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This column, first written in 1987, is purely personal. I share it again because it reflects a reaffirmation of family and culture that honed the values and direction of my life’s struggle to help ensure full freedom and justice for Black people in America.
Feelings of warmth and belonging pervaded my trip to New Orleans in 1987. I moved to Los Angeles when I was eight-years old but returned to my native city briefly to attend Xavier University in 1950. It had been 36-years since I last visited New Orleans.
The world of my early childhood was instantly recognizable and memories were barely faded. My family has deep roots in New Orleans, especially in the 7th Ward and this visit reaffirmed my indelible affinity with the Crescent City. (It was mind-bobbling to have an 80-year-old woman whom I had not seen in 45-years not only recognize me, but call me by my first name.) The 7th Ward during my early childhood was predominantly Creole and Catholic. Originally, the term Creole referred to persons of French and Spanish ancestry, but has long since described mixed-race Blacks from New Orleans and Louisiana, especially, many of whom are light-skinned with Caucasian features. Creoles are strongly independent and many consider themselves neither Black nor White,
My visit was filled with nostalgia and fellowship, and even though I was not prepared for the intensity of New Orleans’ impact, many things had never strayed far from my memory. Streets, even street signs, triggered a host of feelings, sometimes, whimsical, other times meaningful; Corpus Christi Church and School with its big Kindergarten room and the very high ceiling’s celestial eyes peering down on every child; the nuns--Sister Angeli and Mother David, lay teachers Miss Francois, Miss Leona and Miss Hickey; Mr. Lawrence, Father Casserly…..long, brown envelopes with Coca-Cola pencils, rulers and ink blotters.
Mardi Gras, “Carnival,” a time of merriment, (but vendettas too): bicycles with colorful crepe paper-covered wheels; all kinds of costumes; Zulus and Rex parades; loud, spontaneous laughter, countless dancers; waves of color. (Mardi Gras had become increasingly commercialized and reportedly, many New Orleans residents no longer attended parades and other festivities, feeling it now represented a no-holds-barred promiscuity and mean spiritedness.)
My sense of family was heightened and the affinity and warmth among new and old friends defies adequate description. I also had vivid recollections of my mother’s giving and sharing with neighbors, and people “looking out for each other.” The Great Depression was tough on everybody, especially on Blacks. Yet, their exceptionally close bonds bolstered Creoles in the 7th Ward. Everyone was negatively affected. (One of my brothers was unable to find work even though he had a degree in pharmacy because of the double impact of the Depression and racism, but more poignant examples are countless.)
Older folks in the 7th Ward spoke either French or “Creole” but most did not teach it to their children. They usually spoke to each other only in French, presumably, so that the children could not understand them. This was unfortunate because a second language enriches any child’s life.
As mentioned, Creoles were self-contained and not especially interested in relating to either whites or Blacks. Yes, many did discriminate on the basis of skin color or hair. Straight hair was “good hair,”—Kinky hair “bad hair.” Of course, Creoles were not unique in this regard; Americans, including Blacks, have always made such distinctions and, unfortunately, still do. On the color continuum, the closer to white, the better and Creole, culture and religion converged which likely contributed to their clannishness; they were also overwhelmingly Catholic.
I was constantly engulfed in streams of consciousness—people, places, events, “back-a-town,” Aubry Street, Roman Street, First Communion, the Circle Show, Two Sisters, the Pentagon, Anybody’s, Haspels, Bruxelles, Crescent Pharmacy, the neutral ground, St. Bernard Market, the-Autocrat Club,( my wife’s grandfather was the chief builder), beer parlors, long bread, Jax and Falstaff beer, Xavier Prep and Xavier University.
Family memories included: Uncle Robert Aubry and his son Edwin’s Sunday visits after my father died; Nunc Henri and Taunte Mellie; Aunt Georgie’s house with a rain-catching cistern in the middle ; Uncle Bud’s daily meanderings at markets on St. Claude Avenue; fritters, snowballs, icebergs, my brother Leon’s barber shop and ice cream parlor, years later, his bowling alley; Liuzza’s Bakery; Nick the Greek’s sherbet; “chinees” (marbles), “ skatin’ trucks” (scooters); Belfield’s Drugstore; the Astoria Hotel on Rampart Street—(my cousin Irma kept the books); heavy summer rain, thunder and lightnin’; mud for squeezing toes in and playing “stick-up”; very cold winters with frozen pipes; hot water heated on the stove and blocks of ice.
Kaleidoscopic memories abounded, with family memories the clearest: Mama searching to find her way after my father died when I was two-years old. My seven brothers struggling to order their lives in the midst of the Depression, but always helping Mama.
Conversations in early childhood also burst into consciousness: Uncle Albert, a physician, began practicing in Algiers (across the river) shortly after the turn of the 20th century; Uncle Numa, a pharmacist, who moved to Chicago in the 1920s; Uncle Charles and my father, mail carriers—all active in the church and community.
My maternal Uncles Paul and Henry Cambre were carpenters and sometimes worked together. Paul, “Uncle Boy,” was stern, opinionated and authoritative; Uncle Henri, mild-mannered and easy-going. On a job, their squabbles were endless, but funny. My grandparents, on both sides, died long before I was born, but their legacy was kept alive through family conversations and community service.
Even as a young child, I was confused and had questions about segregation, like having to sit behind the screen on streetcars and buses, white and colored separate seating in theaters—actually, segregated everything. I also could not understand how the Catholic Church preached a catechism of love and acceptance, but tacitly embraced racism and segregation like all the other Southern institutions.
(I forget to mention the group I “bummed” i.e., hung around with during that momentous time in New Orleans, (1950): My brother-in -law Floyd, “Squinch”, “Puny Boy”, and ”Mice.” We had a special bond and were both fun loving and mischievous.)
The visit home was a striking reminder of how fortunate I am to be Black, Creole, and part of a proud, supportive family, community and culture. It reaffirmed a legacy of determination, love and caring for which I am forever grateful.