Pope John Paul II often described sexual relations as a language of complete self-giving between husband and wife. Contraception, he asserted disapprovingly, “overlaid” sex with a “contradictory language” in which the spouses, by withholding their fertility, actually did not give their entire selves. Something about the pope’s notion of actions as languages, and of one such language being overlaid by another contradictory one, has always intrigued me even in quite different contexts.
Oak Alley is an hour’s drive west of New Orleans. Walking the grounds of this ancient sugar planation over spring break with my family, I found the pope’s overlaid with a contradictory language coming suddenly to mind. Here, multiple languages seemed to be speaking, one overlaid upon another, contradictory, competing, discordant, across centuries and running through the very day of my visit.
At first sight, the language of natural beauty seemed to speak loudest. Oak Alley takes its name from its “Alley of Oaks,” 28 oak trees planted in two long rows of fourteen each. A large walkway stands in between, leading to the plantation house. The trees were introduced by a Frenchman sometime in the early eighteenth century. At some 300 years old, they have in themselves all the beauty and grandeur one would expect from their kind.
And yet the trees of Oak Alley are hard to enjoy. Their beauty was, and in memory remains, overlaid with the most contradictory language of slavery. These are not really the same oaks one might find in a relaxing municipal park or a cheery old urban neighborhood. Pity the oaks of Oak Alley. The language of natural beauty they might ordinarily speak has been overlaid with the contradictory language of a gross, persistent moral evil, carried out beneath their shade for generations.
Much the same can be said for the lovely mansion that rises up at the end of the Alley of Oaks. The “Big House” was constructed in 1839 by Jacques Telesphore Roman for his new bride Celina. The home was built by slaves, mostly with materials found or made on the plantation. Whatever the Romans may have experienced–we do know that Celina’s overspending ultimately resulted in the family’s loss of the property–the beauty of the home today feels virtually unenjoyable.
Yet we are not doomed to witness only the contradiction of good with evil, for good itself can sometimes play the contradictor. At Oak Alley today African-Americans work alongside whites in a variety of capacities–as gift shop clerks, restaurant hostesses, and tour guides. Our guide for the house tour was a young African American woman. Attired in an antebellum dress, she presented the history of the house without irony or censure. The plantation today seems to be a mixed race economic enterprise, just as it had been in the days of slavery, but with the signal difference that the races now labor in a setting of rough equality. Now everybody gets paid.
In the end, we human actors, we human speakers, cannot control all our languages. We prove unable to prevent evil from speaking where we would most want it to remain silent. The slave is whipped beneath the spreading oak. Bad deeds are constantly being overlaid upon good ones, obscuring them, muting their kindly voice. But just as constantly, we trust, good deeds overlay bad ones, too. And so it goes, and shall go, till the end comes, and death is swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:54).
Meanwhile, I can’t help but pray a blessing upon Oak Alley Plantation and all who work there. They are earning their keep, trying daily to control the powerful languages of degradation and beauty that run through the history of the place.