A friend’s daughter has sent my family an invitation to her upcoming “Plantation Wedding” in a Southern city. I had been looking forward to attending until I became aware of the appalling and tragic history of this estate and gardens. I am deeply troubled by the thought of celebrating on the grounds where hundreds of men, women and children were bought and sold, enslaved and tortured, so that white people can enjoy the privilege of a fairy-tale wedding.
Some friends are attending to support the mother of the bride. They urge me to just go and raise my own consciousness by touring the estate’s historical slave quarters and other sites in this city. I am skeptical that this is enough. I doubt I would be able to avoid speaking out during the wedding reception. Should I explain to the bride and groom the reason for my absence? She surely knows the estate’s history already. I foresee that all 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, raised in the Northeast and college-educated, and I’m astonished that they don’t realize this is a terrible idea. I want to act in good conscience and not create more disturbance. Do you have any thoughts? Name Withheld
In choosing a plantation wedding, this couple would appear to be idealizing lifestyles built directly on the unpaid labor of Black people who were treated as property and regularly abused. You regard that history with repugnance, and no doubt your friends would say they share that sentiment. But two decades into the 21st century, a couple planning a wedding would almost have to have gone out of their way not to see the connection. Evidently, they’ve tuned out a vigorous national discussion about the legacy of slavery; ignored much of what comes up if you simply type “plantation wedding” into Google; and achieved a serene obliviousness that normally requires the sort of monastic seclusion not associated with marriage.
Of course, there are all sorts of reasons that couples may choose a plantation setting for their wedding, but it doesn’t sound as if (like certain Black couples) they are seeking to subvert a racial hierarchy or to spend time amid the slave dwellings as a foray toward repair or education. Possibly, the couple haven’t given thought to how their Black guests would feel about the destination; possibly, there are no such guests. Either way, you can’t happily attend an event that takes place in what you understand to be an architectural adjunct to slavery.
If our country is going to get out from under four centuries of racism, uncomfortable moments can’t be avoided.
You’re thinking about making a donation 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 perhaps the donation is meant to send a message. But then you might as well tell them the truth: You’re pained you won’t be able to join them, but you can’t reconcile yourself to a celebration on these haunted grounds.
You rightly don’t want to find yourself bemoaning the venue of a wedding while you’re attending it and spoiling the special day for the couple. If you offer some innocuous excuse for your absence, however, you’ll only be protecting your own sense of moral purity. That’s why the braver, better path is to explain, well in advance, why you won’t be there. The exchange will be uncomfortable. But if our country is going to get out from under four centuries of racism, uncomfortable moments can’t be avoided. You may be accused of getting on a high horse. So be it. Those saddled on high 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 connected to each other (thankfully). They attended private school and graduated from private colleges, without college debt, as we paid for everything. They are both really good people, and we are very proud of them.
Years ago, my wife and I agreed we would provide a fixed sum for our daughters’ weddings when the time came. (They could each decide how to spend it — on the ceremony, the honeymoon, a down payment on a house or whatever.) We decided to do this for a few reasons. We don’t see the value of a large and elaborate wedding. We gifted our children a superior education. And we wanted to avoid having either daughter complain that we spent more money on one wedding than the other or any last-minute requests for more money to upgrade the ceremony.
One of our daughters recently got married. We provided the gift money as promised (a not-shabby five figures), and it went toward a fairly fancy and large wedding.
Our other daughter isn’t in a serious relationship at this time. However, she has demonstrated some poor judgment in trusting people who have not earned her trust, and this makes me concerned about whom she might choose to marry.
Which brings me to my question: Are we obligated to gift the money as promised if we have a serious issue with the character of a future fiancé — his personal history, lack of a career path or ability to maintain steady employment? Our concerns would be based on her welfare, not on whether we “liked” the guy.
Another option: Would it be acceptable to place conditions on the gift? Or gift it in another fashion, such as a college savings account for future children? Something that would not go to waste or be divided in a messy divorce.
If we did any of that, we would be indicating that we are not in favor of this wedding and do not want to contribute toward it. But we would and will provide equal financial support in the future under certain circumstances. I hope this scenario won’t happen, but I do wonder what the proper and fair approach might be or if it is necessary to worry about “fairness.” Name Withheld
If you want to stop your daughter making a bad marriage, announcing that you won’t provide her the gift money you provided her sister isn’t a good way to do it. The most likely outcome will simply be to alienate her from you. But you might simply want to express disapproval even though it won’t have any effect, standing up for your vision of a decent marriage. Or you might just think it’s wasteful to spend money on a marriage with poor prospects. Put baldly, these don’t sound like creditable motives, as I hope you’ll agree. What I mostly hear in your letter is anxiety about your daughter’s future and a desire to discourage reckless choices. But withdrawing a promised gift isn’t the best way to help her to a better future.
Treating children fairly doesn’t always mean treating them the same: If they’re different, equal affection may entail different treatment, responsive to the special interests and needs of each. Yet the agreement you reached long ago — simply to provide equal means — was meant to allow them to make their own individual choices, and the logic behind it still holds. Most contemporary Americans want their parents to think well of their marriage partners but don’t think they need their parents’ consent. So, if you want to stay in your daughter’s life in order to help her chances of success, money doesn’t seem like the right medium for your message.
I was surfing the web recently, and I looked up someone I dated in 1986. We dated for two years, and it didn’t end well, mostly because we were young, immature 20-year-olds. Sadly, I discovered that he died in 2018 at age 50. He likely never married, as the only listed survivors in his obituary were his siblings. I found his sister’s contact information. Is it appropriate to reach out to her and offer my condolences? May I make other inquiries about his life as well? Or should I leave this chapter completely in the past? Name Withheld
How would you feel if you were in her position? I would think she might be happy to hear from someone who knew her sibling in his early adulthood and could have a colorful memory to share. And if she wasn’t, she could decline to respond. So why not write to her and see?
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)