Visiting the Whitney Plantation in New Orleans

Growing up, jazz was always playing in our house thanks to my dad. In university, he was that Asian kid in the corner of the field with his portable cassette player listening to Scottish band known as the Average White Band. It was jazz that led me to dream of visiting New Orleans, the home of jazz, soul and blues.

When we got there, I found the music loud yet soulful, and the food delightfully spicy. Everything had a bite to it, just like their mosquitoes. I had never heard of Creole culture or Creole food before visiting New Orleans, but I’m now a huge fan of Gumbo.

Sash and I chose to visit the Whitney Plantation because it promised to show us what life was like from the perspective of those who were captured, not their captors. I had no patience to learn about lavish mansions and drawing rooms built by the blood and tears of slaves. I definitely had zero patience walking through the same mansions greeting actors in costumes portraying the lives of people back then. 

So, like well-prepared travellers, we booked our tour with Grayline in less than 24 hours before departure, picked up our tickets 15 minutes before departure, got on the bus and departed for the plantation. I should note that while you can drive there yourself, you are required to go on a guided tour around the plantation.

Highway 1, I think. Apparently, songs were written about this road.

On the bus ride over, we passed Highway 1, sugar cane fields and a huge lake… or perhaps it was a river? I’m not quite sure, it was six months ago. What I do remember is being greeted by the hottest sun I had ever experienced, and the most knowledgeable guide I’ve ever had on a tour. While I don’t remember her name, she said she traded law school for a degree in African American history. She was smart, witty and knew all the shady and cool spots in the plantation.

Exploring the plantation and speaking with our guide was eye-opening, to say the least. When I put what’s happening to African Americans into context, taking into account their history of slavery and abuse, I began to understand the anger that people felt and still feel to this day.

When you first leave the nice air-conditioned reception area, you’re greeted by these beautiful trees and a lot of open space.
These sculptures were placed in a church on the plantation. They were made with no names and no eyes to represent the children born into slavery and later separated from their parents when they were sold. Many didn’t know how old they were or what their real names were.
The grounds are really well kept and a lot of the buildings on the plantation were kept in their original condition.

We walked past the slave quarters, the cages some people were kept in, the mansions the owners lived in and massive metal bowls that used to be filled with boiling hot sugar. We learned what it was like for slaves back then, the conditions they had to work in, and how Gumbo originally came about. As it turns out, Gumbo used to be a stew made from leftovers, scraps of meat and vegetable thrown in a pot and boiled till it was edible.

Before I left the plantation, I spotted a book, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and later bought in on Audible. I started a new habit on my trip to America – reading/listening to a book whose stories reflected local culture or history. This historical fiction novel brought me back to the very beginning of slavery and traced it all the way through to the 21st century.

On the bus ride back, our guide from Grayline told us stories about Mr Toussaint and how he was a very humble man who loved his fancy cars. On a recent trip to New York, she bought a CD of a live recording of Mr Toussaint’s performance of Southern Nights and played it for us.

Southern skies
have you ever noticed southern skies?
It’s precious beauty lies just beyond the eye.
It goes running through your soul
Like the stories told of old

While most people in the bus had dozed off by this point, I listened to him play the piano and sing, I listened to him tell his stories of New Orleans back in the day, the southern skies in the day and at night, laying out on the porch after dinner with all the love he ever needed from the world. I tried to take it all in and will my brain to never forget that moment, as we rolled past fields, rivers and swamps simmering in the hot sun.

On this trip, I found that there was really nothing like the southern skies and I was so lucky to have seen it with my own eyes.