Attica Locke: 'I burst into tears. I had stepped inside my own history'

The author describes the experience that inspired her new literary thriller, and brought her face to face with America's shameful past

In the spring of 2004, I was invited to a wedding in Vacherie, Louisiana, about an hour or so outside New Orleans. My husband and I flew to my home state of Texas, hopped in a car and drove six hours through piney woods and deep swamps into the salty Gulf air of Southern Louisiana. We had a few wild nights in New Orleans, drinking bourbon and Hurricanes and eating fried pickles in the French Quarter, slipping in and out of one blues club after another. And then that Saturday, we cleaned ourselves up, slipped into formal wear, and boarded a chartered bus that would take us and the other guests to the wedding ceremony at the Oak Alley Plantation, a scenic drive along the levees of the Mississippi. I had had, up to this point, a vague sense of the venue. I mean, I'd seen the invitation. But you have to understand that in the South people throw the word "plantation" on anything – subdivisions, restaurants, country clubs and clothing stores – and I'm not sure that before I got on that bus I had any idea that we were headed to a plantation. I really didn't think anything of it … until I saw it.

It was astonishing.

A pale, shell-pink, Greco Revival mansion with 20ft columns and black shutters and a wraparound balcony, set at the end of a long alley of aged live oaks and bordered to the north by the Mississippi River, to the east and west by fields of swaying sugar cane. It was one of the most spectacular visions I'd ever laid eyes on, and I immediately felt sick to my stomach, my insides turning over a whole cocktail of conflicting emotions: rage and revulsion over what the antebellum scene represented, but also a deep and unexpected feeling of love and filial longing, at an almost cellular level, as if I were coming face-to-face with a distant relative for the first time.

When I finally set foot on the actual land, around the back side of the plantation, where the slave cabins had once stood, I burst into tears. I had, it seemed, stepped inside my own history … wearing a $500 dress and satin heels. It was a poignant homecoming, one in which I felt like an imposter, a woman who had wandered into the wrong century. I couldn't make sense of where I was, nor did I know what meaning to make of my presence there as a wedding guest. Was it an act of disrespect, bordering on the macabre, this celebration on the bloodied grounds of a plantation? Or was the very fact of my presence there – the fact that, for one night at least, I had been invited into the big house – a sign of tremendous progress? In the 21st century, does the history of slavery still hold the same charge? Or are we somehow past all that?

Oak Alley is a curious place. Sitting on 20-plus acres between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, it is a national landmark, and a crown jewel in the historical tourism market in Louisiana. There are movies filmed there, Civil War re-enactments every Monday, Thursday and Friday, and guided tours led by men and women in antebellum dress. There's a restaurant, a bed-and-breakfast, and a gift shop that sells everything from serious historical texts published by Louisiana State University to kitschy cookbooks and mammy dolls and key chains. The plantation even bottles and sells its own mint syrup. And, of course, the manicured grounds are a very popular spot for weddings and private events.

I somehow made it through the ceremony and wedding reception back in May 2004, slipping away from the festivities every now and then to share a smoke with the bass player in the wedding band, a black man in his fifties who mused about whether he and I would be asked to wash the dishes. It was a joke that never got old and got me through the night. Later, as we boarded the bus at the end of the night, my husband and I paused over a plaque that listed the names of every slave who had lived and cut sugar cane on that very land. Past the catered reception, the tables littered with empty bottles of champagne and leftover cake, we ran our fingers over the names, and I said a silent prayer, a note of thanks and a promise to never forget.

For me, Oak Alley was muse at first sight. I always knew that I would write about the place and its particular brand of historical tourism.

It was 2009 before I made it back there – a full year after the election that put Barack Obama in the White House, a profoundly rich time in America's history, when it seemed we had stepped into the unknown. Not just in terms of politics … but also basic psychology. Obama's presidency has necessarily interrupted a narrative about our country that had been virtually unchanged since its birth; a script about race in America that had been playing on a continuous loop for hundreds of years. And it has presented a unique emotional challenge: to hold, in both hands, the fundamental contradiction of where America has been against the hope of where we're going. It made returning to the plantation all the more surreal, raising deep questions about how we treat our history in the context of tremendous progress.

It was late fall when I returned, during the sugar cane harvest, what folks down there call "the cutting season". It had taken me nearly that long to work up the courage to stay overnight on the plantation grounds, in one of their guest cottages. I'd heard gossip about the plantation being haunted by ex-slaves, souls who walked the grounds past nightfall. I spent my first night on the screened-in porch of my rented cottage, with a bottle of wine and some cheap water crackers I'd found at the Piggly Wiggly up the highway. For hours, I sat and stared out into the foggy darkness, listening to the whoosh of cane leaves swaying in the distance, the wind almost a song, a chorus of voices calling. I wondered what I could tell them, the slaves who were long gone, if there was anything I could say to put their souls at rest, to let them know how far we'd come, that their lives and their labour had not been in vain.

Sometime during that long night sitting on the front porch, the opening scenes of The Cutting Season came to me, twirling around my head like the wind swaying the cane in the fields. I saw the fictitious Belle Vie Plantation, modelled after Oak Alley, with its weddings and guided tours. And inside its white-washed gates, I saw Caren Gray, the plantation's general manager and caretaker. She was standing over the body of a young woman – a field worker whose throat had been slashed, her body dumped unceremoniously by the fence – having no idea how she got there or why; a 21st-century mystery that can only be solved by Caren's willingness to delve into the plantation's past … and her own.

The Cutting Season, By Attica Locke

Profile £14.99

'Later, two cops would ask, more than once, how it was she didn't see her. She could have offered up any number of theories: the dirt and mud on the woman's back ... even her own layman's assessment that the brain can't possibly process what it has no precedent for. But none of the words came. I don't know, she said ...'

Attica Locke will be speaking at Stratford Picture House, London E15 on Thursday 13 September. More details and tickets here

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

    Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

    After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
    The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
    10 best sun creams for kids

    10 best sun creams for kids

    Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
    Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

    Tate Sensorium

    New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
    Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
    Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

    Remember Ashton Agar?

    The No 11 that nearly toppled England
    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks