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Michael Twitty, the Southern author and historical interpreter, weighs in on the controversies that erupted after a few plantation museums in the South began to teach visitors the truth about slavery.


 
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EDITOR’S NOTE:

In a story we published four years ago, the author Michael Twitty told us, “My job is to bring to life what the life of an enslaved person looked like so that you can take a picture of it with your iPhone and share this knowledge.” In those days, Twitty was known primarily for his work at Southern plantation museums, where he still frequently appears as an interpreter — demonstrating the cooking methods and the living conditions of people enslaved on such plantations. His work has gone much deeper in the past four years. In 2017, he published “The Cooking Gene,” a book that won the James Beard Award for its portrayal of African American culinary history in the South.

One month ago, his work took on additional importance. A tweet from an Indian American activist in Colorado named Saira Rao called attention to the resistance of certain plantation visitors to hearing true stories about slavery. Her tweet went viral and brought on a wave of national stories — about how, as some of the more than 50 antebellum plantation museums in the South began to address slavery more directly and specifically in their tours, with no sugar-coating, they met resistance from many white visitors. 

Twitty responded on his must-read blog, “Afroculinaria,” with a long post that addresses their resistance directly. The Bitter Southerner believes Twitty’s post sums up a dilemma faced by every Southerner — how to move from the false narrative of the “Lost Cause” to a broader and more inclusive understanding of America’s original sin, human enslavement, committed on the soil of our entire region. With Twitty’s permission, we republish a version of his post today.

— Chuck Reece

 
 
 
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Michael Twitty, at left, during a historical interpretation.

 
 

Dear Disgruntled White Plantation Visitors,

Hi! My name is Michael W. Twitty, and I’m one of those interpreters who has watched you squirm or run away because you couldn't deal with a more honest and open narrative of American slavery. I’m not a reenactor, because G-d forbid I reenact anything for the likes of you. I am an interpreter, a modern person who is charged with educating you about the past. 

I take my job seriously, because frankly you’re not the one I’m centering on. I’m performing an act of devotion to my Ancestors. This is not about your comfort or anyone else's, it’s about honoring their story on its own terms, in context.

For over a decade I have been working toward my personal goal of being the first black chef in 150 years to master the cooking traditions of my colonial and antebellum ancestors. With five trips to six West African nations and more on the way, and having cooked in almost every former slaveholding state beneath the Mason-Dixon Line, my work is constant and unrelenting, mostly because I have to carve my way through a forest of stereotypes and misunderstandings to bring our heritage to life.

I also just want to preserve the roots of our cooking before they’re gone.

Because minds like yours created the “happy darky,” some people of color are ashamed of my work. Although I am none of the things they imagine me to be, I can understand why they are confused about what I (and many people like me) do. Once upon a time, folks like yourselves wanted to have a national Mammy monument on the Washington Mall, to remind us about the “proper” role we were meant to occupy and to praise our assumed loyalty. 

No, our enslaved forebears are the real greatest generation. With malice towards none, they constantly took their strike at freedom. Yet their heroism was obscured because … you guessed it … white supremacy had to have the final say.

Southern food is my vehicle for interpretation because it is not apolitical. It is drenched in all the dreadful funkiness of the history it was created in. It’s not my job to comfort you. It’s not my job to assuage any guilt you may feel. That’s really none of my business. 

My job is to show you that my Ancestors — and some of yours (as quiet as it’s kept, go get your DNA done, like right now)— resisted enslavement by maintaining links to what scholar Charles D. Joyner famously called a “culinary grammar” that contained whole narratives reaching into spirituality, health practices, linguistics, agricultural wisdom, and environmental practices that constituted in the words of late historian William D. Piersen, “a resistance too civilized to notice.” 

Want to read about it? Since you already know I’m a literate runaway from the American educational system, I wrote an award-winning book called The Cooking Gene. (Like Eddie Murphy said, “but buy my record first…”) By the way, it’s not a cookbook; it’s the story of my family told through culinary history from Africa to America and from enslavement to freedom.

 
 
 
 
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What’s most telling about the above quote and others is how blithely unaware you are about the real American struggle for freedom. When you’re in one of those hot-ass plantation kitchens watching me melt, you are secretly telling yourself you’re glad you’re not me — or them. And now, I’m about to go Julia Sugarbaker (in that pink hoop skirt) on you … so you might want to run.

Thanks to a viral tweet, the whole country sees what my colleagues and I have seen for quite some time. We get it. You want romance, moonlight and magnolias, big Greek Revival columns, prancing belles in crinoline, perhaps a distinguished hoary-headed white dude with a Van Dyke beard in a white suit with a black bow tie who looks like he’s about to bring you some hot and fresh chicken some faithful Mammy sculpture, magically brought to life, has prepared for you out back.

The Old South may be your American Downton Abbey, but it is our American Horror Story. Even under the best circumstances, it represents the extraction of labor, talent, and life we can never get back. When I do this work, it drains me, but I do it because I want my Ancestors to know not only they are they not forgotten, but that I am here to testify, that I am their wildest dreams manifest.

While your gall and nerve, anonymously preserved for eternity online, is cute, I thought you might want to be further disturbed not by the actions of the dead, but by those of the living:

I remember when you took the form of the docent in Virginia who told me, “Look, you don’t have to go on about the history, just tell them you’re the cook and be done with it…”

I remember when you waltzed in with a MAGA hat and told me “I know what it’s like to be persecuted like a slave. I’m an evangelical Christian in America. It’s scary!” More power to you for your faith, but that analogy? Your skewed perception? Or saying that nonsense to my face with the assumed confidence that I wouldn’t respond?

 
 
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Twitty cooking in a plantation kitchen.

 

My personal favorite was when I spilled some of the contents of a heavy pot of water as the light was dying and you all laughed and one of you said … and I could hear you …, “This boy doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

“Boy.”

I was exhausted. I had been cooking over an open hearth for seven hours. One enslaved cook in Martinique was thrown alive into an oven for burning a cake. How do we know? His mistress calmly showed his charred remains to her guest after the meal. Spilling or burning food could have meant my ass.

How about that time you asked me if I lived in that kitchen with the dirt floor. Or when you said I was “well fed” and had “nothing to complain about.” 

“This isn’t sooooo bad,” you said. “White poor people had it just as bad if not worse.” 

I do so love it when folks like you ask me, “What are you making me for dinner?”

In South Carolina there was that time four of you walked in grinning and salivating, as you often do, and were all ready to be regaled of the good old days until a German tourist scratched your record. He said, “How do you feel as a black American, dressing like your Ancestors and cooking and working this way?”

You started to frown.

I said, “Slavery was colloquial and discretionary. One story doesn’t tell all. But it’s important to remember that our Ancestors survived this, survived slavery.”

The German tourist pushed me further.

“How do people feel about slavery?”

My retort was fast. “How do you feel about the Shoah? How do you feel about the Holocaust?”

The German said, “The Holocaust was a terrible thing and never should have happened. We were children when Germany was coming out of the ashes. But it is a shame upon our nation.”

As the four white people turned to leave, I got in a good one: “That’s a phrase you will almost never hear some white Southerners say: ‘Slavery was a terrible thing and never should have happened.’”

The South is not to be indicted on its own. Without Northern slave trade captains, merchants, mill owners, and even universities that had stock in the enslaved, the Southern economy could not have flourished. (And please miss me with your assertion that “you sold your own people.” The corporate identity of Blackness was not a feature when African, Arab, and European elites and merchants conspired during the time of the slave trade. You can’t learn everything from the crossword section of StormFront.

Furthermore, some of your immigrant ancestors would never have had a land of opportunity to come to. Or a people to walk on as your folks climbed towards whiteness. The most valuable “commodity” in antebellum America during the years of exponential growth was not wheat, corn, tobacco, rice, or even cotton. The most important commodity of the mid-19th century in America was the black child, and behind the children, the body of the black woman.

Don't get me wrong. This isn’t about being anti-white or ignoring other people’s traumas. If you think I don’t like you because you identify as white, that’s not it. I suspect what you might be doing — identifying with healthy slices of weaponized racial power, privilege, attainment, and achievement obtained in a hierarchical, exploitative American dream between two pieces of unexamined whiteness. 

I guess the plantation isn’t the ideal place for you to escape.

 
 
 
 
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Facing my/our past has been my life’s journey. It’s also been at times devastating and painful. But reflection in no way equals one second in the lives of the enslaved women and men whose blood flows in my veins. I had the privilege of rediscovering my roots on a North Carolina plantation at a dinner we prepared for North Carolinians of all backgrounds. Knowing that the enslaved people who once occupied those cabins could never have dreamed of that rainbow of people sitting together as equals in prayer, food, and fellowship. When my Asante and Mende roots were being uncovered after centuries of obfuscation, it was for me a holy moment.

 
 
 
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Twitty with genealogist Lon Outen, who helped him discover the plantation where his third great-grandfather was enslaved near Lancaster, South Carolina.

 
 

You miss out on magic like that when you shut down your soul. Going to what few plantations remain, your job is to go with respect and homage and light. You know, like what I felt at New York City’s Tenement Museum and learned about the first American experience of those who passed through Ellis Island. Your job is to be thankful and grateful. Your job is not just to hear, but to listen. Your job is to know that black lives mattered then just as they do now. Your job is to face the reality that hardships and hurt have been passed down from the American Downton Abbey, the American plantation.

 
 
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The Whitney Plantation in Edgard, Louisiana, about an hour from New Orleans, bills itself as “the only plantation museum in the region with an exclusive focus on slavery.” Twitty highly recommends that “the non-disgruntled” visit this place.

 
 

Rape happened there … to the point where almost every African American with long roots here bears that evidence in their DNA. Theft of our culture happened. Forced assimilation. The breaking up of families … like all of us. There was economic and legal exploitation and oppression, the effects of which have never been extricated from the American story.

Before you visit a plantation, remember that the story of enslavement is no excuse for lack of empathy or decorum. There is no causal relationship between the two. This is not about hatred of white people, unless you identify your whiteness with the mythology, instead of the real history. Let's not make excuses for those who keep the wounds open. We need healing. 

But because enslavement was so damn fuzzy, we forget that those maudlin moments of blurred lines passed down by sentimental whites were purchased with pain. I tell my audiences that enslavement wasn’t always whips and chains; but it was the existential terror that at any moment 3/5ths could give way to its remainder, and unfortunately often did.

Guilt is not where to start. If you go back, start with humility. Have some shame that none of us were truly taught this. Be like the working class white lady whose family I met in Louisiana who brought her young kids because she “wanted them to know the whole story, the story of American history is black history.” Too bad she ain’t going viral. Wherever you are, my cousin, I salute you.

Right now we need people to exercise their compassion muscle over their dissatisfaction or disappointment. Right now we need people to see the parallels. Right now we need people to remember the insidious ways history repeats itself. Right now we need to be better humans to each other. Right now we need people to remember the righteous who sacrificed so we could tweet and leave awful online reviews.

Y’all come back now, ya hear?

 
 

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