How I Got Revenge for Nat Turner
August is my favorite month because every year my family goes on an African-American themed Caribbean Island cruise — replace the shuffle board with a basketball court, switch out the chicken nuggets with Southern fried chicken and get rid of whatever weak cruise ship a capella group and insert “Fantasia.” But the summer before my senior year in high school, my family and I flew to New Orleans instead — my dad had a surprise specifically for me.
When he meets me in our hotel lobby with my uncle Al, I think to myself, “A little father and son and uncle bonding time. I’m with it.”
Shortly after, a luxury tour bus pulls up to the curb, and suddenly all these people pile out of the hotel and start boarding. “Oh, a wine tour?”
My dad, my uncle and I hop on last. As I’m walking up the stairs, I see a digital sign above the bus driver’s head that reads: “PLANTATION TOURS.”
There is not a single black passenger on the bus besides the three of us. We sit down and I turn to my dad and say, “Are we really going to a plantation? Like — on purpose?”
The bus driver, an older black man, must have overheard what I said because he turns around and replies, “I was thinking the same thing. Y’all the first black people I’ve ever seen on this tour…”
To be honest, even though I believe it’s important to learn about your family’s past, slavery is something I’m comfortable only reading about. Although my family is from the South and always talked openly about slavery, I grew up in California where slavery wasn’t something I learned much about in school. So it feels more distant, not as present, with fewer reminders – the sugar cane fields, the old mansions – all around like I’d see in the South. These reminders give me an eerie feeling when I’m in Louisiana, but on the drive out to the plantation, the driver just points them out like monuments.
Everyone is so intrigued. I even see a young white guy with tortoise shell glasses writing in a notebook. Is he taking notes? On what? On how to run a plantation? The bus driver quickly interrupts my thought with, “Who here loves the movie ‘Django Unchained?’” I raise my hand. But when I look around, no other hands. I slowly lower mine.
“Well to your right we have the Candyland plantation from Django.” I start to hear the “oohs” and “aahs.” The person behind me comments on the “tall white pillars” and the “beautiful outdoor staircase” that leads from the front garden to the balcony of the second floor. Everyone’s phones are out.
Then we get out, and the place is creepier than the bus ride. The employees at the plantation are walking around in full 1800s slave master outfits. To my left is the “big house” (for the slave owners). To the right, about 100 yards away, are the slave quarters. And right in front of the slave quarters is a gift shop and a restaurant. The restaurant is known for all-you-can-eat pancakes. No joke.
The overall vibe is far too festive, tourist-y — and disrespectful.
Everyone seems to be doing more reminiscing than reflecting. My boy tortoise shell? He’s still taking notes. I can’t help but look at the way the Spanish moss hangs and sways off the trees. I think about the bodies that likely did the same over this ground that now is home to some tasty pancakes and souvenirs to remind you of the good ‘ole days. I think about my dining room back home where we have slave bill of sale papers from my dad’s side of the family in a picture frame. It’s hanging right next to a picture of our family today.
Apparently, my dad’s ancestors were held at the same plantation as Nat Turner. That’s why my last name is Turner. So looking at the Spanish moss hits me in all sorts of ways because being here on this plantation, I can almost imagine slavery happening to me. It’s hard to put into words. And this is all before the tour even starts.
The next thing I notice is a mint julep drink stand. I’m surprised to see a young black woman working there (the only black employee there as far as far as I could tell.) The idea of getting a celebratory drink seems stupid, but at this point seeing another black person feels like home. So my dad and I walk over.
“Bourbon or rum?” she asks. Even though I’m not yet allowed to make 21-and-up decisions, I reply, “Let’s go with the, um, uh bourbon”
While she’s making the drink, through some type of black telepathy I try my hardest to communicate how strange this place is to the employee.
As I’m walking away with my drink, I quickly double back and say, “This is weird, righh—” And before I can even finish my sentence, she replies, “Weird as hell.”
We begin the tour with a guide wearing a long tan suit jacket and a white shirt with frills on it. Nervously he says, “Um, I just want to say by no means are we condoning what happened. We are just showing people the history of this land.”
It seems as if the tour guide is looking at us to pardon him on behalf of all black people. So my dad, uncle and I nod.
The big house is still in great condition. Even I catch myself marveling at the architecture for brief moments — the way the ceiling has beautifully hand-designed white borders that match the borders on the floor that lead to the fireplace with so much detail in each corner. The strong, rich hardwood floor tells stories of its own.
Then my eye catches an extremely worn-down spot in the corner of the room. I ask, “What’s that over there?”
The guide replies, “Oh they would usually have a slave boy stand there at every meal, pulling a rope the entire time to activate a fan over the dinner table.”
My palms get really sweaty. He continues the rest of the tour, but none of it really sticks. I’m so zoned out — how many slave boys stood there for hours pulling a rope to fan the room? I now wish that I didn’t ask that question, that I didn’t notice that spot.
Then I think, “If this is a slave plantation tour, how come there aren’t any employees dressed as slaves walking around?”
I start to feel lightheaded as if I might faint. Then I find myself being dragged outside. The next thing you know, I’m at the back of the “big house” with my dad.
Just me and him.
He says, “Hey, you good?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just a lot…”
He nods saying, “I know. It’s crazy seeing how our family was treated worse than animals isn’t it?”
Then he looks at the big house. Then at me. Underneath his mowing-the-lawn sun hat, a devious smile grows on his face.
He takes a step towards the house — first staring at the ground where his feet sink into the dirt, then scanning the house intensely. His face is one shot of curious, two shots of scared for what these walls have seen. Then he looks back at me and says, “Spit on it.”
What? Of all the things he could have said in that moment, that was the furthest from my mind.
“Spit?” I say, unsure if he’s joking or not.
“Yes. The house. Spit on it.”
I swing my head to see if anyone is around. No one. Then my dad starts making gutteral throat sounds, puts his back into it, harks up a huge loogie and spits on the house. Honestly, that is one of the most disgusting things I’ve seen my dad do. But as soon as he did it, it felt like the air got easier to breathe.
My dad’s laughing like a little mischievous kid and says, “Now it’s your turn — for all the people who didn’t get a chance to spit before.”
So I get the biggest loogie my throat could muster, put my back into it and spit on the house.
Suddenly my body feels lighter and I can’t stop laughing. I know spitting on the house is not that big of a deal. But it felt like a secret I had from the plantation. My rebellious little Nat Turner moment.
My dad leans over and says, “You can’t let that happen Nyge.”
I’m confused. “Let what happen?”
As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew what was up. Leland Turner, notorious for his over-the-top teaching methods.
He says: “You know what I always say when it comes to you and your brother right? I’m raising lions. You can’t make anyone make you feel smaller than you are. You’ll feel this more when you get older and I know you feel like I’m a little bit extreme, but when situations arise later in life, I want you to be able to see it for what it is. Don’t let any surroundings shrink you. Always spit on the house. Always.”
Nygel Turner is co-host of YR Media’s podcast Adult ISH, distributed by PRX’s Radiotopia. This essay is adapted from an Adult ISH episode called Roots ISH, which is also featured on WNYC’s Snap Judgment.