“The Plantation System in Southern Life” and Plantation Tourism
In his documentary, Lillian Smith: Breaking the Silence, Hal Jacobs uses numerous historical clips. One that stood out to me, though, was a clip, which he showed three sections of, from a ten minute Coronet film entitled “The Plantation System in Southern Life” from 1950. The film presents the South as an idyllic destination, one full of nostalgia and agrarianism, a soothing balm against the trappings of modern society. Throughout, the film paints chattel slavery as some benign class system where the wealthy enslavers had more money and opportunities than the enslaved, basically saying that the enslaved had opportunities but they were poor. There is no discussion of poor whites, free people of color, Native Americans, or others. It’s merely a binary of enslavers and enslaved.
I do not want to completely analyze “The Plantation System in Southern Life” today, but I mention it’s overall narrative to highlight what Jacobs does with the clip in the documentary. The clip follows Rose Gladney talking about white southern womanhood and the place of the white southern woman on the pedestal and Diane Roberts speaking about post World War II America and readers not wanting to “get yelled about race” and their desires to get back to “the ways things were” before the war.
Jacobs’ movement to “The Plantation System in Southern Life” underscores the ways that, as Smith herself argued, the deep-rooted systemic beliefs of white supremacy etched themselves onto the very land. Jacobs shows three scenes from the brief ten-minute film. The first shows a family of white tourists approaching the big house of a plantation as the narrator talks about visiting the Southern states. The narrator describes the house as opulent, even stating, “This beautiful mansion is one of many homesteads that were once the residences of Southern planters.” Of course, what this narration makes invisible is the enslaved labor that made this mansion.