"Two Family Units Per Cabin" Imagine, for a moment, living in a 10-foot by 12-foot room. Three to six people share your space, sleeping on bare floors, with the barest of furnishings – a table, a chair, maybe two. On the other side of a thin wall lives another, similar-sized family group. Two family units per cabin. Your home is a simple roofed box that benefited from none of the construction techniques that may have helped temper the heat of Louisiana’s tropical climate. Thirty to forty feet on either side are more than 60 neighboring cabins, built in an arrow-straight row, stretching almost a mile in either direction. Each was a mirror of the next, and each was shared by a similar number of enslaved persons. A year ago, I considered spending a night in an empty slave cabin at a nearby plantation. I wanted to know what the experience was like. But after sitting through a rainy afternoon in the quarters, I realized it was an impossible experience to recreate. I knew that when sunrise came, my one uncomfortable night would be over. But for a slave, there was no such morning to look forward to.
"The Quarters" Whenever I’ve photographed the remains of slave quarters, at Laura or other plantations, my experience has been similar. I feel an initial resistance to being there – either from within myself or from the site. So, I speak to the place, to the buildings, and to whatever memories still reside. I explain my intentions and offer a prayer of respect to those who once lived and died there. Today, we view slave cabins as relics, museum pieces from a time that is hard to imagine from our modern position of comfort and privilege. At one time, these structures were part of a community that offered slaves a paltry degree of privacy and a meager social life that was vital to help them create a sense of family. Here, they developed an underground culture through which they affirmed their humanity – gathering in the evenings to tell stories, sing, practice traditional beliefs and rituals, and make secret plans for a better life. It was from these quarters that the African folk tales of Compair Lapin (Brother Rabbit) and Compair Bouki (Brother Hyena) and others found their way into the folklore of the South and the hearts of children everywhere. The cabins remember their voices and the stories they told.
"Plantation Child" Picture for a moment the experience of being born into a wealthy Creole family in 19th-century Louisiana. You have all the food, clothing, attention, and care you require – a room with a warm bed of your own, a soft mattress, feather pillow, and mosquito net. Your mother or a nurse sings you to sleep in a hand-made rocking chair when you are tired or sad. Private tutors home-school you in language, the arts, math, and music. You have books, toys, and musical instruments to read, play, and spin away the hours of your comfortable days. Then around the age of three or four, you begin to realize that the black children around you, who possibly are your playmates, are somehow different. You can direct them. You can order them to do as you choose – with a simple command. What effect would it have on a young developing ego, to realize that an entire group of people, living with and around you, was there to fulfill your every need and demand?
"The Heartwood of Growing Things" Some people say that soil, rocks, and trees retain the memory of human experiences and emotions that have occurred in a place. They say that the air that previous generations breathed and the tears they shed are simply reprocessed and returned to the present. If you look closely and listen carefully, you might find traces of these memories in the green growing grasses and leaves, in the clouds, the rain, and in the heartwood of growing things. Walk or sit with the silence of the day. In the wooden timbers and walls of these centuries-old buildings, in the mud bricks that pave the paths, there are impressions that don’t fade and an awareness that doesn’t forget.
"The Measure of a Young Life" “I had ten children by Zeno Doctor and only one is now living. Victoria Doctor… was the only living child when he (Zeno) died and she will be 16 years old the last week in July. She was born on a Saturday at 11 o’clock in the day. She was born on the last Saturday in the month.” – Sarah Doctor, slave (from her deposition in the pension claim for her husband, Zeno Doctor). Approximately three out of ten slave children died before they were a year old. Few others reached the age of five. The combination of disease and inadequate food, clothing, and shelter drove up the death rate among all African-born slaves. According to one historical estimate, one-third of imported slaves died within the first three years after their arrival. Their average life expectancy was only about 36 years of age, though this is skewed by the high infant mortality rate. When I walk through the remaining cabins from the original slave quarters at Laura, I feel a watchfulness around me, as if the trees and the cabins have eyes and ears – or as if the eyes are those of shy black children, hiding and watching the movements of an unfamiliar white man. These cabins remember. This land doesn’t forget.