Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Food for thought

A couple people I know have linked to this post on Jezebel about a couple's "Colonial Africa" themed wedding.  I think there are a lot of things worth talking about surrounding this issue, including - many people have said that the couple put their wedding out there, therefore it's fine for everybody to trash them, call them out for being racist, and generally make nasty comments about their insensitive wedding choices - but a lot of the comments don't seem to realize that the blog that Jezebel linked to is their photographer's blog, and not a larger style blog like Style Me Pretty.    Also, a discussion that is probably worth having is did the couple realize the waitstaff would be all-Black, because we certainly didn't know what anybody on our waitstaff looked like, and thinking back on it now, I have no idea what any of our waitstaff looked like.  Because I think we can all agree that while having a "Colonial Africa" theme is not a good idea, because the couple clearly romanticized colonialism and did not understand it, having a "Colonial Africa" theme and ordering or hand-picking an all-Black waitstaff to accompany it is a worse idea. 

Then there is the discussion this led to in the comments of whether or not we should have weddings on plantations.  And at what point do we ignore our history in favor of having a really nice venue?  And I grappled with this issue a little bit for our wedding.  Because two of the venues we looked at both had ties to slavery - the Elkridge Furnace Inn has a slave hut that you can pose for pictures in front of, and the Historic Waverly Mansion has a building that was used as a slave jail for escaped slaves from the underground railroad.  We would have had our ceremony right in front of it.  And we very seriously considered it, and the reason we didn't go with it wasn't because of the slave jail (although I think I would have moved the ceremony). 

So yeah, for those of us who want to have a wedding in a lovely historic mansion somewhere, how do we acknowledge the gruesome history that sometimes comes with it, without celebrating or ignoring it?  I know being in Maryland, which I sometimes refer to as the Almost-South, a lot of historic places come with a gritty history when it comes to slavery - but that we often have to pick between that and a hotel ballroom that doesn't feel like it has any history, and as a person who believes in preserving history, I would rather my money went to people who preserve history, gritty or otherwise, because it can't help any of us to ignore it.  So how do we do it without being insensitive?


  1. First of all, even if the couple didn't purposefully select all-black servers, the photographer HIGHLIGHTED their presence. The couple is at least clueless privileged racist, possibly worse (I really can't give these guys the benefit of the doubt), but the photographer is just so so racist for putting those photos in the highlights reel to drive home the aesthetic of the wedding. Also, this wedding theme is drenched in racism regardless, and makes me feel kind of barfy.

    Anyway, living in the States we unfortunately have a lot of terrible history tainting a lot of places. There's a spectrum of awful when it comes to having a wedding on a plantation, I think: it is most awful to be like, "isn't it so charming and romantic that people were enslaved here?", medium awful to glibly have a wedding ceremony in front of a slave jail, and minorly awful but I think ultimately forgivable (but I'm white so I don't really get to make these rules) to be married on a site of enslavement without specifically exploiting or mentioning that, because you are effectively ignoring the tragic history of the place.

  2. As Robin mentioned, there's a difference between theming a wedding to romanticize a gruesome time in history and having your wedding in a location that had gruesome activities take place. Now if you held your wedding in a location like that, and themed it to highlight the history, that is really bad.

    As far as I can tell, the couple weren't holding their wedding in a historic spot. The only context to the theme was the fact that they were in Africa. Also, I feel like the fact it was in South Africa, which only ended Apartheid in 1994, makes it all the worse. Sure the United States still has rampart racism still going on in some areas, but our history regarding slavery ended a lot longer ago. The fact that Apartheid ended such a short time ago means that the servers lived under the policy. Some of them might have spent time in the jails for blacks for the outrageous and unjust laws — like being out after curfew. I cringe when I think about the idea that they had to work at a wedding that romanticized their own degradation.

  3. All I can say is that I really hope none of my students walked out of my lecture on colonialism thinking, "what a great theme for a party!"

    As far as the historic site goes, I think old plantations need to be approached sensitively. If it were me, I would have our wedding website and/or programs include some discussion of the site's history, acknowledging that it is a place where slavery was practiced. I would also keep celebratory activities away from sites like slave huts or slave jails. I would also want to look at how the site portrayed its history. Would I be paying money to a place that was actively working to preserve information about the lives of enslaved African-Americans and acknowledged slavery as part of the site's past? Or do the brochures and photos around the plantation just say "yay hoop skirts!"?

  4. Honestly I was like, okay this is bad but if they hadn't called it "Colonial African" and not played up that part so much it wouldn't have been so bad. BUT that was before I read that it was held in South Africa (and I think the couple is British) and that the waitstaff was all black. I mean, that goes from "in poor taste" to blatant racism and I do think people should call it out.

    Also, of course the racism is the important part of the story, but what the heck is up with these crazypants themed weddings anyway?

  5. The racism in that wedding and photographer's post was particularly intense. I don't think there's any way to describe two white Brits having a Colonial Africa wedding in South Africa that doesn't include racism. And the fact that the servers were all black (especially if not intentional on the part of the couple) is just icing on the cake. The entire thing is dripping with an appalling level of racism, and I can't imagine why anyone would want to link their wedding day celebration to such horrible history.

    As for the question of slavery-related sites in the US, I'd agree with a lot of what petitechablis said--noting the history in the program at least shows that you're aware of the circumstances that created the venue. And even better if the venue itself does something to acknowledge that past--though I'd expect more of that from plantations-turned-historical-museums and not so much from plantations-turned-full-time-wedding-venue. Unfortunately, much of our country's historical sites, particularly but not exclusively, in the South, are tangled up in slavery and racism. While acknowledging that history in some way doesn't erase it, making that step at least shows that you're aware of the problematic history.

    Another potential step would be to donate money to a relevant cause, similar to how some couples donate to marriage equality organizations as a show of support. I'm sure there are many organizations working to educate people about the horrors and impact of slavery in the US, not to mention organizations working to end modern slavery around the world. I'm not saying that a donation to a group like this is necessary, but it's another way to show some displeasure with the origins of the venue.

  6. I would just like to clarify the the couple are not "Brits" as portrayed above. They are South African, which is why they chose to get married in their homeland. Yes, the majority of the wait staff were black, but given 92% of the South African population is black, that is hardly surprising.
    Nobody called Meryl Streep a racist for her role in Out of Africa, you Americans rewarded her with an Oscar!

  7. Unfortunately, the photographer's post was taken down before I could see it, so I don't know what other pictures they selected to portray, and I do think that it is very possible that this couple wanted to have a "vintage" themed wedding, which is a pretty "in" thing to have these days. If they had called it "vintage travel", I doubt it would have gotten the attention that it did.

    That being said: I'm not sure that it's better that the couple didn't realize how it would look. And also, I generally don't think that you should dress up the caterers. Truthfully, most of their decisions on their own are probably not overtly racist, but they made a number of small decisions that went a little too far.

    I'm not defending them, but I am just saying that I don't know both sides of the story, and I think there needs to be a broader conversation going on about history and privilege and how we treat history from a place of privilege when we plan weddings. And I think we definitely start by not dressing up the caterers.

  8. As was stated, the photographer's post was taken down but I believe it said that the bride planned the wedding from England, which is why I assumed they were British. I wasn't trying to misrepresent anything. The other photos included the guests posing with guns and animal skins and wearing safari hats, so it was definitely not just "vintage" themed, but obviously intentionally "colonial" themed.