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Not long after Professor John Michael Vlach published the book Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery, a guest at one of his lectures posed an interesting question: Why did Big House feature photographs of plantation houses taken decades after slavery, but no images made during the era itself? Almost no such photographs existed, Vlach responded. So, the visitor rejoined, why not look at period drawings and paintings?
Vlach decided that his questioner had a good point. So he scoured museums and eventually decided to focus on the works of a half-dozen relatively obscure artists who happened to specialize in the plantation genre. What he found is explained in his newly published book, The Planter’s Prospect: Privilege & Slavery in Plantation Paintings.
The paintings, Vlach concluded, provide an insight into the plantation-era mind-set that could not have been gleaned from more prosaic daily objects. In mid-19th-century America, painters typically rendered natural vistas from above—a view that reinforced the idea of man’s dominion over nature as well as America’s Manifest Destiny. But plantation paintings, Vlach found, usually depicted houses from below, as if they were temples worthy of the viewer’s respect. To Vlach, this iconography reflected Southern planters’ idea of themselves as self-made men; this was underscored by the fact that plantation paintings almost never featured slaves, which seemed to affirm that the planters were convinced that they alone deserved recognition for their successes.
“My projects have focused on enabling black people to take credit where credit had been denied and to give white people the tools to be able to say, ‘We understand,’” says Vlach, 53.
The Planter’s Prospect is the latest work in Vlach’s long career studying African-American culture. The Capitol Hill resident and professor of American studies at George Washington University grew up in Berkeley, Calif., and earned his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from the University of California, Davis. There, he apprenticed himself to Daniel Crowley, a famed anthropologist; Vlach spent two years with Crowley in Ghana, where he traced the narratives of African-American folk tales to the storytellers of Africa itself. Later, Vlach began studying tangible objects of cultural significance, such as baskets, quilts, pottery, musical instruments, architecture, and graveyard decorations. He is currently doing consulting for a museum being established in Cincinnati that will document the Underground Railroad.
“I want people to see a plantation and know that it had been swamp until African labor used their sweat and intelligence to drain off the water exactly as it had been done in West Africa,” Vlach says. “The amount of earth that’s needed to make a rice plantation is equal to the Pyramid of Cheops. I like to say that a big rice plantation is basically a horizontal Egypt.” —Louis Jacobson