A short road trip
The houses of Belle Meade, the wealthiest Nashville neighborhood, are dark as I drive. In the daylight, heavy houses and verdant lawns are visible, and floating wraparound porches are barely sustained by Grecian columns. Antebellum era plantation-style, though gutted and refurbished. Rust-red brick skinned with thick white paint. In the darkness, trees appear wet with clotted pollen, thick dark ooze. My headlights detect a flash of something white hanging. I look over. White cloaked figures, strung up by their necks; there must be a hundred. The ghosts float on burnt October breeze, weightless on makeshift nooses. A voice pops into my head: they never got to rest. But the road is abandoned. No one there but me and the ghosts.
My first grade class took a field trip to a preserved plantation at the end of this street. The slave quarters were still there, huts of thin wood planks with dirt floors. A docent led us to the weaving room, full of wooden wheels and wicker baskets of cloud-like cotton. The cotton seeds looked like pinpricks of blood. It was women’s job to work here the docent said (though she didn’t mention which women). Three white female volunteers in lacey white bonnets sat on wooden chairs, pretending to spin cotton. The docent sat us each at a wheel. I punched the pedal aggressively. The wheel spun to life so quickly I was scared it would come off its hinge. The docent tried to stop it with her hand. She got a splinter. We were not allowed in the weaving room anymore.
Gone with the wind
The volunteer room: black metal chairs and styrofoam cups of coffee. It was lined with clothing racks. The docent lined us up by gender; boys were given britches and blouses, girls, the pink burlap dresses and bonnets, even the only black girl in my class, with whom adults avoided eye contact . We were assigned different locations to stand in and cards to read to visitors. Two other girls and I had to stand in the same place the whole afternoon. After the adults left, we took off our bonnets and sat on the floor. Our dresses were itchy and horrible. I colored in the Nike swoosh on my sneakers with a pen I found on the ground. All the visitors were old, with powdery white skin and hair. They made me nervous and I messed up reading the words on my flashcard. I stood by a mural of the plantation when it was active. The foreground was the building, in the distance were rows of cotton plants, and barely visible, so faint they were almost invisible, outlines of slaves holding baskets.
At the Belle Meade Country Club in fourth grade, my class choir performed for Christmas. It was mandatory. We rehearsed for a month ahead. Two girls in my class whom I hated choreographed a dance; one for the girls, a different one for the boys. Our parents were told to dress us in our Sunday best. We drove over in a school bus. The building was huge. We passed under the white columns and in through the heavy wooden doors. Inside, there were taxidermied deer heads, white linen tablecloths, a huge Christmas tree like a cone of light. The choir leader whispered to stand up straight without locking our knees, or we might pass out. We stood in rows in front of the enormous tree. The audience was almost all old women huddling in their furs, beaming. Their black-gloved hands looked like claws snagged in leather.
Bread and wine
Today, the plantation has done some rebranding. It’s now called Belle Meade Mansion. They offer segway tours and complimentary wine tastings. A mansion tour is $30 for adults, and educational tours are priced individually. The “Journey to Jubilee” tour explores the stories of the African-Americans who were brought to, and born at, Belle Meade. Discover more about their vital presence on this property ($24). It is followed by a complimentary wine tasting. The image framing the tour is of a smiling black docent, the only black person on the website.
Wine tastes its best from loamy soils with plenty of silt. Sand, silt, and clay. We have strong soil in Tennessee. It is mostly clay, but given the right introduction of organic components, it can be quite fertile. The land where the cotton grew is now the land where the grapes grow, meaning the soil has plenty of carbon bases. Roots interred in soils with particles of sweat and blood. New soils were generated from rotting food that fed mouths and the mouths themselves over generations. The plants are the unintentional headstones to unmarked graves. Bodies, even in death are still working for profit.