The “Daughter” of a Plantation Owner

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always cherished and appreciated my Romanian heritage – the one side of the family I was always eager to boast about. Growing up in New York City, I always found it to be more interesting to be from an immigrant family than from an all-American family.  When I first started going to school and explaining who I was through ice-breakers, it was never a question of where I would say my family came from: Romania. I loved the culture, but what I didn’t know yet, was that there was a part of my mom’s family history that was being kept from me.

When I began to learn to ask more questions in the 1st and 2nd grade, I found out that my mother’s family used to own plantations in the South. I wouldn’t understand what that truly meant until I reached middle school.

Because of the past election, I have realized that it is imperative to come to terms with my family’s history. In the past, I would always say that my mom’s side was a mix of different groups that immigrated closer to the inception of America. I was too ashamed to get into details, so I didn’t lie, but I wouldn’t tell the whole truth.

I’m the daughter of the daughter of the daughter of the daughter of a plantation owner: the descendent of slave owners. My ancestors profited off the maltreatment, abuse, and inequality of black slaves. My mom is just as ashamed as I am, but does what she can to fight for social justice. She explains it isn’t us, it’s our past; and at least we didn’t vote for Trump.

When I talk to my grandfather about our ancestors who undoubtedly profited off of the disenfranchisement of black people, he explains it as such: yes, our ancestors owned plantations and slaves, but after the civil war they did the “noble” thing. They sold a portion of their land and gave a share of the money and part of the remaining land to their former slaves.

Sounds a lot to me like sharecropping, grandpa, which was almost worse than slavery.

But look at how far we’ve come – I voted for Obama…

The thing is though, it’s not far enough and this still isn’t the whole truth. What each of them did – my mom and my grandfather – is attempt to put the blame and the problem on someone else. The fact is that our family is still very clearly benefiting from this system of inequality today, like so many white Americans. My parents they benefited from their whiteness in many ways, particularly in the world classical music, where my parents both work. First of all, “the classical music sector’s repertoire is dominated overwhelmingly by dead white men, and performed by living white men” (Guardian 2015). Unfortunately, this hasn’t changed much. In a study done by Dr. Christina Scharff, 40 orchestras were surveyed around the world, showing that 

1.4% of conductors and 2.9% of artistic and musical directors are women. Within the 629 orchestra players that were surveyed, only 1.7% identify as coming from a Black and minority background (Guardian 2015).

Clearly, it pays to be white in the field my parents and grandparents work in.

Most white people are made uncomfortable by the fact that they have benefited from a system of inequality. For my family, especially my mother, this usually has to do with the guilt she feels for being the descendant of slave owners. 

The statistic that shows that 53% of white women voted for Trump makes me angry. However, not all white women voted for Trump, and the statistics on white women college graduates who voted for Clinton is promising. That said, the table below makes it very clear that we very much need to work on the way white men in America view their country, immigrants, race, women, and the rest of the world. 

What makes me angry is that I have a great uncle who lives in the South – who accepts the system of inequality, who voted for Trump, despite knowing what his vote meant for all people who weren’t white men. But in some ways, I’m also complicit, as are my mother and grandfather.

Am I really any better than my uncle? Uncle – let’s call him Sam – voted for Trump, because he likes that he benefits off of a system of inequality, and me? I may not like the system, but I’m also still benefiting from it. Yes, I may not contribute to the system in the same way my great uncle did, but that doesn’t take away the ghosts of my family’s past as big southern plantation owners. Watching movies and reading books like 12 Years a Slave cause a physical response in me, watching someone get whipped simply because they were viewed as property and lesser than is painful.  It is and was despicable.

Now I’d like to take a moment away from self-criticism and reflect on the fact that I try as much as I can, everyday, not to be a part of the system, to fight back in every way, but I still feel guilty. I didn’t choose the family I was born in, and I didn’t choose my privilege, but I still have it. I wasn’t a part of my family’s history of owning slaves, but I’m partially alive now because of it: if my mother’s family hadn’t benefited from owning slaves, who knows what would’ve happened to them.

My family is a family of musicians, but how did they become musicians?  The arts are a field for only those who can’t live without it, and for those who can afford it. Artists come from all economic backgrounds, but from my experience, coming from a low to middle-class family in NYC, my parents didn’t want me to continue their legacy of living as “starving artists.” They were able to do it with the help of their family and their legacies of money. As you may know, economic class and race tend to correlate. You can see in the chart below that there is a clear difference between the median income of white and nonwhite households. This may also contribute to the lack of diversity within the world of classical music.

(Pew Research Center)

As previously shown, within the realm of classical music, there is little to no diversity. There is an especially low representation of the black community. I also know this from personal experience, growing up and going to concerts, wondering why my parents’ friends and colleagues were so much whiter than mine. Sure, both of my parents may not have owned slaves personally, but they’re both white. Whether they like it or not, the money they inherited from my mom’s side, as well as the economy they contribute to, is based on the inequality of races and sexes. Though they did not directly inherit the money from plantation owners, it comes from a legacy of former plantation and slave owners. Though the contribution may have been small, it is still significant.

My family, and this is coming from a woman who feels oppression of patriarchy on a daily basis, is white, guilty and privileged, as am I. So where do we go next? Surely, voting for a black man isn’t enough. Being white and privileged makes me uncomfortable, but a feeling is something that can be much more easily rid than the issues of racism and inequality our country faces. In other words, getting rid of my guilt is not necessarily the end goal. What really matters is how one acts. I’m personally dedicated to waking up each day and doing as much as my body and mind allows for me to fight the seemingly never-ending cycle of oppression and inequality of races and sexes. I know that I only have myself to answer to when I die, so I choose to dedicate myself to things that matter.

I have a complicated family history, and in some ways it is disgraceful. But I choose to not let it define me.