Ruddy Roye’s photograph recalls black fatalities like Eric Garner’s and Michael Brown’s on a Mississippi Delta cotton field. Permission courtesy of Ruddy Roye. Ruddy Roye, “Don’t Shoot!”, 2016. Copyright held by Ruddy Roye.
Recently, the Plantationocene has received scholarly attention as a model for understanding the planetary effects of human activity. Anna Tsing, for example, uses the term “plantation” in a capacious sense to describe the transportation of non-human lifeforms around the world, as well as the homogenization and simplification of complex ecologies, to “create assets for future investments” by and for human consumption.1 Donna Haraway likewise argues that “the slave plantation system was the model and motor for the carbon-greedy machine-based factory system that is often cited as an inflection point for the Anthropocene.”2 These theories place plantation not only at the heart of Western modernity, but also conceive of it as a central engine of capitalism, empire, industrialization, ecological destruction, geological change, and climate change. And yet, Tsing and Haraway skim over the Indigenous removals, captive and exploited labor, forced human relocations, and human rights violations that have fundamentally enabled the kinds of ecological simplification, biological movement, and technological development they describe.
The intersections of race and colonialism must be central to any theorizations of the Plantationocene and its cultural productions. Contemporary southern studies (a U.S. and global south literary and cultural interpretive framework) is uniquely positioned to build upon present understandings of the Plantationocene and its long-term, planetary effects because it focuses on the intersections of race and colonialism, material conditions, and cultural production. This essay examines these intersections to argue two points: first, that absent even literal plantations, cultural forms reveal how plantation ideologies, iconographies, and narratives continue to structure everyday life; and second, that methodologies grounded in southern studies are essential for understanding the Plantationocene in all its manifestations.
That is, we argue that the plantation is as much a narrative construction as it is a literal place, one that always underlies political debates about national belonging, borders, labor, resources, ethnicity, and race. More than moving humans and other lifeforms around the world, the global plantation complex also creates what Vandana Shiva has called “monocultures of the mind” that have become the foundation for Western capitalist endeavors at large.3 In other words, plantation isn’t just a material institution that has led to the planetary catastrophes of the Plantationocene; it’s also a set of ideas, archives, ideologies, and, most important for our purposes as literary and cultural critics, narratives. Ideologies of the plantation fundamentally shape history, economics, and ecologies on a planetary scale, and they also fundamentally shape how human beings relate to each other and to the natural world. Put another way, the Plantationocene depends upon the cognitive, psychological, and epistemological affects of plantation colonialism, which makes the plantation imaginary crucial to its success. This essay surveys this imaginary in a variety of contexts (in college athletics, Mississippi Delta tourism, African American photography and sculpture, Gulf Coast literature, and Latinx film) to affirm the central role of writers, cultural producers, humanities scholars, and literary critics in achieving any understanding of the Plantationocene.
All four of us are southern literature scholars who bring a global perspective to the study of the plantation, especially the past and present violence that it depends on. In our own work, for example, we have examined the plantation’s ideological, ecological, aesthetic, and commercial linkages in U.S., Irish, British, French, Caribbean, Latin American, Filipino, Japanese, and Vietnamese cultures from the 1500s to the present. This global compass is not in spite of our backgrounds in U.S. southern studies, but because of it: we take the insights, issues, methods, and challenges posed by U.S. plantation culture and apply them in analyses of the plantation’s effects in other places, histories, and literary traditions. One of the most important skills this work has given us is a framework and vocabulary for studying colonialism and race in plantation cultures at large. Consequently, we find it strange that literary criticism has taken a backseat in discussions of the planetary scope of the Plantationocene, because studies of plantation literature are already comparative, deconstructive, transnational, and attuned to racial inequality in their methodologies. For the Plantationocene to be taken seriously as a framework for analyzing human activity on a planetary scale, the southern United States—and its literatures, media, and other cultural productions—must be taken seriously as well.
The Plantationocene and the U.S. South
We have all been students at the University of Mississippi (UM)—one of many campuses where plantation narratives of white supremacy and national belonging (examples of Shiva’s “monocultures of the mind”) are simultaneously forgotten, venerated, replicated, disrupted, and challenged. As we started work on this essay, events at UM drew our attention when white supremacists and basketball fans simultaneously converged on the university. On February 23, two white nationalist groups, the Hiwaymen [sic] and the Confederate 901, encircled a Confederate monument conspicuously located near the white-columned Lyceum administrative building, where James Meredith finally gained access to the previously all-white campus with the help of the National Guard and the federal government in 1962. Less than 1,000 feet away from the contemporary gathering of white supremacists, the UM basketball team—the Ole Miss Rebels—was playing against the University of Georgia Bulldogs. Eight African American basketball players knelt in protest when the national anthem began. The crowd immediately booed the kneeling players, and irate sports fans took to social media to chastise the student players for their ungratefulness and lack of patriotism. Other commentators shrugged: what else can you expect from “Ole Miss,” a school that until 2003 had a plantation owner in a white linen suit as its mascot? The links between the plantation, the university, and contemporary athletics abound in the present, although, thankfully, some of these links are in the process of being dismantled by the removal of Confederate monuments and efforts to educate the public about the university’s history of enslaved labor.
Of course, the intersections of plantation economies, ecologies, spaces, labor, violence, and narratives exist well beyond campus borders. Oxford, where UM is located, is an hour-long drive east by car from the Mississippi Delta: a 7,000-square-mile floodplain rich in topsoil where racialized slave labor morphed into the twentieth-century tenant farming system and, later, into plantation tourism. It’s the site of Mississippi State Prison, more commonly known as Parchman Farm, built by the state in 1901 on a former plantation and long a site of convict labor. The Delta is also well-known for the kind of racial violence that led to Emmett Till’s murder in Money, MS, in 1955, which in turned inspired Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon” (1960) and Jesmyn Ward’s most recent novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017). The violent ties that bind this terrain to the state’s flagship university 80 miles away were recently illustrated by the circulation of an Instagram photo showing three UM fraternity members posing with guns in front of a bullet-riddled sign maintained by the Emmett Till Memorial Commission. Notably, University administrators decided not to act on their investigation of the students.
Meanwhile, white tourists flock to the Shack Up Inn on the Hopson plantation in the small town of Clarksdale to sleep in six rustic sharecropper shacks modified with indoor plumbing and air conditioning (accommodations recommended by no less than the New York Times). Tourists can also try their luck at one of the many casinos in northern Tunica County. Located along the Mississippi River, Tunica Resorts regularly floods, and in the aftermath, these casinos with their all-you-can-eat buffets are the first structures to be refurbished. This once heavily forested area was inhabited by the Quapaw and the Chickasaw Nations long before it was denuded to create seemingly endless fields of cotton and soybeans.4 The region’s history of terrorized and displaced populations, first Indigenous peoples and then people of African descent, is indelibly etched in Delta music, literature, and culture.
For instance, Ruddy Roye’s award-winning photograph of a young man doing the “hands up, don’t shoot” pose in a field of white cotton, silhouetted against a white sky, links the continuing social legacies of the plantation to its monoculture base (fig. 1). Taken near Clarksdale after the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and recalling Trayvon Martin’s iconic hoodie, the image (along with 4,000 photos Roye has posted to Instagram) documents black American experiences of coping with ongoing forms of racial terror, segregation, surveillance, and policing that harken back to the Middle Passage. Roye’s attention to these linkages is no doubt informed by his own passage from Jamaica (a former Spanish and British sugar colony founded on the import of enslaved West African peoples) to Brooklyn, one of New York City’s most racially diverse boroughs because of its location as a terminus along the black migration routes from the apartheid-like conditions of the Jim Crow South.
And yet “the north,” too, provides little refuge, a reality Kara Walker highlighted with her Brooklyn sugar factory installation A Subtlety: or the Marvelous Sugar Baby: an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant in 2014 (fig. 2). Featuring a giant “sugar baby” (a nude sphinx sculpted out of foam and coated with refined white sugar donated by Domino Sugar) and smaller sculptures of children molded from resin and molasses, the installation emphasized the intertwined national and hemispheric legacies of plantation ecologies, commodities, capitalism, enslavement, labor, violence, racism, desires, appetites, and pleasures (it’s sugar, after all).
Walker used the raw materials of monoculture—molasses and brown sugar—to depict the bodies of enslaved child laborers melting into the concrete floor of the former sugar factory. Along with the Sphinx, these sculptures counter the saccharine “pickaninnies” and smiling Aunt Jemimas of American advertising, and they indict white consumption of plantation commodities and black bodies. Indeed, Walker brought these issues to the fore when she revealed that visitors’ interactions with the “sugar baby” had been filmed. In this, she ensured that the installation’s vast and disturbing online legacy became part of the installation itself, as visitors routinely used social media to post disturbing selfies of themselves smiling beside the statues or pretending to pinch or lick the Sphinx’s nipples and vulva. Walker’s A Subtlety thereby recalls John Killens’s remark about the United States: “We are a Southern country, fundamentally. At least for me, Macon, Georgia, where I was born is ‘Down South,’ and New York City, to which I escaped, is ‘Up South,’ and the difference is far less than the eight hundred miles that uneasily divide them.”5 Malcolm X’s comment that “Mississippi is anywhere south of the Canadian border” is more succinct.6
Delta aesthetics, like Roye’s photograph and Walker’s installation, reflect plantation ecologies in all their spatial and monetary contours—even when these contours are noncontiguous, disguised, and imaginary. In the words of Alfred J. López, “there is no single or central ‘plantation’ or plantation image that we can privilege above all others.”7 Contemporary studies of southern literature and plantation histories challenge essentialist, exceptionalist, and binary black-white understandings of southern U.S. cultures in particular and American culture in general.8 Taking a pluralist approach to southern literatures writ large—as products of all its histories, contexts, cultures, and inhabitants—means rejecting the racist agendas of the Agrarians and New Critics who, in Michael Kreyling’s words, “invented southern literature,” defining it overwhelmingly as the purview of white male authors and critics.9 Such a perspective allows us to view the political, social, racial, and ecological desolations of the present as symptomatic of the excesses of the Plantationocene—and particularly, the excesses of monocultures, labor formations, stringent gender roles, standardizing impetuses, and extractive impulses.
The Plantationocene thereby works alongside frameworks such as the Black Atlantic to enable a planetary lens that makes legible the forces at work where the Mississippi River lets out into the Gulf of Mexico; it links the region’s historical, cultural, and ecological connections to far afield locations that have also been transformed by the ecological homogenization, racialized violence, and imperial profiteering of the plantation and its successors. Admittedly, a number of industries would initially appear to elude this framework. In the Gulf Coast region, neither petrochemical plants, military bases, car manufacturers, oil rigs, fish canning operations, nuclear testing sites, mineral extraction mines, nor cloud data server warehouses particularly suggest themselves as plantations. However, these industries occupy the same proximate grounds as former sugarcane and cotton plantations, often employing, under coercive labor conditions, the descendants of enslaved plantation laborers. They make a business of harvesting, transforming, or manufacturing a single product, which places them within a monocultural tradition of extractive logics without overly stretching the definition of “plantation.” Consequently, Ruth Salvaggio can describe the confluence of plantation and oil on the Gulf Coast as “the profits ‘released’ from the labor of bodies, the sweetened grounds on which petrochemical plants took root, environments ravaged for sugarcane and fossil fuels, the connections that bind bodies to lucrative landscapes, and that bind landscapes to sugar kings and oil magnates.”10
Such a framework reveals larger networks of affiliation that allow us to examine, for instance, Gulf of Mexico writers like Jesmyn Ward, Kiese Laymon, and Natasha Trethewey alongside Gulf of Guinea writers like Ben Okri, Nnedi Okorafor, and Helon Habila—bringing attention to what George B. Handley has called the plantation’s “synchronic parallels […] across languages and national borders.”11 Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing (2016) does just this, tracing the descendants of one Ghanaian family from the Gold Coast to Mississippi and New York and back to West Africa from the eighteenth century to the present. Ultimately, plantation logics are “not bound by/to” the “time and space” of a single plantation or a single culture;12 rather, they are a palimpsest of plantation grounds, forced labor, and narratives (of progress, personhood, nature, belonging, etc.) undergirding modern extractive industries and monocultures.
Our current moment thereby necessitates written, visual, audiovisual, and digital media responses to what Anna Tsing, et al., call the many “haunted landscapes,” “ghosts,” and “monsters” of modernity.13 Defined as the “vestiges and signs of past ways of life still charged in the present,” this haunting allows cultural producers to demonstrate the interconnected porousness of past, present, global, and local processes through narratives.14 As Sheri-Marie Harrison notes in her article “New Black Gothic,” for example, contemporary black cultural productions like Jordan Peele’s film Get Out, James Hannaham’s novel Delicious Foods, Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, the FX television series Atlanta, and Donald Glover’s music video “This Is America” turn to gallows humor and horror as ways of commenting on the continuing, disavowed presence of plantation economies in U.S. culture. As Harrison argues, the spectral presences in these works, such as the unappeased ghosts in Sing, Unburied, Sing and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, show that harm has shifting form. Indeed, the “unpunctuated prose” and intragenerational “attire” of the many black ghosts in Ward’s Sing “[bring] together in a single Gothic image the brutality of slavery and Jim Crow-era lynchings and the more contemporary and familiar violence that claimed the lives of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown.”15
Furthermore, in its location on the Gulf Coast and in the Mississippi Delta region, Sing, Unburied, Sing maps successive layers of black entrapment, including the intersections of low income and white racist expectations, sharecropping, domestic violence, drug addiction, trafficking, traumatic loss, commodification, and, of course, incarceration. In Ward’s Mississippi road narrative (from the coast, to Parchman, and back), the monoculture of cotton may give way to the monocultures of oil, opioids, or whatever product prison officers have inmates produce or consume, but the extractive, exploitive, and exceptionalist logics of the plantation persist. It is no surprise that Ward—who grew up in the Gulf Coast region and whose first book, Salvage the Bones (2011), describes a destitute rural black family’s attempts to prepare for, and then survive, Hurricane Katrina in 2005—would write a contemporary novel in which the plantation liminally shimmers. Parchman still enforces the plantation’s disciplinary apparatus in the twenty-first century, and it continues to be haunted by the plantation, pasts and present, through its use and disenfranchisement of black men, as Ward points out in a 2017 interview.
The Plantationocene and the Global South
As we have argued, cultural productions from a variety of contexts and backgrounds continue to register the global plantation complex’s subjugation of marginalized groups and its ecological toll. Today, the Trump administration is using plantation-style strategies of control against Latinx migrants, particularly the separation of parents from children, surveillance, raids, and incarceration in prisons and concentration camps. Not surprisingly, twenty-first-century literature and film reflect the growing Latinx population in the southern U.S. and respond to Plantationocene legacies, including the targeting of migrants, refugees, and U.S. citizens for deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and agribusiness’s reliance on Latinx migrant labor. Advocates of U.S. exceptionalism might tout the inherent opportunities in the “American Dream” for people of all races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds even as they advance plans for supposedly less invasive “first-world” corporate ecological practices. However, Asian, African-American, and Latinx cultural products identify and interrogate Western ideologies’ ages old race-based and ethnicity-based stratification and exploitation of people and land that aligns the U.S. with the resource-poor “Third World.”
For example, Alex Rivera’s film Sleep Dealer (2008), a Sundance award-winning sci-fi thriller, depicts a world in which closed borders and a planetary water shortage force people in the global south to perform digital labor via robots in the global north. Even as the protagonists in the film mount a resistance, Sleep Dealer calls attention to the unseen hands of Latinx peoples and their historical exploitation by the global north as agricultural workers in the southwestern U.S. and Latin America and as factory workers throughout the hemisphere. In a promotional poster for the film (fig. 3), the protagonist Memo’s open stance registers both his subjugation to the global north (via the virtual current running through his body) and his challenge to its policies as he stands ready to grapple with the system through the virtual platform itself. While workers see the virtual system through its eyes (characters put in contacts like Memo’s, seen here when “plugging in”), this image centers the otherwise invisible worker and his agency to realign the virtual user’s—and the audience’s—perspective. Sleep Dealer and Alex Rivera’s newest project The Infiltrators (2019)—a “quasi-documentary” that portrays the on-screen activists’ real-life experiences in an ICE facility—pose questions about how Latinx peoples will experience and contest the human and biospheric horrors of the Plantationocene in the coming years.
One does not need to cast far afield, either, to see the plantation politics of the present playing out across the globe with eerie repetition. Brexit threatens to reignite the violence of the Troubles because it cannot account for “British” Protestants in Northern Ireland who are descended from Scottish labor transported there centuries ago as part of the Ulster Plantation. Meanwhile, a humanitarian crisis in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi, caused by combination of flooded sugarcane fields and the unusually strong Cyclone Idai, created 500,000 ecological refugees in two days (this months after Cape Town came close to running out of water for the nearly four million people who live in its metropolitan area). At the same time, the ongoing oil wars, which have raged for the past two decades if not longer, have forced the migration of some five million displaced persons from West Asia to Western Europe. Each of these examples attests to the plantation’s long shadow even as it remains distinct in its particularities.
In this era when climate change means that “nothing is really far away,” all are headed south to the Plantationocene.16 That is to say, we agree with Amitav Ghosh’s conjecture in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016) that our historical moment of heightened border wars, ecological crises, racial tensions, and yes, a sense of “uncanniness” is not only precipitated by “a colonial vision of the world,” but also perpetuated by this thinking from here to the horizon.17 Ghosh specifically points to “the imperatives of capital and empire” and narrative as the prime movers for this disequilibrium:18 on the one hand, a single-minded cultivation of monoculture economies on the backs of disavowed, racialized laborers and nations, and on the other hand, a politics of “concealment” about the making and unmaking of those very structures.19 The concealing and othering logics of capitalism and empire are fundamentally ideologies of the global plantation complex and the Plantationocene at large. Nowhere are the ideals of humankind so inscribed as in stories, one of the most common forms of which is the modern novel, a cultural expression that came of age with the carbon economy of the eighteenth century and still shapes desire.20 As Ghosh demonstrates, associations like freedom with the open road, wealth with a beachfront property, and security with unfettered access to resources (i.e., a well-watered lawn) rely on patterns of consumption that ignore unequal resource distribution along racial/ethnic, geopolitical, and socioeconomic lines.21 For this reason, southern studies’ approaches to deconstructing the Plantationocene in all its narrative guises are even more relevant and necessary than ever.
Natalie Aikens, who holds a PhD from the University of Mississippi, is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Wabash College where she teaches Latinx Literature. Her work explores the effects of plantation colonialism in the circum-Caribbean. Through funding from Wabash and a University of Florida research grant she spent part of the past summer investigating the intersection of Cuban nation formation, the founding of Cuban national literature, and the plantation at the University of Florida Latin American and Caribbean Collection of the Smathers Library.
Amy Clukey is associate professor of English at the University of Louisville. Her writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Modernism/Modernity, PMLA, Contemporary Literature, Modern Fiction Studies, American Literature, and Twentieth-Century Literature, among other venues. She co-edited a special issue of the journal Global South on the topic of “plantation modernity” with Jeremy Wells (2017). Her article “Plantation Modernity: Gone with the Wind and Irish-Southern Culture” was awarded the Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Prize for the best article on southern literature published in 2013 by the Society for the Study of Southern Literature. She is completing a monograph entitled Plantation Modernism: Transatlantic Anglophone Fiction 1890-1950.
Amy K. King is a Lecturer in the Department of English at Auburn University. She was recently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Center for the Study of the American South and the Department of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is currently finalizing her first monograph, Grotesque Touch, in which she argues that a substantial number of contemporary cultural productions employ depictions of violence between women to illuminate grotesquely violent cultural norms enacted on and continuing beyond plantation settings. Her work has recently appeared in the journals Global South, Women’s Studies, south, and Mississippi Quarterly. She also co-edited the two-part forum “Emergent Critical Analytics for Alternative Humanities” with Chris A. Eng for Lateral: Journal of the Cultural Studies Association (2016, 2017), which features a call-and-response between established and emergent American Studies scholars.
Isadora Wagner is a visiting assistant professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Her research focuses on gender, war, and modernity studies in U.S. and Pacific Rim literature and she is currently completing her first book manuscript, Re-Deploying Gender in Vietnam War Literature and Film. She has a forthcoming article in The Mississippi Quarterly and is the co-editor of an upcoming special issue on the Plantationocene in The Global South. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the US government.
- Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, “A Threat to Holocene Resurgence is a Threat to Livability,” The Anthropology of Sustainability: Beyond Development and Progress, ed. Mark Brightman and Jerome Lewis (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2017), 50.
- Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities 6 (2015), 160.
- Vandana Shiva, Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology (New York: Zed Books, 1997).
- Edward E. Baptist describes this in The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014) as a process of “fucking” ecosystems and people—striking, beating, and plowing them into the profitable “design” and products of capitalism (215-217).
- John Oliver Killens, Black Man’s Burden (New York: Pocket Books,  1969), 61.
- Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1964), 479.
- Alfred J. López, “The Plantation as Archive: Images of ‘the South’ in the Postcolonial World,” Comparative Literature 63, no. 4 (2011): 402.
- See, for example, Eric Gary Anderson and Melanie Benson Taylor, “Letting the Other Story Go: The Native South In and Beyond the Anthropocene,” Native South 12 (2019).
- Michael Kreyling, Inventing Southern Literature (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998).
- Ruth Salvaggio, “Imagining Angels on the Gulf,” Oil Cultures, ed. Ross Barrett and Daniel Worden (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 388.
- George B. Handley, Postslavery Literatures in the Americas: Family Portraits in Black and White (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000), 15.
- López, 405.
- Anna Tsing, et al., Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), G1, M2.
- Tsing, G1.
- Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 26.
- Ibid., 1-32, 63-66, 36-37.
- Ibid., 87.
- Ibid., 7-11, 15-24, 58-63, 66-84.
- Ibid., 9-11.