Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Creole gens de couleur libres

I had heard the stories of the gens de couleur libres.  Their stories were the stories of my ancestors, the "old Creole ladies" as my late aunt used to call her grandmother and their circle of friends, these mono-lingual ladies who reluctantly learned English when they came to St. Louis.  In hearing the stories, and the ones long gone from this Earth, I have been devouring a lot of literature about Saint-Domingue (before it was Haiti), Haiti, New Orleans (before 1812, before the Civil War), and the sweet period of the late 1700's, early 1800s when the Free People of Color, the Creoles, reined supreme in the French Quarter, in a society almost to themselves, apart from the emerging Americans, Irish, German, and Italian immigrants who teamed upon the Gulf Shores, bringing with them things that upset the delicate balance.

The stories of these people, my people, have lead me to many of the books I've read or reviewed of late.  I just finished  A Million Nightingales and am currently reading Anne Rice's The Feast of All Saints.

If you are equally intrigued about this unique culture, race of people, the following books may be of interest:

A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight - while the heroine is a mulatto slave, she shares many of the same African ancestry as the Creole gens de couleur libre.  What separates her is the Code Noir and the way of the mother, her mother was an African slave.

The Feast of All Saints by Anne Rice - written in the third person and chronicling a few FPC families in New Orleans a generation after the revolution that brought Louisiana into statehood and with it, more and more complicated restrictions upon the FPC.  This period of time before the Civil War also illustrates just how complicated the culture and the realities of plaçage .

Cane River and Red River by Lalita Tademy - these are a fictionalized account of her own Creole and Indian family history.

Breath Eyes Memory by Edwidge Danticat - a more modern history of our ancestral homeland of Haiti.  Almost all Creole families of Louisiana can trace their heritage back to Haiti.  Her books tell the story of what happened to this tiny black nation after the revolution that left her devastated, the oppression of France and America's demand for repayment too much for island to bear.  Generations and generations of poverty and wealthy in one place.

I invite you to read these stories and learn more about this unique culture.  New Orleans, Louisiana remains a magical place, a place of mystery, a place of life, a place of hope, and like these stories, a place of possibility.

A Million Nightingales

Moinette is such a pretty name for an exotically described young girl discovering life and those things that we share in common, during a time in American history, when it was more about what separated us than what united us.

A mulatto slave girl in antebellum rural Louisiana has to navigate her coming-of-age through the complicated bayou of inter-racial relations (forced or concensual), bondage, ownership, men, women, family, and endless wonderings of life.

To a point, A Million Nightingales, could be a young girl's discovery of biology, science.  Moinette's young mistress had an insatiable appetite for learning and broke the law and custom, and shared that learning with her slave.  All Cephaline's wonderings and scientific discoveries were imprinted onto Moinette and served as a backdrop as Moinette took us on the journey of her life from the first time she was taken from her Seneglese mother to her horrible death at the hands of the disease left in her from a white drunken trapper.

The story of mixed heritage people in Louisiana resonates deeply with me.  My people, Creole Gens de couleur libres, were not slaves, they were wealthy, landowners, mulatto, quadroon, octaroon, lived in the French Quarter, participated in the Quadroon Balls, city people most of them.  They, like Moinette's mother, were descended from women from Senegal or Madagascar.  They, too, found themselves in the bustling, booming, pre-American state of Louisiana.

Moinette's story is often the untold parts of slavery, the uniqueness of slavery in Louisiana in that a lot of them do know their heritage, where they come from, unlike many in the south at the time.  She spoke French and learned English.  She understood the differences and the similarities, she knew her father was a rich, white French planter, just at the man who was her premiere was also a rich, white French planter.A Million Nightingales

Susan Straight writes in a very lyrical, mystical prose through Moinette's voice, giving us glimpses of her developing mind and questioning silence.  She kept her literacy secret and only revealed it to a master who had a secret of his own, Moinette the cover for his real love, a kind of placage that allowed Moinette to journey from bondage to freedom, much like the journey many of us take in becoming our true, free self.

Early nineteenth century Louisiana was complicated, interwoven, discovering itself even as it journeyed through the bayou of history, entitlements, ownerships, contracts, and life.  Up and down the river, from country plantation to city boarding house, this young woman grew physically and emotionally into a woman who understood the value of knowledge.  She was mentored and taught, lesson after lesson, by women and saw the power in the female bond, the bond needed to survive in a very male dominated world.

Moinette's story will stay with me as will the smooth, deep, aromatic writings of Susan Straight . I am the 7th generation from a West Indian born woman, a mulatto, whose story sings in my heart, like a nightingale, reminding me of who I am and we women hold the stories.  Like Moinette, I share the stories with my own daughters, so they know, like her, I cherish the written the word, the power of the contract, and the writing to knit the soul.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Wench

Strong women, impossible situations.Wench: A Novel

The women who took the journey from various parts of the antebellum south to the resorts of the north to be a "couple" with their slaveowners, endured beyond modern comprehension.

Love, technically and in the purest sense, knows no color, culture, ethnicity, religion, color, economics.  In the purest sense, it is blind.  Yet, can it be pure when one is owned by the other and the reason for the "holiday" was the sexual exploitation of the other?

My questions probably resonated with some of the women in the book like the oldest one who was given away to the resort owner for his depraved sexual exploits to the youngest who was confused by the promises of her "first and only" who fathered children with her and dangled freedom in front of them like a carrot, she being almost white herself, her children technically 1/8th white, the owner not wanting to lose his "property" and "investment."

Throughout the reading of The Wench, I had many questions and also felt the pain and confusion of not truly owning one's womanhood when the prospect of being taken at any moment and in any way loomed high in air like the stifling Ohio heat that was Xenia.  I wondered why the women didn't escape and realized the men held the children out as a bargaining chip, something to hold psychological control.

One, then two, realized that the empty promises and freedom to walk hand-in-hand and live in a little cottage "like a wife" was not worth the chattal ownership and lose of self.  One succumbed to that lost after she experienced the ultimate loss of all that flowed through her body.

This book is filled with powerful writing and imagery and a tense undercurrent that was part of the south and north just before the civil war.  There was the quiet and efficient work of the Underground Railroad and the freedom one felt when finally making it to New York and a "room of my own" working for rich white people in the north.

Slavery is at the very heart and fiber of this country.  This book demonstrated that emotions, family ties, cultural ties are all tangled up when questions of economy, property, rights, and legality are used to control one's soul.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez made the nuances of slavery and the white man-black/mulatto/quadroon/octaroon woman much more vivid than a lot of writings that simply state the fact.  This delved beneath the fact and into the place where there is more untold.  There were close intimacies and a deep understanding of one versus the other more so than simply working in the field.  It presented dangers to women that are often undiscussed when reviewing slavery in the United States.

I highly recommend this book, ironically, it is almost summer time, perfect for reading just vivid, poetic, and imaginative prose.  Let Xenia come alive and then celebrate the rebirth and new life of the resort that now fulfills those silent promises that were sounded out in covert words on paper.

Monday, May 7, 2012

What A Black Girl Reads For College

I had the pleasure of working with one of my son's good friends to plan his surprise 18th birthday.  She is a young lady who will graduate with him in a couple weeks and then head off to college.  In honor of her and my gift to thank here, here is my list of what black (and frankly, white girls who want to read good literature with strong female protagonists should read in their freshman lit class, something to ponder, explore, and wonder about the world.

1. Let The Lion Eat Straw by Ebele Oseye
2. Brown Girl, Brown Stones by Paule Marshall
3. River Cross My Heart by Breena Clarke
4. Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid
5. Daughter by Asha Bandale

There are other books she will encounter, there will inevitably be a Toni Morrison volume in her selection and almost everyone should read about the strong woman in Zora Neale Hurston's book Their Eyes Were Watching God.

I have continued with my quest to read black female literature and read beyond The Color Purple, while this is a wonderful, breakthrough book at black female protagonists by Alice Walker, it is a limited mind that only stops there.  There are many black female authors who have contributed literary work to the body collective that deserves a place in the academy.

As graduations are looming in the future and young minds will be ready to step into their future, consider the gift of literature, a real book-in-hand to remind them that no matter what their direction, there is purpose in reading other's paths to destiny.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

College Book List

My son graduates this month. Then he is heading off to college, like many of his friends. He will have all the things he needs for his dorm. And he will have something else, books. I live to read, as do many of my kids, this one, not so much, however, when he does and talks about it, he is good. He is heading off to college with the following books as must-reads on the path to adult black manhood. his Bible, of course Native Son and Black Boy by Richard Wright Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison Song Yet Sung by James McBride Song of Solomon and Jazz by Toni Morrison (even though he read these in AP Lit) Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody the Measure of a man by Sidney Poitier narrative of the Life of Frederick Duglass souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. duBois native Stranger by Eddy Harris Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington before the Mayflower by Lerone Bennett jr. man child in the Promise Land by Claude Brown These are just a start What books would you select for the 18-24 year old young black male heading off to college? My next list will be for the young black female 18-24 heading off to college.

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