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Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

Topic of the Day: You’re Invited to a “Plantation Wedding.” Do You Go?


Illustration by Tomi Um for NYTimes

The NYTimes magazine advice column published the following letter, which made me wonder how you all would react in a similar position:

A friend’s daughter has sent my family an invitation to her upcoming “Plantation Wedding” in a Southern city. I had been looking forward to attending until I became aware of the appalling and tragic history of this estate and gardens. I am deeply troubled by the thought of celebrating on the grounds where hundreds of men, women and children were bought and sold, enslaved and tortured, so that white people can enjoy the privilege of a fairy-tale wedding.

Some friends are attending to support the mother of the bride. They urge me to just go and raise my own consciousness by touring the estate’s historical slave quarters and other sites in this city. I am skeptical that this is enough. I doubt I would be able to avoid speaking out during the wedding reception. Should I explain to the bride and groom the reason for my absence? She surely knows the estate’s history already. I foresee that all this will cause a rift in our families for some time. Would a donation to a historically Black college, in lieu of a wedding gift be appropriate?

Everyone in this scenario is white, raised in the Northeast and college-educated, and I’m astonished that they don’t realize this is a terrible idea. I want to act in good conscience and not create more disturbance. Do you have any thoughts? Name Withheld

Would you go to a plantation wedding? If not, would you tell the bride and groom why you were skipping? Is there anything else you’d do beyond accepting or declining the invitation?

30 comments… add one
  • Miss MJ January 11, 2022, 9:55 am

    If it’s just a wedding at a building that was once a plantation and now has been converted into an event venue, yeah, I’d go. If it were some sort of role-play re-creation of the antebellum South, like those sorority parties that pop up every so often, hard pass, though.

    My reasoning being that a lot of the event venues in larger southern cities are older and have roots in the pre-civil war era, but have been converted into spaces that don’t glorify or exploit that past. I’d imagine most every historic event venue in New Orleans has some ties to slaveholders. In the French Quarter, people live in renovated slave quarters. Preserving historic buildings and putting them to a useful purpose doesn’t mean endorsing their past.

    But again, if it’s some fetishization of the pre-civil war era type thing, gross and no.

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    • Prognosti-gator January 11, 2022, 10:11 am

      I hadn’t even thought about the possibility of it being some sort of “cosplay” event – and I agree on that. A wedding there is one thing. To be dressed up pretending to be old southern slave owners is another.

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  • Kate January 11, 2022, 9:59 am

    I wouldn’t go to something called a “plantation wedding.” The way the letter is written it sounds like it was advertised that way. But I would just RSVP, not make a statement.

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  • Prognosti-gator January 11, 2022, 10:01 am

    IDK if I’m firmly in one camp or another.

    If the place wasn’t set up as some sort of tribute to the “glory of the South” or some sort of “The South Will Rise Again” BS, I might consider it. Not because what went on there wasn’t terrible, but in recognition that the atrocious behavior wasn’t confined to a single location. To single out the plantation, but not other buildings or businesses in the town (that would ALSO have benefitted from the slave trade) seems overly specific. To ignore that the local churches, which likely preached “The curse of Ham” – which was used to justify the slave trade, are also to blame seems like singling out the plantation itself as simple scapegoating.

    Even in the LW’s “enlightened Northeast” – decades of Redlining created communities with lines delineating income inequities that allow some areas to have nice parks and buildings while leaving others (in more minority-occupied areas) with fewer resources. To enjoy a wedding at a park in the local suburb (while not as direct a tie) is something that also has benefitted from racial discrimination.

    So, I get the hesitancy, but feel it might be a little too easy to point at one place and make it atone for all the sins of slavery and ignore that the pernicious effects of racism aren’t limited to a single time or place, but touch even the areas of our lives that we’ve deemed “safe.” I don’t know if anywhere is truly blameless in the matter.

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  • Copa January 11, 2022, 10:39 am

    “She surely knows the estate’s history already.”

    You may be surprised. One of my boyfriend’s cousins got married at a plantation in maybe 2017. This was before I knew him, so I obviously didn’t go, but I know her now and truly don’t the history of her venue crossed her mind even though I’m sure she knew the history of the south. What WAS on her mind when choosing a venue was creating a wedding that had the look and feel of the movie The Notebook.

    Anyway, I can understand why you feel like this venue is tone deaf and that people should know better, especially given the past couple of years, but agree with others that how they’re holding out the wedding would influence my decision-making. If you truly do not feel okay about it, though, don’t go. I’d also not make a big thing of it if I chose not to go.

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  • Deigh January 11, 2022, 10:41 am

    Like everyone else, I think it depends on what sort of place and wedding will be going on. I live in the south and I bet 90% of the older buildings I’ve been in were at a minimum partly complicit in the slave economy. A plantation is obviously worse than the home of someone who purchased goods from a plantation but it was still a part of the problem. I don’t know that you rule out a place based solely on that history.

    If you want a determining factor, I guess I could look into how the site handles its horrific history. Growing up here, a trip to a plantation in Feb for Black History month was kind of a standard thing for a while. Some places handled the past by trying to excuse it with “Our slaves could be promoted to living in brick cabins and we were only mostly terrible to them instead of completely terrible.” Others were more honest and used the time to try and educate kids about the long term affects of slavery on our country. If the site is more of the excusing type, I wouldn’t go and support that. If it’s the second type, I’d be more inclined to go.

    Also, if the wedding is civil war cosplay or billed as a plantation style wedding as if that’s something to be proud of, I’d skip. Those aren’t the type of people I’d want in my life.

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  • Allornone January 11, 2022, 10:48 am

    I wouldn’t go. I would give the honest reason for it if asked, but I wouldn’t be confrontational or judgemental about it; I’d just quietly explain to the bride or groom if asked. I get what MJ is saying, and that’s why I’d approach it kindly, but I just wouldn’t feel right celebrating in a venue with such a dark and tragic past. I mean, would we be having weddings at Auschwitz if the grounds were prettier? That’s an extreme example, I know, but whatever. I would just feel icky about attending.

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    • anonymousse January 11, 2022, 1:46 pm

      I agree with you. I don’t think I know anyone who would be so insensitive, thankfully!

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  • LisforLeslie January 11, 2022, 11:45 am

    Depends on whether they are recreating some kind of Southern Fantasy wedding. If they plan to dress in period-ish clothing and celebrate the Plantation-ness… hell no. If they were having some standard non-themed wedding and just liked the grounds, yeah, I’d probably go if I liked them enough. Sad truth is, if you live on the East Coast you are likely living somewhere that had slaves or was tied to slavery in some way (not to mention taking the land from the existing inhabitants of the entire continent). Rhode Island, bluest of blue states today has a deep history in the slave trade. New York City was on the side of the South when it came to Civil War. It shouldn’t be celebrated, but it is, sadly, part of our national fabric.

    So I suppose it boils down to is it a “Plantation Wedding” or a wedding that is happening on a former plantation?

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  • NatalieB January 11, 2022, 11:55 am

    I live in Northern Virginia, and I’ve toured a couple of former plantations, and in the places I’ve gone, I believe that the curators try to be respectful and honest about the enslaved people that lived and worked there. Mount Vernon specifically does a good job on educating the guests about the full history, good and bad. If the venue was along those lines, then I would not have an issue going. If it was a cosplay type thing, that would be very different though!

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  • LadyClegane January 11, 2022, 12:59 pm

    I’m seeing a lot of supportive comments here which is setting me off a little bit so forgive me for being harsh, I normally work hard not to get political on here. Let me begin by saying my words do NOT apply to black people marrying on the sites of former plantations. Some African wedding rituals require the presence of ancestors and some people just want to invite the memory/presence of dead loved ones) and guess what? That’s where Black family has to go to remember family, to be near them and reclaim an irrecoverable family line. Your insta ready location where you can play “The Notebook” is the PRIMARY place where generations were raped, murdered, coffled, and rendered socially dead. If you think the machinery of death (the plantation which was as generative as a mechanized tool) is the same as a “redlined” region, or even the town center (wall st ny) where slave auctions happened, you have a profound misunderstanding of history. I hope you think about the plantation owner sneaking into his slave and her 12 year old daughter’s room at night to rape them every time you look at your wedding photos. And if you don’t think of them when you look at your photos? I hope they haunt you. THAT is white privilege. To separate the space from the suffering that buttressed EVERY stone in the place. There was a great story recently about plantation weddings and either a photographer or wedding planner admitted the photo sessions have to be careful go avoid getting the slave quarters in the background. That’s what you brides are doing, finding another way to discount, deny, and exploit black pain. You think you/the building are removed from these legacies? What do you think maintained those lovely buildings over the years? Black capital, enslaved Black bodies/hands/labor.

    It doesn’t matter if the couple “just liked the grounds.” It doesn’t matter if people do it “all the time.” If you do this, you are racist(or were at the time) and if you don’t regret it and do so publicly when the occasion presents itself then I’m glad not to know you.

    Someone above made an apt comparison. Plantations ARE our concentration camp sites. In fact, Frank Wilderson (afropessimist) says “Jews went into Auschwitz and came out as Jews. Africans went onto the ships and came out as Blacks.” He means Jews had an unbroken claim on their past and future and their subjectivity despite their attempted genocide and the horrors committed against them. Blacks were severed from familial ancestral connections and PERMANENTLY transformed into inhuman flesh. Blacks must return to the site of their generational destruction (by that I refer to Orlanfo Patterson’s description of Black social death as in large part, the loss of a claim on one’s ancestry and children as happened as a rule under slavery) to reach out for their generational memory/inheritance. What are these couples thinking? Actually their actions say what they’re thinking, “Your pain is worth less than my aesthetic experience and even in this ceremony, I will reconsecrate my supremacy and ability to trivialize your history for likes.”

    Look at this quote from above, “To enjoy a wedding at a park in the local suburb (while not as direct a tie) is something that also has benefitted from racial discrimination.

    So, I get the hesitancy, but feel it might be a little too easy to point at one place and make it atone for all the sins of slavery and ignore that the pernicious effects of racism aren’t limited to a single time or place, but touch even the areas of our lives that we’ve deemed “safe.” I don’t know if anywhere is truly blameless in the matter.”

    I think this person is trying to be open and kind and I can appreciate their gesture to the anti-Black systems structuring our world “I don’t know if anywhere is truly blameless in the matter,” but look at the ideas here. A park with a history of segregation or maybe one named after a confederate general or even one set on a slave auction site is the same level of bad? Same as the place where they flayed black people alive? Fed them their own testicles? Made wives watch their husbands lynched? (All specific stories by the way, I’m a professor of Critical race theory with a specialty in America to the Reconstruction period so happy to site sources).

    To say, “everything has a history of racism so we can’t take any action” is a huge part of the problem. How can we even get to police brutality and a global anti-black world order if non-Blacks won’t even be precious in a different way to avoid dancing on the graves of the enslaved. I’m disgusted by these brides but I’m even more shocked by these comments from commenter names I recognize and thought better of. It’s not just about the weddings, but what you’ll sacrifice on BEHALF of someone ELSE for a narcissistic practice (not all weddings just these.) I’m incredibly disappointed to see some of these comments. Even if you disagree with my points, think of this: what do you gain by having this kind of wedding that you cannot by simply getting married on a not-plantation? What are you communicating/causing by going ahead with it? I promise that in this day and age, your friends know EXACTLY what you are saying by trying to transform a pain factory (not exaggeration or joke here) into a joyful aesthetic space and anyone who doesn’t…well they must be so relieved to be non-Black.

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    • Kate January 11, 2022, 1:18 pm

      I agree with this to the extent that i understand it. I don’t think it matters how the people who run the venue are now positioning it, or what kind of wedding it is. It comes down to, white people liking the aesthetics of a place where these atrocities happened, and I guess white-washing it into a pretty wedding venue. The Auschwitz example seems apt. What would it say about our consideration for the Jewish experience in 20th century Europe if we got married there?

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      • Kipiani January 17, 2022, 12:15 pm

        @LadyClegane, “[…] Jews had an unbroken claim on their past and future and their subjectivity despite their attempted genocide and the horrors committed against them. Blacks were severed from familial ancestral connections and PERMANENTLY transformed […]”
        I’m a Jewish American and I think about this a lot. Even if I don’t know all the names of my ancestors, or exactly where they were from, I have a strong tradition and connection, and there’s never been any question as to my identity. I always thought it was so heartbreaking for this whole community in the US, whose ancestors were forced here without their consent, whose ties to their homelands, cultures, languages, religions, etc. were violently stripped from them. Such a tragedy. Thanks for pointing this out.

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    • anonymousse January 11, 2022, 1:54 pm

      I agree with you and thank you for writing your comments.

      I did see a southern plantation wedding featured in the nytimes recently of a black couple honoring their ancestors, and saying they thought those tortured spirits deserved to see some black joy. I think that’s appropriate.

      I don’t think anything else is. Grounds of horrible atrocities are often razed to the ground afterwards. “History,” “architecture,” blah blah blah unless 99% of the proceeds is sending black kids to college or something good, I would never feel good about going to a wedding like this.

      I don’t live in the south and have no expectations of ever being invited to a plantation wedding. I can’t imagine I know anyone that insensitive. No more romanticizing that period.

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    • Prognosti-gator January 11, 2022, 2:47 pm

      Thank you for replying in such depth. Since you pulled from my comment, I’d like to assure you I did not mean to offer the other examples as equivalences (eg. redlining, etc) but rather to underscore how racism isn’t limited to the south, or the past – but in trying to keep brief, and my own clumsy writing may have made it seem like I was trivializing the plantation history or the depth of the horrors perpetrated during the slave trade. I apologize for sounding as if I was attempting to do so.

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      • LadyClegane January 11, 2022, 4:25 pm

        Thanks Prognosti-gator, I see that in your comment for sure, I just grabbed your language because I felt it was a good way to gesture to the slippage we all fall in to sometimes when we approach an enormous/overwehlming issue that crops up in these seemingly smaller moments (Plantation weddings). I’m so glad to hear your thoughts.

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    • LisforLeslie January 11, 2022, 4:26 pm

      I appreciate your perspective. I don’t know anyone who would rent out a plantation, so my experience is limited. If someone did, I would definitely question their decision and ultimately I would have to determine how much I like that person and whether it was worth saying something about their choice. I can’t say I would 100% not go.

      I’m not making light of the circumstances and I’m not dismissing them. I’m inelegantly saying that as a person who was born and raised in the northeast of the US, it’s really easy for us to pretend we’d all be abolitionists because we were part of the Union. The reality is that the NE grew on the backs of slaves, just like the South. We talk about these issues as if we own the moral high ground. We don’t.

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    • Anonymous January 12, 2022, 5:04 pm

      Slow clap.

      No, FAST AND LOUD CLAP.

      White folks, it shouldn’t be Black folks’ jobs to explain your own history to you. Please try harder. I say this with love and not sarcasm–we can all learn here. And maybe venmo LadyClegane for a coffee if you got something from her words.

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      • Dear Wendy January 13, 2022, 7:49 am

        If she wants to share her Venmo here, I’m down.

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      • anonymousse January 13, 2022, 8:54 am

        I would absolutely Venmo LadyCelgane for a coffee or whatever she desires and urge all of us to purchase The 1619 Project book or any other tome of interest from Harriet’s Bookshop in Philly:

        https://bookshop.org/shop/harriettsbookshop

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    • bumpybear January 13, 2022, 1:58 pm

      THANK YOU FOR THIS. Reading some of these comments makes me feel like I entered a parallel universe.

      I am white. I teach majority students of color. Several of my graduates who are now in college found photos of one of my colleagues (so their past teacher) visiting a plantation. When they confronted her, I swear she used the same verbiage about “loving the notebook.” When these students talked to me about this and expressed the pain and disappoint that an adult they thought cared about them and their dignity would gleefully “enjoy” the site of mass murder and torture and spirit death…

      Thank you for sharing this. Thank you.

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  • Hazel January 11, 2022, 3:41 pm

    No way could I bring myself to go. Was flabbergasted when I first heard this was actually a thing. Totally agree with LadyClegane.

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  • Ange January 11, 2022, 4:51 pm

    I couldn’t. It’d be like getting married at a mission here, totally disrespectful.

    I did some tours in New Orleans when I was there and everywhere we went were stories of suffering compete with slave quarters and remnants of slave markets. It’s all right there is you look for it, I can only imagine it takes wilful ignorance to overlook it for some photos.

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  • Tui January 11, 2022, 8:55 pm

    I would certainly question my friendship with anyone who planned a plantation wedding. If they had black friends and guests would they have planned differently? Presumably none of the plantations are now black owned or benefit the black community other than creating some jobs. The comparison to Auschwitz is valid as the slave ships and plantation fields were death camps.

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  • Phoebe January 13, 2022, 10:38 am

    I read the post and felt uncomfortable and that I probably wouldn’t go in the same circumstance. Then I read the comparison to a concentration camp, and Lady Clegane’s comment, and I was mortified that my first reaction wasn’t a stronger “hell, no.” Freaking white privilege sneaks up on us, even when we think we’re watching for it.

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  • anonymousse January 13, 2022, 11:37 am

    The other day I was thinking how different the US would be if we (WP) hadn’t eradicated every tribe of native peoples. Imagine how cool it would be to see more of the history of the people who used to live here celebrated, seen, taught, etc? All the tribes from all the regions? The nomadic ones? It makes me really sad. I wish we taught the truth. It’s really the least we can do to teach it and honor the victims, not the victors.

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  • Heatherly. January 13, 2022, 12:46 pm

    WTF? No. No, I’m not going to any wedding at a plantation. And yes I ‘d judge the hell out of anyone who would plan a wedding or go to a wedding at one. Yes, even you Ryan Reynolds & Blake Lively. 😔 😡 🤯 🤯😡😡😡

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  • Dear Wendy January 13, 2022, 1:36 pm

    First, thank you, LadyClegane, for taking the time and energy to leave such a thoughtful comment.

    I didn’t say in the post what my response would be because I didn’t want to influence, but I was surprised, too, that “hell, no, I wouldn’t go!” wasn’t everyone’s reply. I can’t imagine being invited to a plantation wedding in the first place because no friend of mine would have a wedding in such a place, and no family member has any tie or interest in the South. But if I did somehow end up with an invitation to a wedding at the site of a former plantation, I definitely wouldn’t go, and depending on my relationship with the couple, I’d express why I wasn’t going and suggest they reconsider.

    This made me think of the visits drew and the kids and I have made to Sullivan’s Island, SC, and the feelings that arose in staying at a lovely airbnb a short walk from one of the biggest ports that received slave ships. This isn’t the same thing as having a planation wedding, of course, but it did stir up some complicated feelings for me. I didn’t feel great about vacationing in a place with such painful history. But do I… avoid vacationing there? Read up more on the history?

    There’s a bench on Sullivan’s Island that is dedicated to the memory of the enslaved Africans that entered North America through the island’s port. It was the first entry in Toni Morrison’s “Bench by the Road” project, and of the bench, Morrison said something that helps me frame the way I think about this:

    ““Well, the bench is welcoming, open,” she said. “You can be illiterate and sit on the bench, you can be a wanderer or you can be on a search.”

    And that search is for anyone, not just black people, she added. If anything, she would like to see white people hold a conversation among themselves about the legacy of slavery.

    “African-Americans don’t own slavery,” Ms. Morrison said. “It’s not a brand because there were slave masters and there were abolitionists and there were other people who died to see to it that justice was done.”

    In that regard, I think these comments have been especially important, and I thank everyone for sharing.

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  • Nora B January 15, 2022, 12:06 pm

    No way, no way, no way would I attend a wedding like this. I’d send a gift and be done. If the couple doesn’t understand the heavy history and sadness behind the place, shame on them. These places are living museums where folks NEED TO LEARN ABOUT OUR SHAMEFUL HISTORY AND…how not to be a privileged racist jerk.

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  • Texican Ashley January 18, 2022, 5:05 pm

    There is a plantation in Louisiana called the Whitney Plantation, where the sole focus is on the enslaved people who lived there. Imagine that, out of all of the plantations left in the US there is ONE. The fact is most of these places gloss over the slavery aspect of plantation life and focus on the beautiful mansion, the elegant rooms, and the expertly manicured grounds. By going to a wedding at a plantation you are participating in that erasure of slave life which made all that possible. The bridesmaids sure as hell aren’t taking pictures in front of the slave quarters, and you aren’t enjoying your $100 a head meal in a 1 room cabin. Honestly, that is what the plantation is selling you, that fantasy that for just one day you can be the master and missus of the plantation, and your guests I guess the local landed gentry. YOU can enjoy being waited on hand and foot. YOU can enjoy the being in the big house surrounded by luxury. YOU can enjoy the best food and drink. There is simply no getting around the fact that slavery made all that possible. If I knew anyone that wanted to be the master and missus of a plantation for a day, I’d seriously question their morals and our friendship.

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