I’m invited to a destination wedding on a plantation. What do I do?
A friend’s daughter sent my family an invitation to her upcoming “plantation wedding” in a southern town. I looked forward to attending until I realized the appalling and tragic history of this estate and its gardens. I am deeply troubled to celebrate on the ground where hundreds of men, women and children were bought and sold, enslaved and tortured, so that white people could enjoy the privilege of a marriage of fairy tale.
Friends are present to support the mother of the bride. They urge me to simply go raise my own awareness by visiting the estate’s historic slave quarters and other sites in this city. I doubt that is enough. I doubt I’d be able to avoid talking at the wedding reception. Should I explain to the bride and groom the reason for my absence? She probably already knows the history of the estate. I anticipate that all of this will cause a rift in our families for some time. Would a donation to a historically black college, in lieu of a wedding gift, be appropriate?
Everyone in this scenario is white, grew up in the Northeast, and college educated, and I’m amazed they don’t realize that’s a terrible idea. I want to act in good conscience and not create more disruption. Do you have any ideas? Masked name
By choosing a marriage on a plantation, this couple would seem to idealize lifestyles built directly on the unpaid labor of black people who were treated as property and regularly abused. You regard this story with reluctance, and your friends would no doubt say that they share this sentiment. But two decades into the 21st century, a couple planning a wedding almost should have gone out of their way not to see the connection. Obviously, they muted the tone of a vigorous national debate on the legacy of slavery; ignored much of what happens if you just type “plantation wedding” into Google; and achieves a serene unconsciousness that normally requires the kind of monastic seclusion not associated with marriage.
Sure, there are all sorts of reasons couples might choose a plantation setting for their wedding, but it doesn’t seem (like some black couples) that they’re looking to overturn a racial hierarchy or spend time at the among slave dwellings. as a foray into reparation or education. Perhaps the couple didn’t consider what their black guests would think of the destination; perhaps, there are no such guests. Either way, you cannot happily attend an event that takes place in what you consider an architectural complement to slavery.
If our country is to emerge from less than four centuries of racism, uncomfortable moments cannot be avoided.
You plan to donate to a historically black college in lieu of a gift. Perhaps the gesture is meant to assuage your guilt, akin to buying a carbon offset. It might be a good thing to make such a donation, but not for this reason. Or maybe the donation is meant to send a message. But then you might as well tell them the truth: you’re sorry you can’t join them, but you can’t resign yourself to a party in these haunted lands.
You rightly don’t want to find yourself lamenting the venue of a wedding while you attend and ruin the couple’s special day. However, if you offer a harmless excuse for your absence, you will only be protecting your own sense of moral purity. That’s why the bravest and best path is to explain, well in advance, why you won’t be there. The exchange will be uncomfortable. But if our country is to emerge from less than four centuries of racism, uncomfortable moments cannot be avoided. You could be accused of riding high horses. So be it. Those saddled on tall horses sometimes see the fields more clearly than others.
My wife and I have two adult daughters. They are very close in age and deeply bonded to each other (thankfully). They attended private school and graduated from private colleges with no college debt because we paid for it all. They are both very good people and we are very proud of them.
Years ago, my wife and I agreed to provide a fixed sum for our daughters’ weddings when the time came. (They could each decide how to spend it – for the ceremony, the honeymoon, a down payment on a house or whatever.) We decided to do this for several reasons. We don’t see the value of a big, elaborate wedding. We gave our children a higher education. And we wanted to avoid either of our daughters complaining that we spent more money on one wedding than the other or any last minute requests for more money to improve the ceremony.
One of our daughters just got married. We provided the gift money as promised (a not bad five figures), and it went towards a pretty fancy and grand wedding.
Our other daughter is not in a serious relationship at the moment. However, she has shown poor judgment in trusting people who have not earned her trust, and it worries me who she might choose to marry.
Which brings me to my question: are we obligated to give the money as promised if we have a serious problem with the character of a future fiancé – his or her personal history, lack of career, or ability to hold down a job? steady? Our concerns would be based on his well-being, not that we “like” the guy.
Another option: Would it be acceptable to impose conditions on the donation? Or offer it in another way, like a college savings account for future children? Something that wouldn’t be wasted or divided in a messy divorce.
If we did that, we would indicate that we are not in favor of this marriage and that we do not want to contribute to it. But we will and will provide equal financial support in the future under certain circumstances. I hope this scenario doesn’t happen, but I wonder what might be the appropriate and fair approach or if there is a need to worry about “fairness”. Masked name
If you want to prevent your daughter from having a bad marriage, announcing that you will not give her the money you offered her sister is not a good way to do it. The most likely outcome will simply be to push him away from you. But you may just want to voice your disapproval even if it won’t have any effect, defending your vision of a decent marriage. Or you might just think it’s pointless to spend money on a wedding with bad prospects. Clearly, that doesn’t sound like laudable motives, and I hope you’ll agree. What I mostly hear in your letter is anxiety about your daughter’s future and a desire to discourage unwise choices. But taking away a promised gift isn’t the best way to help her have a better future.
Treating children fairly does not always mean treating them the same: if they are different, equal affection may result in different treatment, tailored to each person’s particular interests and needs. Yet the agreement you made long ago – simply to provide equal means – was supposed to allow them to make their own individual choices, and the underlying logic still applies. Most contemporary Americans want their parents to think highly of their marital partners, but don’t think they need parental consent. So if you want to stay in your daughter’s life to increase her chances of success, money doesn’t seem like the right way to get your message across.
I was surfing the web recently, and looked up someone I was dating in 1986. We dated for two years, and it didn’t end well, mainly because we were young and immature in our 20s. year. Unfortunately, I found out that he passed away in 2018 at the age of 50. He probably never married, as the only survivors listed in his obituary were his siblings. I found his sister’s contact information. Is it appropriate to reach out my hand and offer my condolences? Can I also ask other questions about his life? Or should I leave this chapter completely in the past? Masked name
How would you feel if you were in his place? I think she might be happy to hear from someone who knew her brother in his early adulthood and might have a colorful memory to share. And if she wasn’t, she could refuse to answer. So why not write to him and see?
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at NYU. His books include “Cosmopolitanism”, “The Honor Code”, and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity”. To submit a request: email [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10018. (Include daytime phone number.)