Walking through the Whitney
A visit to the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana reveals the chains that remain.
Recently I had the opportunity to visit the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana with my family. It was a soul-stirring experience and I'm still processing all of the things we saw. Keep in mind as we share and discuss African American English that it is a piece of the identity of many African Americans and the communities from which they come. It speaks to the atrocities to which our ancestors were subjected; it captures the challenges we still face in contemporary society; and it reflects the resiliency of the people who built the very foundation of this nation. Culture and language are so closely intertwined that one cannot be separated from the other. Denigrating this dialect--my dialect--negates the experiences, struggles, and triumphs of its speakers. African American English pays homage to the legacy of our ancestors and their perseverance through unbearable oppression while promoting solidarity as we face more contemporary challenges.
“African American English pays homage to the legacy of our ancestors and their perseverance through unbearable oppression while promoting solidarity as we face more contemporary challenges.”
The chain sculpture was stationed near the end of the tour. By the time we had come to it we had already visited the church, the memorial to infants who had died and the slave quarters. We had learned about brutality that kept my ancestors in bondage and the horrible conditions under which they were forced to work and live. Rather than a sense of closure, this sculpture left me with much more to chew on. For that I am thankful. The inscription beneath the statue reads "RETURNING THE CHAINS."
As we made our way in silence across the remaining stretch of plantation to the parking lot, I couldn't help but think on the deeper meaning of returning those chains. The symbolism was powerful. It captured the indomitable spirit of our ancestors and, in the same instant, made me consider the many chains that we, the descendants of the enslaved, still carry today. We have inherited a legacy of institutional bondage and this means that each day we are faced with a choice: we can either carry those burdensome fetters, or we can work toward undoing the chains that contemporary institutions fasten in place.
Though these chains vary to a degree, they are the very real and quite tangible vestiges of the slave era. Some descendants of enslaved Africans are caught up in chains of poverty. Others are ensnared in chains of inequality that can spur thoughts of inadequacy. Many of us are still bound with chains of misconceptions and stereotypes. Dare I even mention the chains of substandard educational facilities, voter suppression and the ongoing challenges in the criminal justice system? These, and so many more, are the chains with which we currently wrestle. These, too, are the chains that we must conquer and relinquish for they were never truly ours to bear.