Saturday the St. Anonymous UMW went to Oak Alley for a tour and lunch. My good friend D was able to come with me. As I mentioned the one other time it was relevant to whatever story I was telling, D is African American, whereas I am of European (mostly Italian, with a little Yugoslavian thrown in) descent.
We had a good time touring the old mansion. The tour guide was very well-versed in the home’s history and had an infectious personality. (At the end of the tour, she told us she had quit teaching to take on the job, because she enjoyed talking to people who actually listen.) The original owner of the home had selected the property, which had belonged to his sister, for the alley of oak trees leading to the river. The house was oriented to the trees to take advantage of the breezes coming off the river. Mr. Roman had built the home in order to entice his wife, a city girl from New Orleans, to live out in the country, but she rarely stayed there because she had family members she needed to take care of back in New Orleans. It wasn’t until her husband’s death from tuberculosis that she moved to Oak Alley for good to run the plantation.
After the tour, we had a buffet lunch in one of the restaurants. Then we had more time available for walking around until our car pool driver needed to leave. D wanted to see the reconstructed slave quarters and exhibit, and I wanted to see the gift shop. We did a quick turn around the gift shop and went off the the cabins, which were quite close.
The first cabin had a list of first names of all the slaves that had worked on the plantation, plus one unknown. One of the slaves had figured out a way to grow pecans with shells thin enough to crack easily, an innovation initially credited to his owner. There were displays showing the clothing slaves wore, restraints used to capture runaway slaves, and other aspects of slave life you wouldn’t pick up watching Gone With the Wind.
As we left and got ready to look for our ride, D turned to me and said, “Aren’t you glad we didn’t live back then?” Well, yeah, I have often said I am glad I didn’t live back in the good old days. But for me, the worst that could happen was that I would have grown up an illiterate Italian peasant, a life that could have had its good side. For D, the difference two hundred years would have made would be huge. She may, with her ancestory, have been a free woman of color, but more likely she would have been a slave, working back breaking labor, having the chance of her children being sold away from her, maybe being beaten. So yeah, I’m sure she was glad that she didn’t live -
“Because then we couldn’t even have been friends,” D went on.
It took a minute for this to sink in, and then I stopped in my tracks and reached to give her a hug. In the process I managed to bump into her and snag her sweater on my engagment ring. My spontaneous gestures have their downside.
“What,” she started, as I said, “Of all the awful things that could have happened if you had lived back then, the first one that comes to your mind is that we couldn’t have been friends? That means so much to me.”
We said a few other mushy things and then went to find B to get our ride back to church.
I know I have said before how privileged I am. I was born with an extra helping of smarts, I was born in the US because my ancestors were brave enough to come here, I was born at the right time to get practically a free ride to college and graduate school, and graduated at the beginning of the second wave of feminism, which benefitted women of my generation tremendously. As I have frequently told my husband, my life has been like an automatic door: it opens up in front of me and closes behind me and I hardly have to worry about it.
Now I see I have one more piece of privilege that I have never considered. I have a friend.