The house my grandparents built was one story, brick. It sat modestly on its suburban lot, a stone’s throw from New Orleans, its front door shaded by a small portico and hidden from the street by a young live oak. Inside, beyond the foyer, a paneled great room was lit by a wall of windows. Through them, every Sunday, we watched my grandfather circle the kidney-shaped pool in his Speedo, fishing for leaves. The house always smelled like cooking. Snapping turtle turned to sherried soup. The ducks my uncle hunted became gumbo. In the spring, there were crawfish boils under the carport’s overhang, Southern spaghetti after baptisms. Wakes were held in the formal rooms blanketed in deep white carpet, the sideboard heavy with lemon squares, rum cake, macaroons. On the parlor upright, my aunt, laughing, interminably played “The Spinning Song.”
But inside this house was another house. Hidden in the private corridor that led from master bedroom to guest, beside the powder room door, was a photograph, in black and white, of Rienzi, the Thibodaux mansion where my grandmother was born. It was a house divided into thirds: dark roof, veranda, floodable ground floor. Eight columns broke the façade into seven bays. From gallery to grass ran two sinuous stairs, one flight for ladies, I was told, one for men. It was the stairs that fascinated me—the idea of belles descending in wide crinolines. The building, otherwise, was unremarkable, flanked by oaks and painted white, as plantation houses invariably are.
I liked that house. I stared at it a lot when I was hiding from my cousins or the old ladies, with their butterscotch and damp hankies. I liked the story I was told about it: that the house was built for Empress Josephine, la reine of Rienzi, on speculation that she would come to French Louisiana upon her exile following the Napoleonic Wars. This story was less than legend, the truth of it so tenuous that my family never bothered to check our facts—we had the wrong queen, wrong etymology, wrong colonial power, wrong timeline. The story’s wrongness, though, was a powerful opiate, the fuel for further fantasies. I imagined my grandmother’s birth in the half-tester bed where a queen had once slept, imagined her brushing her long red hair—one hundred strokes a night. I imagined her walking along a long, dusty road to the schoolhouse where she taught or leaning against the railing of the veranda, looking out over vast, empty fields of cane. The fields, when I imagined them, were always empty. The people who’d worked them did not appear in the story we told, because really it was a myth, built to do what myths do: mask the truth.
If you’re an American, you know this house, too: Scarlett runs in white ruffles from the awkward bulk of Tara. Django rides postilion up the red road toward Evergreen. As a teenager, maybe you got off a bus with your gaggle of classmates, tried to keep it together as a hoop-skirted guide led you on the rounds: dovecote, widow’s walk, cone of sugar. Maybe, as a young man, you drank bourbon beneath Edison-lit oaks, cringed at the cotton in the bride’s bouquet. Maybe this house appears in the bottom drawer of your bathroom vanity, printed on the handfuls of soaps that you stuffed at some point in a suitcase. Or maybe you’ve avoided this house, country-driving, hunting boudin. Maybe, slowed behind a bridal limousine, you averted your gaze as the white pickets flashed, grumbled something about how no one would host a wedding at Auschwitz.
For a long time, a book by surrealist photographer Clarence John Laughlin lay on my mother’s coffee table. Full of images of plantation houses—Rienzi among them—this book, Ghosts Along the Mississippi, seemed seductive to me, occult. Like William Mumler, the charlatan photographer who used double exposure to produce pictures of “spirits”—ostensibly the ghosts of loved ones his clients had lost during the Civil War—Laughlin exposed house upon house, collaged colonnade within colonnade. Trying to create an “elegy” for plantation culture, Laughlin shot the houses from low, close vantage, so that their columns stand against clouds that rise “like the smoke of destruction.” Looking at these buildings through the lens of the “mythos of plantation culture,” he wrote, characteristically maudlin,
we often sense . . . the swish of a silken invisible dress on stairs once dustless, the fragrance of an unseen blossom of other years, the wraith momentarily given form in a begrimed mirror. These wordless perceptions can be due only, it seems, to something still retained in these walls; something crystallized from the energy of human emotion and the activities of human nerves. And, perhaps, it is because of this nameless life of memory and desire and, correlatively, because of a superior power of suggestion, that for those who are sensitive, the ruined houses have a fascination far exceeding that of the intact, and inhabited structures.
Indeed, looking at these pictures as a child, I thought I was looking at something ancient, something over. Gutted by fire, eroded by rain, reduced to a colonnade choked by vines (Laughlin called this one “Enigma”), these places seemed safe to romanticize, like the ruins of ancient Rome. Slavery was over, I thought—white supremacy was over—and these houses were beautiful in their destruction, emblems of decontextualized despair.
What it took me a long time to grasp is that beauty is often a con—a lure, an advertisement, and a blind. Think of Stalin’s symmetrical Seven Sisters, the Cathedral of Light shining above the Zeppelin Tribune during Nazi rallies. Think of Vivien Leigh’s face, that dress made of drapes.