Wednesday, May 30, 2012

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.

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