Poetic Justice is an advice column that offers counter-advice to submissions at other publications whose contributors have failed the reader.
In December, The New York Times’ ethicist columnist shamed an anonymous wedding for its venue on the grounds of a plantation after a reader wrote to the paper about his (or her) discomfort with the invitation.
“I’m Invited to a Destination Wedding at a Plantation. What Do I Do?” headlined the piece. The full submission is below:
A friend’s daughter has sent my family an invitation to her upcoming ‘Plantation Wedding’ in a Southern city. I had been looking forward to attending until I became aware of the appalling and tragic history of this estate and gardens. I am deeply troubled by the thought of celebrating on the grounds where hundreds of men, women and children were bought and sold, enslaved and tortured, so that white people can enjoy the privilege of a fairy-tale wedding.
Some friends are attending to support the mother of the bride. They urge me to just go and raise my own consciousness by touring the estate’s historical slave quarters and other sites in this city. I am skeptical that this is enough. I doubt I would be able to avoid speaking out during the wedding reception. Should I explain to the bride and groom the reason for my absence? She surely knows the estate’s history already. I forsee that all this will cause a rift in our families for some time. Would a donation to a historically Black college, in lieu of a wedding gift be appropriate?
Everyone in this scenario is white, raised in the Northeast and college-educated, and I’m astonished that they don’t realize this is a terrible idea. I want to act in good conscience and not create more disturbance. Do you have any thoughts?
The Times responded by writing that the reader’s outrage was more than justified.
“In choosing a plantation wedding, this couple would appear to be idealizing lifestyles built directly on the unpaid labor of Black people who were treated as property and regularly abused,” wrote Kwame Anthony Appiah, who encouraged the submission’s author to confront the couple over their plans.
The exchange will be uncomfortable. But if our country is going to get out from under four centuries of racism, uncomfortable moments can’t be avoided. You may be accused of getting on a high horse. So be it. Those saddled on high horses sometimes see the fields more clearly than others.
Will the submission’s author then pledge to never visit the White House? The pyramids? The U.S. Capitol? Monticello? Mount Vernon? Nearly anywhere in Rome?
Unless the reader will pledge a life-long refusal to ever step foot on sacred ground because of the atrocities that have occurred there, his absence is only hurting himself and the people who apparently love and support him enough to offer an invite in the first place. Over humans’ two-million-year history on the planet, it’s a guarantee more places on the Earth have hosted atrocities we don’t even know about.
Appiah writes that such a confrontation between the reader and the engaged couple is what is required “get out from under four centuries of racism.” To the contrary, an incessant focus on race is exactly what’s pushing the nation back under it, and the data bears that out.
According to Gallup, in 2021 only 43 percent of white adults and 33 percent of black adults said race relations were “very” or “somewhat good,” a new record low for each group since Gallup began polling on the question in 2001. The reverse in progress illustrated in the Gallup chart below picked up steam in 2013, when the newly re-elected President Barack Obama continued to inflame the culture wars and fuel the rise of aggressive wokeism.
This isn’t to say Americans ought to bury the past and forget about history. Far from it. Americans need to learn about the nation’s upbringing, both the good and the bad, to prevent from repeating the ugly.
What’s counterproductive, however, is the reader embarking on a pointless crusade to the harm of close friends because their wedding is at a venue that once saw the facilitation of a more than 150-year-extinct practice for which the submission’s author was never there. True progress is being able to move forward while acknowledging the past.