White Nostalgia: The Absence of Slavery and the Commodification of White Plantation Nostalgia

Abstract: Since the 1960s, the United States has experienced a rise in heritage and plantation tourism that plays a significant role in passing on cultural narratives and constructing memories. In cases of plantation tourism, some narratives are constructed that deny the history of slavery or mention it only as a side effect. This absence of critical engagement commodifies a specific type of nostalgia: white nostalgia. White nostalgia exemplifies an attempt to escape issues of race by downplaying their implications and rejecting the legacy of slavery. Plantation tourism sites tend to celebrate personal narratives depicting the antebellum South as a time and place of union and jauntiness despite the fact that their histories are inseparably connected with slavery. Refusing to engage in critical discussions on slavery, these historical plantation sites can be regarded as comfortable spaces of refuge longing for an uncritical and colorblind—yet unrealistic—past. In this essay, the commodification of white nostalgia will be investigated by looking at seven plantation websites, thereby examining how white nostalgia not only distorts the history of the antebellum South but also how it sells history without racism and performs memory that distances itself from emotional legacies of slavery.

When I walked through my host mother’s grandmother’s living room in rural Georgia, my eyes fell upon a small oil painting depicting a plantation and African Americans working in a cotton field. My host grandmother was standing next to me and must have seen the interest with which I looked at the painting. She told me that it was painted by her ex-mother-in-law, who wanted to illustrate a ‘typical’ scene from the antebellum South. I was interested in the story of the painting: Why did she choose this scene? Was it her family’s cotton field? Did her family own slaves? What happened to the field and the enslaved people after the Civil War? These questions remained unanswered. Instead, I vividly remember how my host grandmother talked about the “good life” slaves had had, describing how they were “taken care of,” provided with food and shelter, and did not suffer from oppression. This painting and her accompanying statements represent a glorifying nostalgia, a whitewashed narrative about the antebellum South, which presents a dominant and distorted perspective on slavery.

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