How Jerk Chicken Made Me Rethink Charleston’s Plantation Culture

By D.R.E. James

Cimarrones or maroons who escaped plantations and hid out from their Spanish and English captors in the nooks and crannies of Jamaica’s lush Blue Mountains mingled with the indigenous Taino people. Cultural exchanges between the two people ensued. The maroons adopted the Taino’s culinary wisdom like smoking wild hogs flavored with scotch bonnet peppers and local herbs over wood from native trees helping develop what we now call “jerk.” Saying all that to say, I find it so ironic that the 5th annual South Carolina Jerk and Wine Festival was held at a place that the maroons sought refuge from–a plantation.

One would be hard pressed to find a Jewish American attending an oyster roast and craft beer festival at Treblinka or helping fund the preservation of Auschwitz. Not only is it not kosher, it’s supremely asinine. When I heard about this festival I shouted, in my most authentic patois, Lawd a massi! Those who know me know I consider myself the domestic authority of anything jerk from lamb to yard bird to lobster. The festival’s itinerary seemed to be stuffed with endless irieness, reggae music, pepper eating contests, a domino tourney and Ludo. Then I peeped out the venue, Magnolia Plantation, and I immediately back pedaled out the idea of attending like Deion Sanders would if he were defending Randy Moss running a fly route. I went to the event’s website to see if there may have been a typo, but it was correct and whomever wrote the content described Magnolia Plantation as “world renowned.”

Shame. Shame. Shame. The Pyramids of Giza. Yup. The Louvre. Yes. The Taj Mahal. Yeah. All of these places are deserving of the world renowned title, but definitely not a musky plantation on Ashley River Road. I skimmed through the plantation’s brochure which likened its “springtime display to the majesty of the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls.” Again, shame, shame, shame. They lure folks in with images of Spanish moss dripping from the branches of ancient oak trees, alligators wading in swamps and chances to pet fawns and hand feed geese. I wholeheartedly agree with Jim Rutenberg, a contributor for the New York Times, when he wrote “If the Epcot Center had a plantation pavilion this would be it.”

I picked up four other glossy brochures as well for McLeod, Drayton Hall, Boone Hall and Middleton Place. They all boast of attractions like palladian inspired architecture, gifts shops, stable yards and nature hikes. Oh yeah, and slave cabins all laid out with the harmless jubilance of a theme park. Boone Hall Plantation promises visitors a “gracious antebellum atmosphere.” McLeod Plantation, which is owned by Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission, hosted Sea Island Cotton Day last October.

For some reason the owners and operators of these sites think they’re paying proper homage to the atrocities of slavery, but like the city’s recent apology for slavery, it seems half-assed, half hearted and 100% obligatory. To be honest these plantations and the City of Charleston are monetizing slavery. In my opinion, every plantation should burned to the ground and families should be able to come out and roast marshmallows on the smoldering rubble.

The immense acreage these plantations currently occupy could be developed into beautiful parks, charter schools for underprivileged children, Piggly Wigglys and colonies of affordable single-family bungalows. Every time I see one, it’s like a life sized postcard signed on the back “hey black people, remember that time we owned y’all like a farmer does a donkey?”

Here in Charleston when it comes to the African American narrative, it seems to only amplify servitude and downplay prosperity. These plantations are the headquarters for that agenda. Any African American shindigging or supporting any plantations is a backhanded pimp slap in the face of their ancestors and it’s helping perpetuate this city’s agenda, which is to constantly remind African Americans where they were and still are on the city’s societal totem pole.

If you keep reminding a people they were once considered three fifths of a person, it’s difficult for them to believe that they were, or are, anything more than that. Even when the city’s speaks of the “rich culture of Gullah Geechee people” they set the limits, “from the soulful flavors of Lowcountry cuisine to the coils of artistry woven into each handcrafted sweetgrass basket.” They’ve made Gullah Geechee culture synonymous with slave culture. For example on the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau website there are 14 places listed to experience Gullah Geechee culture–5 are plantations, the 6th is the Slave Mart Museum, the 7th is The Aiken Rhett house where as many as 14 enslaved people at a time lived in the small quarters out back.

For every homage paid to Philip Simmons, Clementa Pinckney, Septima Clark or Denmark Vesey there are thrice as many reminding the African American community here that they were shackled, raped, tortured, auctioned off, whipped and worked to death. Moving on would not be in this city’s best financial interest, but slavery cannot continue to define the African American legacy. I’d like to hop in my gullwing-doored DeLorean and blast into the future, but I’m not sure enough people in Charleston are willing to take that ride with me.


  1. on September 8, 2018 at 10:44 am

    Very insightful article. Thank you and appreciate your opinions on the subject matter. Reposted on our FB page.

  2. NewAmericanChef on December 18, 2019 at 10:39 pm

    D.R.E. Thanks for making such a strong cohesive argument. It makes it exceedingly straightforward for anyone who is an outsider looking in and an insider looking out alike to see how celebrating, and sugar-coating relics of the atrocities of American slavery pollutes culture and impedes real change and progress.

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