As we journeyed the grounds, our tour guide all the while continuing to provide anecdotes of plantation life, I thought about the slave owners and their free labor. How angry they must have been when their entire workforce was allowed to leave! With racist and manifest destiny brainwashing from their forefathers, I could see how the greed of these plantation owners ravaged their minds, causing their ingrained hate to create a post-slavery society where they made it even harder for blacks to survive, let alone succeed. Imagine if every employee you had got up and walked off their shifts, leaving all of the work for you to do alone? You’d be enraged.
Sitting back in our hotel room that evening, my grandmother and I watched a rainstorm roll in, covering the sky with looming gray clouds. As we silently gazed out of the window, she asked me “Do you think they made the slaves work in the rain?”. I was struck by the innocent curiosity of her question, knowing that the slaves had endured harsh working and living conditions, and I answered solemnly, “Yes, grandma.” We both retreated to our respective thoughts, each processing the plantation visit in our own way.
I returned to my analysis of the plantation experience from my lens of a business owner. Besides a free PR agent, how great would it be to have a social media coordinator, a web developer, and a personal assistant to manage my inbox and appointments – all without paying them! And how about the photographer and makeup artist that made me look so elegant for my press photos? Oh I don’t have to pay them either – more free labor! My mind raced through my imaginary ledger…
This was the world of the slave owners – people that farmed your land, washed your clothes, cooked your food, cleaned your home, tended to your animals, all working for you for free. I delved deep into this cognitive empathetic exercise as I placed myself in the shoes of a slave owner. My wealth growing, literally on my land, only to be wiped away by some laws that northerners wrote and imposed on my livelihood. It was then that I finally understood the deep seated anger from both sides: the greedy plantation owner losing endless dollars, and the newly freed slaves who were promised freedom only to be bound again by new laws that would enslave them for generations to come.
Still processing the lessons from our plantation visit, I came to understand generational wealth, and the economic disadvantage that has kept African American communities from easily gaining financial freedom and economic equality. Has the playing field ever been equal? No. Lounging in my suite while my grandmother napped, I read about what happened after slavery was abolished, revisiting some of my high school lessons.
Post-Reconstruction, that pivotal period when new laws were put into place to prevent black Americans from voting, owning property, and living freely, still sabotages them today. Owning a home – that one tenet of the American dream that’s been out of reach for so many black families for generations, is a foundation for any family’s wealth and upward mobility.Our next day in Charleston started with a tour of The Old Slave Mart Museum. Over 40% of this country’s slaves came through Charleston, so this local landmark offered critical context of a grim chapter in my country’s history. Hearing audio reenactments of families being ripped apart, I began to sob uncontrollably thinking of children being torn from their mother’s arms. I had read about this in high school, but absorbing the narrative told over the loud speaker made my heart break as I heard the speakers crackle with the sickening story of a family sold at the slave auction.
This strategic move of separating families still continues today as institutionalized racism wreaks havoc on black families across the United States. Standing here in the birthplace of America’s slave trade, I thought of all the institutions that have been built on the backs of black Americans, yet still prevent them from accessing its resources. Years of broken promises, unmet expectations, hampered success; my soul was heavy with sorrow. Processing each piece of my visit to Charleston, I now clearly understood the present-day anger of the African American community. With every assumed advance, there are secretive strategies like redlining and gerrymandering directly impacting the potential prosperity of black Americans in 2020.
Thinking about this visit to South Carolina in today’s political climate, I could see how white supremacy ideologies had moved with former plantation owners and displaced laborers to different parts of the United States. Like a virus, racism and hate grew as Americans relocated to new territories, continuing to perpetuate the belief that black Americans should be treated like animals, like property, like inferior beings.As I sat in the lobby of my hotel, noting the privileged patrons that passed through, I wondered how different things might be today if African Americans had been granted true freedom in 1863. Would this hotel lobby be more diverse instead of it being all white? Would the patrons standing in front of me prefer that old guard statute of “separate but equal”? In a way, I was standing on one side of “separate”, knowing full well that things today are not equal.
Stained with the scars of slavery, the American south offered me a lesson that no textbook could ever replace. Traveling to Charleston provided a tangible connection to a story that some want to forget, yet needs to be told, and told from all perspectives. How to heal America from the continued effects of slavery? Is the answer reparations? I don’t know, but I know it’s not enough.
For an overview of structural racism in America and an articulate argument for reparations, I highly recommend reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations.