A SONG OF RESURRECTION
I drove east across the Claiborne Avenue bridge on the first Friday night in November 2007, two years after the storm that devastated this city. My hometown. My New Orleans. As I came upon the Lower Ninth Ward, there was an extraordinary amount of traffic headed in the same direction as me. They’re coming to see the play, I thought.
The play was Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett’s immortal absurdist drama about two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, living in a wasteland and waiting for a savior who may or may not come. The play, which Beckett wrote inspired by the agonies of Nazi-controlled Paris, deals with abandonment and the struggle inside all of us between hope and despair.
Paris had the Nazi occupation; New Orleans had Hurricane Katrina. We New Orleanians knew abandonment. We knew what it was like to struggle for a lifeline of hope in the midst of a maelstrom of despair. God knows that we who had to deal with FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) knew absurdity.
Nobody in the city knew it more intensely than the people of the Lower Ninth Ward.
For a long time after the storm, if you drove over the Claiborne Avenue bridge into the neighborhood, you plunged into a void, both physical and existential. There was nothing but a sea of night where once a thriving neighborhood had been. It was the abyss, a black hole of death and desolation, and a darkness so intense that many in New Orleans feared no light could ever overcome it.
On the morning of August 29, 2005, Katrina gashed the levee in two places north of the bridge, which traverses the Industrial Canal, the economically vital artery for shipping from the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain and, via two other man-made canals, out into the Gulf of Mexico. Millions of gallons of water washed through the Lower Ninth Ward, scores of houses were toppled from their concrete pillars. A barge barreled over or through the levee, nobody can say for sure, crushing houses and cars. Hundreds of people drowned as the twenty-foot wall of water flattened everything in its path. It was biblical.
In a single morning, a historic African American neighborhood of fourteen thousand souls, among them the city’s poorest, ceased to exist. Gone were the places where people lived, worked, shopped, prayed, visited, loved. Days later, after the water receded, there was nothing left but ruins, and corpses. In the heat and moisture of south Louisiana, weeds, vines, and trees rapidly consumed the desolate lots and sidewalks. Rattlesnakes and cottonmouths moved in, chasing the rats that overran backyards where children once played and stoops where families used to barbecue. Sometimes, packs of wild dogs owned the streets. The few residents able to return not only had to fight nature just to hold their ground, but also lived in fear of predatory rapists and other savages lurking in the rotting ruins and dark thickets that used to be a neighborhood.
This happened in one of the great American cities, or what was left of it. I knew intimately the agony of the people of the Lower Ninth Ward. Six miles north of the neighborhood, where the Industrial Canal meets the lake, the district of the city where I grew up—Pontchartrain Park, the first African American middle-class subdivision in New Orleans—had been virtually annihilated when a breach in a different canal to the west caused the neighborhood to fill with water up to the rooftops.
Built in the mid-1950s as the wall of segregation was beginning to crack, Pontchartrain Park symbolized the opening of the American dream to black folks in New Orleans—people like Althea and Amos Pierce, my schoolteacher mother and my photographer father, who in 1955 bought a modest ranch home there and started a family. Like their neighbors, Daddy and Tee, as we called our mother, lost everything in the flood. Like so many New Orleanians, from the upscale white enclave of Lakeview to the hardscrabble black Lower Ninth Ward, Daddy and Tee washed up on solid ground far from home, mourning and weeping in their Baton Rouge refuge, wondering if they would ever make it back.
The world post-Katrina was a hard time for my city. The hardest time. For people who didn’t live through it, no words can fully express the pain, the rage, the grief, and the futility we New Orleanians felt. For the people who did, words seemed like a feeble protest against a relentless night without end.
How do you go on when you are bone-tired and broken down by a world where nothing makes sense, and there’s no direction forward that leads to anywhere but the ditch or the grave? How do you embrace a life in which everything and everyone you knew and loved has been taken away, and may never return—and nobody else cares? How do you live through today when you fear there’s no tomorrow?
These are the questions Waiting for Godot explores. In 2006, New York visual artist and publisher Paul Chan visited New Orleans, and when he saw the catastrophic ruin of the Lower Ninth Ward, he thought of Godot and conceived of staging the play for free in one of the neighborhoods most damaged by the ravages of Katrina. A year later, I played Vladimir in the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s New York production of the Beckett play, one that Chan eventually brought to the Crescent City. We did two performances on an intersection near vacant Lower Ninth Ward street corners covered by grass and weeds as high as a man’s chest. We did two more in the Gentilly neighborhood, which, like 80 percent of the city, had also taken cruel licks from the flood.
That night—November 2, 2007—was the first performance. More than six hundred people came and, before the show, ate free gumbo ladled out at the door. When showtime arrived, the Rebirth Brass Band burst into song and led the audience into the bleachers under the floodlights in a classic New Orleans second-line parade. From two blocks away, J. Kyle Manzay, who played Estragon, and I stood in our thrift-store suits and shabby bowler hats, preparing for our entrance. From where we stood, the butt-shaking fanfare of the brass band and the rustle of the crowd taking its seats were the only signs of life in the great and oppressive silence that surrounded us. As close as the people were, it felt like they were a hallucination.
Robert Green, a Lower Ninth Ward resident who lost his mother and granddaughter in the flood, stood in the performance space near the very spot of their death and gave a solemn benediction. On this night, he said, Let’s remember them. Let’s remember all of them.
I did. We all did.
(When we repeated the Godot performance in the Gentilly neighborhood later that month, my mother gave the first night’s benediction as I stood inside an abandoned house, waiting to enter. She ended with “Now, enjoy my son.”)
By then, I could see the audience under the lights. There were people from all walks of life—longshoremen and lawyers, teachers and shopkeepers. People from the neighborhood and people who had never set foot there before that night. All of these people—my people, New Orleanians—gathered in the ruins, expecting . . . what? Comfort? Remembrance? Catharsis? Revelation?
I stood there in the shadows, watching, trying to penetrate the thick canopy of night. There were no houses around us; they’d all been washed away. There were only grassy knolls, weed-choked lots, concrete stumps like teeth in a half-buried jawbone, and matching concrete staircases leading to nowhere.
And there we were, two actors in the center of the darkness, not much more than a stone’s throw from where the levee broke, about to walk forward, poor as we were in the face of so great a need, and give everything we had.
Lord, I prayed silently, we are on sacred ground. I’ve come here to make sure that You are honored, so bless me, that I may honor You. And God, I ask You to bless me that I may honor those who lost their lives in this place.
The lights went down and I got my cue to go. My microphone was on, allowing the audience to hear me breathing and running and mumbling, even before they saw me.
“Here we go,” I whispered, huffing. “This is happening . . . we’re going to change things . . . I’m coming . . . for you . . . for you . . . for all of them. . . .”
Those were not Beckett’s words, but I wanted them to lodge in people’s heads, to know that we were there for them, that we were coming for them, that we were going to do something very special for them.
What I didn’t know was that I was running toward the most transcendent experience of my life, one that combined all I am as an actor, a child of Amos and Tee, and a son of New Orleans. On that night, in that field of death and despair, I saw the rebirth of life and hope. I witnessed the power of art to renew the vision of people in danger of perishing. And not just to renew vision, but to impart a spirit of resurrection that proclaims in the face of the hurricane, Yes, these bones can live!
The Godot experience breathed life into my bones, bleached dry by the relentless grief and humiliation of Katrina’s aftermath. It gave me the power and resolve to help my neighborhood and my city. Decades from now, little kids will ask, “Mr. Pierce, what did you do in New Orleans’s darkest hour?” and I will tell them about that play, written by an expatriated Irishman who had experienced Paris in the depths of Nazi occupation. I will tell them about that night in the Lower Ninth Ward, and how, like some kind of miracle, the play said everything that could be said about what it was like to live through the endless nightmare of our post-Katrina city. I will tell them how it taught me about the power of art within an individual and a community to galvanize us, to renew, redeem, and rebuild our lives together.
And maybe I’ll tell them the story about a kid like them who grew up in New Orleans, in a little house with a hardworking mother and father and two brothers. That kid spent his young life working hard in school, eating dinner with his family, going to mass on Sunday, playing in the park with neighborhood kids, and reveling in all the ordinary joys and sorrows of an American life. One day, when he was a little older, that kid discovered he had a talent for acting. Though that boy’s parents were of modest means, New Orleans made it possible for him to attend one of the best performing arts high schools in the country. When he graduated, the kid launched himself into the great big world, leaving for the Juilliard School in New York City to become an actor. Later, the kid from the little house in Pontchartrain Park would go on to a stage, film, and TV career, with a starring role in The Wire, widely acclaimed as one of the greatest television dramas ever made.
When the boy became a man, he began to understand that all those gifts he had been given by his mother and father had not come easily to them. They had been earned with sweat, study, and endless perseverance in the hope that, one day, their children would have more. What the boy’s parents gave him, they in turn had received. His mother had been raised on the bayou by wise, intelligent, but barely educated farmers who believed in the power of hard work, self-discipline, and education to lift Negroes out of the poverty and misery of the Jim Crow South. Both his folks benefited from their civil rights struggle, an early fruit of which was a decent neighborhood for people like them to raise their families, just like everybody else.
The boy had been given a life unimaginably richer and freer than his forebears had known, all because of their own patient sacrifices, and the conviction they held in their hearts that, one day, the dark night of racism and violence would give way to a new dawn of justice and opportunity. He had been given a life by the people of Pontchartrain Park—by the civil rights activists whose early victories led to its founding, to the men and women who staked their claim on the American dream there, and who built a village in which to raise their children together. He had been given a life by the city of New Orleans, that singular urban gumbo of cultures—Native American, African, French, Spanish, American—that has been simmering in the Louisiana heat in that pot between the river and the lake for three hundred years, and whose distinct flavors have melted into each other to make a tradition all its own.
It was a grace, and it was a gift. All of it. It was a gift that came from faith—in God, in America, in family, in the future, and in the ability of each of us, and all of us together—to overcome any hardship, and not only survive, but triumph. It was a gift that came from home, and a gift that came from hope—hope that as hard as life is right now, our suffering means something, and it will lead to better days for those who come after us. It was a gift that came from love—a love of life so bright and true that it refused to let slavery, it refused to let segregation, it refused to let poverty and ignorance and injustice and terror and hatred knock it down, wash it away, and bury it in a sea of darkness forever.
If my ancestors and all those who struggled alongside them had endured and conquered all those challenges to give me and my generation the life we have today, how dare we give up in the face of this hurricane? As Vladimir, my character in Godot, says, “What’s the point of losing heart now?” Given the impossible odds against them, those generations had all but walked on water to get where we are today. For me—for us—to lose heart, to let that precious patrimony of faith, hope, and love slip through our fingers, would be to sink beneath Katrina’s floodwaters and drown.
No. These lines of Vladimir’s from act 2 sounded in my heart like a prophet’s incantation and a call to arms:
Let us do something, while we have the chance! . . . At this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!
Yes. I must keep faith with my fathers and mothers, the ones of my blood and the ones of my spirit. I must keep faith with those ripped by slave traders from the arms of their mothers and fathers, with those who withstood the blows from white supremacists and earned the education that uplifted the race. I must keep faith with the Moses Generation, those who demanded their rights as Americans, who refused to accept that they were second-class citizens in a nation their ancestors helped to build, and who led our people to the Promised Land. I must keep faith with the mothers and fathers of Pontchartrain Park, also members of the Moses Generation, who carried on the everyday struggle to prepare the Joshua Generation to live and prosper in the land of milk and honey (or in our case, cold beer and Creole gumbo).
“Mr. Pierce, what did you do in New Orleans’s darkest hour?” that kid in the future will ask. I will tell him that the catastrophe of Katrina revealed to me who and what I love. It revealed to me the boy I was, the man I am, and the man I want to become. It called me home to New Orleans, to honor my ancestors and the people of my hometown, the living and the dead, by giving whatever I could to restore and build anew the beloved community.
Let us do something, while we have the chance!
And so I did, by going home to New Orleans.
THIS IS THE STORY of my homecoming. This is the story of my part in the pilgrimage of my family and my people out of exile. It is a story of faith, hope, and love. And it is a story that begins with a slave child waving good-bye to his family on the banks of the river, as the boat carried him south into an abyss of suffering. That I am here to tell the tale at all means it is not a tragedy. It means that as long as we draw breath, tragedy—even a tragedy as overwhelming as a hurricane that nearly destroyed a city—does not have to have the last word. Like the poet W. H. Auden says, we “stagger onward rejoicing.”
Those car lights I saw that night on the Claiborne Avenue bridge belonged to New Orleanians who were also part of the pilgrimage. I did not know it then, and they didn’t either, but I am certain of it now: Those fellow pilgrims were headed into the Lower Ninth Ward to affirm by their presence that the power of art, the bonds of the beloved community, and the perseverance of the human spirit are all lights that the darkness cannot overcome.
In American culture, we have turned away from an awareness of the prophetic power of art, of its role as a means of revealing the hidden order beneath everydayness, and its power to transform us and the world.
Art tells us who we are, and it tells us who we must become. Art doesn’t give us life’s answers as much as it empowers us to live life’s questions. Art, like religion, is how the eternal and the ideal enters time and becomes real. In turn, it is how we mortals experience, if only for a moment, immortality. Art is how we humans, individually and collectively, impress our seal on the wax; it’s how we charge ordinary matter—wood, paint, stone, a word, a voice, a note, a gesture—with life and spirit and harmony.
Art is the most serious thing we can do, because when making it, we humans, forged in the image of God, are most like our Creator. We tend to forget that. This production of Godot, in that weary time and in that storm-battered place, helped me remember. And I was far from the only one.
Early in the play’s first act, Vladimir hears a noise and thinks it might signal Godot’s approach. “Pah!” snorts Estragon, dismissively. “The wind in the reeds.” We would be wrong to dismiss that sound.
Man is only a reed, said the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, but he is a thinking reed. When the winds of adversity blow hard against him, the sound they make as they pass over his contours may be mere noise—or they may be something like the music a teenage Sidney Bechet, grandson of a slave, made when he blew across his clarinet’s reed and, standing on the back of a New Orleans furniture truck next to a horn-playing juvenile delinquent named Louis Armstrong, helped create jazz.
I learned from the late Albert Murray, the great Harlem connoisseur of black music, that art is the way individuals and cultures react aesthetically to their experiences in life. Jazz and the blues, the most American of all musical forms, is the sound made by history’s savage gales blowing hard on African people in the Diaspora. The storm-tossed reeds may be humble, but the reeds are thinking, the reeds are feeling—and the reeds are resilient.
The reeds sing a song of triumph. The harder the wind blows, the stronger our spirit, the purer our art, and the greater our victory.
DOWN THE BAYOU AT THE SOURCE
We know who we are by the stories we tell about ourselves and the world. We know who we are through the family and community of whose stories we are a part.
We make our stories. And our stories make us.
I am not sure the stories of my family are art, exactly. After all, they came down to me not as objects to be admired for their beauty. Then again, they contain so much truth and goodness that they cannot help being beautiful as well. Their trials, their triumphs, the virtues that gave them the strength to overcome—all of these things live in the stories my family shares as an inheritance that grows as we invest in it each successive generation.
I draw creative strength from my roots buried deep in south Louisiana. Until the storm, I did not appreciate how much those roots were the veins connecting my heart to the body of historical experience that gave birth to the man I am today, and the man—and the artist—I am becoming every day.
Here are some of the stories that made me.
SOMETIME IN THE 1850S, nobody can say exactly when, on the banks of a Kentucky river, a boy named Aristile rested in the basket of his slave mother’s arms as she said good-bye to their family and sailed away. One white man had sold mother and child to another white man, as the child’s father, brothers, and sisters stood on the water’s edge in tears. Five hundred miles downriver, the passage of the mother and her child ended on a sugarcane plantation near Bertrandville, in Assumption Parish, a moist and fertile patch of land between the Mississippi River and Bayou Lafourche. The master forced his name on the mother and child: Harris. That is how my family came to south Louisiana.
Years later, after emancipation in 1865, Aristile would tell his children that his earliest memories are of his mother teaching him to say his prayers at night, and telling him when freedom comes, as it surely would, to go on a quest. “You are not a Harris. You are a Christophe,” she would say. “If you ever get free, go back to Kentucky and look for your family. The Christophes.”
He never did.
The story of Aristile’s descendants is a story of a parade through American history—sometimes a mournful dirge, sometimes a raucous stomp—from being symbolically owned by the bayou to owning a piece of it. That is, from being treated as no more important than the land they worked for the white man as enslaved exiles, to becoming masters of themselves and that land, which would become, in the fullest sense of the word, home.
Why am I telling you this? Because I would not be the man I am if my ancestors had not been the men and women that they were. In southern culture, family and land are everything—especially to African Americans, whose families were broken by slavery and, in liberty, left with little or nothing.
In my clan, the ancestors live on through the stories we tell ourselves and our children, and in the family farm on Bayou Lafourche. My cousin Nicole, the family historian, reminds us older folks that we have a responsibility to tell these family stories to the younger generation. Family can easily fall apart. You can’t take it for granted. My mother and father showed me the value of family and why it’s worth fighting for. Whenever I wonder why I’m hanging on to these people who are becoming strangers to me, I take a step back and think about our shared history.
If we forget our stories, we will forget who we are, and we will forget who we must be to one another. The family is our strength. My personal triumphs are not mine alone; they represent the victory of all my forebears. You can trace a line from the Hollywood soundstages where I work to the sugarcane fields of Louisiana’s River Parishes. These stories, stories of ancestors I never knew, are my story too, not only because they formed the moral imaginations of those who formed me, but also because these tales from my family’s oral tradition tell me who I am.
In the days before the Civil War, Louisiana plantations produced nearly one-quarter of the world’s exportable sugar. To support the booming industry, New Orleans became North America’s largest slave market, and Louisiana’s sugar plantations were notorious for their unsurpassed cruelty to slaves. At the start of the Civil War, more than 330,000 slaves worked the fields in Louisiana. But according to family legend, my great-grandfather wasn’t yet one of them. The boy was not yet a field slave, but enslaved nonetheless, his master grinding as much work out of the child Aristile as he could.
When Aristile was a young teenager, not quite old enough to be sent into the fields—this would have been in 1862 or 1863—he stood wearing nothing but a big shirt and watched Union soldiers riding along the banks of the bayou. Freedom came after the North’s victory, but Aristile did not return to Kentucky to look for his kin, and no one in my family ever has. For better or for worse, our home was now in Louisiana.
Freedom from bondage did not mean freedom, though. After the Civil War, most former slaves expected to get some share of the land they had worked. The idea was that each freed slave was entitled to “40 acres and a mule” as compensation, and as a foundation on which to build a new life. It never happened.
Aristile’s former master moved him to what was known as the Williams plantation as part of a plan to undermine land redistribution to freed slaves, or so the story came down through my family. The planter took Aristile to three brothers, former slaves who had been given the name Williams, and told them they were to consider Aristile their brother. They were older than Aristile and ordered the teenager around. When the Williams brothers received a little piece of property, they gave Aristile a quarter-acre lot off the main road. It was nothing, really.
But that’s where Aristile founded his family. My grandmother Frances Harris and her nine brothers and sisters grew up on that tiny spit of ground in Assumption Parish. My uncle L.C., the last survivor of my mother’s generation, heard from Frances that Aristile “was a lover who didn’t do nothin’ but make moonshine and sell it. That was his forte.” Aristile told his children that he had seen and done enough fieldwork as a slave, and he was finished with that.
Frances, Aristile’s daughter, grew up to marry Herbert Edwards, who came from the Southall family, from the other side of the bayou, in the early years of the twentieth century. The Southall clan descends from Collins and Causey Southall, who were born into slavery and had twelve children. The Southalls were all about education, believing that it was the key to overcoming racism, making material progress, and generally improving the family’s position in the world. They lived in a black settlement on the flat green fields of south Louisiana’s Cajun plantation country, an hour west of New Orleans. To be precise, they were on the banks of Bayou Lafourche, between Plattenville and Paincourtville, on College Point Lane—so called because the African American families who lived there became known for sending their children to college. Education has always been a sacred value passed down in my family—and we can trace it back to the first generation out of slavery.
Frances and Herbert Edwards were known to us all as “Mamo” and “Papo.” They raised their seven children during the Great Depression, eking out a living on their portion of the forty-four-acre Assumption Parish farm that Papo shared with his brothers Johnny (“Parrain Johnny”) and Ashley (“Nonc Ash”). Nonc Ash eventually left the farm and, like their brother George, became an educator, but Papo and Parrain Johnny stayed in Assumption Parish and worked the land.
Of the two Edwards men who stayed behind, Papo was the stolid, no-nonsense farmer, but Parrain Johnny (parrain is Creole French for “godfather”) was a rascal. With his ever-present short stogie in his mouth, he chased women up and down the bayou.
One family story has it that Parrain Johnny was once working for a white man who was having an affair with a black woman and hid it from his wife. Whenever he needed to send his mistress something, he would use Parrain Johnny as a go-between. But in the middle of being a go-between, Parrain Johnny became an in-between. When the white boss found out Parrain Johnny was loving on his mistress, he and his friends beat Johnny to a pulp and threw him on a trash pile to die.
Another version of the story has it that Parrain Johnny was having an affair with a white woman in Paincourtville whose family nearly lynched him when they discovered their forbidden love. Whatever the truth, Johnny nearly died in a beating. Somebody found him and got him to the doctor. He recovered, though he suffered from epilepsy for the rest of his life.
Parrain Johnny died when I was five or six. They said he fell into his fireplace and burned up, but the family never believed it was an accident. Who falls into their fireplace and doesn’t try to get out? He was supposedly running around with another man’s wife, and the jealous husband, we think, pushed him into the flames. My cousin Louis says that Parrain Johnny’s death was such a shock for the same reason you’re surprised when a stray dog gets run over by a car. It’s been so good at dodging traffic all these years that you can’t quite believe it finally got popped.
From the 1920s through the 1940s, Papo was just about the only black farmer in Assumption Parish who owned his property and brought his own sugarcane to the mill. He put his entire family to work there. During the fall grinding season—that is to say, the harvest—the whole family helped bring in the crop, even Mamo and Papo’s daughters.
AND DID THEY EVER HAVE DAUGHTERS! There was Inez, Evelyn, Yvonne, Gladys, and my mother, Althea, whom I grew up calling “Tee.” Two boys—Louis Herbert (L.H.) and Lloyd Carroll (L.C.)—filled out the family. (An eighth child, a daughter, was stillborn; the old midwife named her Matilda, and Papo put her into a little coffin and buried her in the backyard, past the pecan trees from which hung the children’s rope swing.)
Theirs was a religious household. Papo was a lifelong Methodist; Mamo, a Catholic. All the Edwards children were baptized into the Catholic faith, and Papo saw their upbringing as loyal sons and daughters of Rome as a sacred obligation. If one of the children didn’t want to go to Sunday mass, Papo wouldn’t let them play outside that afternoon. Every night, Papo would get on his knees and pray aloud, presenting all his family’s needs to the Lord, while the children kneeled quietly beside him. He read the Bible to the children and explained it to them as best he could.
The way my mother and my aunts and uncles told it, everybody in College Point was as good as family, and you respected them as such. It takes a village to raise a child? That’s how it was in College Point. Any adult could scold any kid for doing wrong. They knew how your mama and daddy would want you to behave, and they also knew that your mama and daddy would appreciate the reinforcement of the community’s standards. In the Edwards family, as in most other black families in College Point, life’s purpose was to serve God and get an education. If you did these things, and held tight to the family, you were going to make it.
Papo refused to accept from his children anything short of excellence. When one of his kids would say, “Daddy, I can’t do it,” Papo would respond, “Can’t died three days before the creation of the world!” He believed in you, and he expected you to rise to the challenge. Education was one of the most precious gifts a man or a woman could have, Papo believed. “If you get an education,” he told his children, “they can take away your job, they can take away your house, they can take away everything you have, but once you get something in your head, they can’t take it away from you.”
Another of Papo’s sayings was: “There are those who do not have your best interests at heart.” That is, be careful whom you trust. People are not always what they seem. If you leave yourself too open, those who do not have your best interests at heart will seize the opportunity to defeat you. Don’t be afraid of them, but understand what you’re dealing with and use your wits.
Papo was a firm man, and a fussy one—Uncle L.H. used to talk about how hard his daddy was—but we grandkids remember him as gentle. We used to go to his house in Assumption Parish and sprawl on the floor watching TV while Papo sat in his big green wingback chair, presiding over everything. One summer day, with a bunch of us grandkids there, I found that Mamo had a litter of kittens in a box. I thought it might be fun to climb up onto the roof of the carport and drop them off to see if it was true that cats would land on their feet. I dropped them from that height onto the grass, and thought it was amusing.
When I observed that they had all survived the fall, being a young scientist, I decided to experiment with increasing the kittens’ velocity. Back into the box they went, and up onto the roof I clambered with the kittens. I took the little fuzzballs into my hand and threw them down toward the ground. They didn’t all make it. As they wobbled away, a few never came back. I got bored and wandered off, and that was that.
Later that night, we were watching television together when Papo said, “I found one of them cats dead. Who was playing with the cats?” I didn’t say anything then, and I never did. I feel guilty to this day about holding out on Papo. The detail that stands out in my mind is that Papo probably knew it was me, but he wanted to give me the chance to admit what I had done and take responsibility. He must have understood the importance of letting my young conscience convict me, and letting the guilt I carried be my punishment.
Papo was gentler with his grandchildren than he was with his own kids. When I hear tales of the harshness of Papo’s old-school discipline with my mother and her siblings, it sometimes sounds cruel. It’s hard for people today to understand it, but for black folk back then, a strong will like Mamo’s and Papo’s, joined to a rock-hard sense of discipline, was a tool of survival. One false move could mean ruin. My aunt Evelyn Mae—we called her “Tee Mae”—told a story one day about how Mamo had thrown her out of the house, thinking she was pregnant.
“They had told us that they would give us every last thing they had, but the one thing we must not do was bring an illegitimate baby into the home,” Tee Mae said. “If we did, they were going to put us out.”
After her first menstrual period, Tee Mae didn’t have another cycle for three months. When Mamo saw that she had missed two in a row, she accused Tee Mae of having been with a boy and gotten pregnant. Tee Mae protested that it wasn’t true, but Mamo refused to believe her. She gave her teenage daughter a brown paper bag with her things in it and sent her on her way.
Tee Mae ended up at the home of family friends, wailing. By the time it all got sorted, Tee Mae had been to a physician, who verified that she was not pregnant, and was still a virgin. She was welcomed back home then. To us, this sounds intolerably harsh, and it was. But in those days, contraception was practically nonexistent, and having a child outside of wedlock left a woman and her baby extremely vulnerable. This unforgiving code of honor was a bulwark holding back disaster.
It worked, too. “We never strayed,” my mother told me. “We were too scared of Papo, and had too much respect for him, to do anything else.”
For all his strictness, Papo used physical violence against his children only once. Several of the children had stayed out in a far field longer than their curfew. When they came straggling home, Papo was waiting for them with a switch and lashed them on the backs of their legs as they ran crying into the house. Papo felt so ashamed of his violence that the kids overheard him telling Mamo he would never lift his hands against the children again.
That was Papo. Mamo was different, and then some.
One autumn day, when Tee Mae was a teenager, Mamo went to a quilting bee, leaving baby L.C. in Tee Mae’s care. Tee Mae became absorbed in playing jacks and forgot all about the baby. He shat all over himself. When Tee Mae discovered her baby brother covered in his own feces, she scrambled to get him cleaned up before Mamo came home, but it was too late. When Mamo walked in and saw little L.C. smeared with his own filth, Tee Mae had already run out the back door and was headed across the field like a shot.
An enraged Mamo grabbed Papo’s shotgun, ran into the yard, and taking aim at her fleeing daughter, pulled the trigger. Tee Mae wasn’t hit, but when she heard the shot, she fell facedown in the dirt all the same. Before she got to her feet, she heard Mamo keening in the distance. “Oh, Lord, I’ve done shot my baby! I’ve done killed my baby!”
Tee Mae knew that it was about time for Papo to come home from work, and she also knew that Papo had warned Mamo not to touch his guns. So she judged that the smartest thing for her to do was to lie there on the ground and wait for her father to arrive.
Minutes later, a cousin walked up on Tee Mae, thinking she was dead. He poked her in her ribs with his pointy boots, trying to turn her body over to see her wounds. Tee Mae let out a laugh and sprang to her feet. Just then, Papo arrived home. Tee Mae knew she was safe. She got back to the yard in time to hear Papo lecture Mamo about her unorthodox disciplinary methods.
“Oh, Mama, I done told you that’s not how to chastise those children,” he said. “Don’t be messing with my gun. Use a switch on them kids.”
Mamo was vexed. “You see that black wench there?” she yelled to everyone present. “I’m going to get you for this! You did this on purpose!”
But from that day on, Tee Mae never had any more trouble with her mother trying to discipline her with firearms. “That was the second time she’d shot at me!” Tee Mae said.
Though Mamo had her angry moments, her children remembered her as strong-willed and extraordinarily capable. Despite her fits, they liked to say that she could get along with both the Devil in hell and the Lord in heaven. “She drove us to love ourselves and to make something of our lives,” says Uncle L.C. “She was another Mary McLeod Bethune.”
The one thing Mamo did not know how to do was manage money. That was Papo’s job. Papo did not trust banks, and he kept some of his money in a chest in the house. The rest he stored in his barn, in a sack hidden in a barrel. He was a frugal man, but not a miserly one. One Christmas, his children received a vivid illustration of the value of their father’s prudence.
Mamo worked as a cook and a maid in a white family’s house, and she spent the early part of Christmas Day there preparing their dinner. Back at the farm, Papo oversaw the preparation of the Edwards family’s holiday meal, which they would celebrate as the evening meal so Mamo could be with them. Christmas dinner was always rich with country food, including chicken, turkey, and goose from their farm, rice, green peas, and potato salad. For dessert, the family ate candy and cake Papo made himself. There wasn’t much money for Christmas gifts, but Papo and Mamo made sure their children feasted well on the Nativity.
One Christmas evening after supper, the Edwardses went to call on their College Point neighbors, to wish them a happy holiday. The kids were startled to go into one house and to see that all that family had eaten for their Christmas meal was potatoes and grits. When they returned home, Papo told the children, “This is what I mean when I tell you it’s important to save for a rainy day. If you put your money aside now, you will have enough to eat well on Christmas.”
Given the man Papo was, if the Edwardses had any food left, he probably took it to that poor family and didn’t tell his own children for the sake of preserving their neighbors’ dignity.
His children remembered Papo as a slow talker but a deep thinker. He never made a quick decision, but acted only after prayer, deliberation, and sleeping on it. Whatever the answer was, he arrived at it through careful reason, not passion. Acting on impulse was the sure way to lose your money, in Papo’s view.
Papo worked for a time in a sugar factory and received his weekly wages in a brown packet. He had a firm rule with himself: Wait twenty-four hours before spending a penny of it. Uncle L.C. said that as a young working man, he thought his father’s rule was silly. You have the money, he figured, so why not enjoy it?
But when he got married and started a family of his own, he understood Papo’s good sense and followed the rule himself. Uncle L.C., who worked at the DuPont chemical plant, has done well through saving and investing over the years. To this day, he credits Papo for teaching him by word and example the importance of being careful with your money and not letting your passions guide your decisions.
If L.C. was the patient, deliberate brother, L.H. was the family firebrand. He was a veteran of the Vietnam War, and fiercely proud of his military service. He was a stalwart patriot but also a black nationalist equally outraged at the oppression the country he loved and fought for laid on the backs of black men and women. When she was old and gray, and L.H. had long since passed, my mother told me that her brother’s volcanic temperament came from a place of great decency.
“If L.H. could give you his heart and still live, he would do it for you,” Tee said. “The thing I liked most about L.H. is that he would tell you he did not mind dying if he was dying for what was right. L.H. loved justice, and he was not afraid of nobody, and he spoke his piece to anybody and everybody.”
There was little doubt where the fighting spirit that animated L.H., Tee Mae, and my mother came from. Tee once told me about a time in the 1940s when, as the Edwards children were walking home from school, a troublemaking white boy threw rocks at them, hitting L.H. in the head. When the kids made it home and told their mother what had happened, Mamo rocketed out of the house, up College Point Lane, and walked all the way to Bertrandville to confront the white boy’s mother.
When the white lady, a Mrs. Aucoin, answered the door, Mamo told her how it was going to be from here on out.
“I pay taxes just like you pay taxes,” my grandmother said. “My child has a right to walk on this road like anybody else. I told all my children that if that one”—she pointed to the boy—“even looks at them, they all supposed to jump on him and beat him till he’s dead. And if they don’t kill him, I will.”
“Did the white lady call the sheriff on Mamo?” I asked Tee. It was hard to imagine that, in a culture ruled by the ideology of white supremacy, a white woman would take that kind of dressing-down from a black woman.
“No!” she said. “That lady was trembling. She knew that boy of hers was bad. She told Mama it would never happen again. And it didn’t.”
L.H.’s rage against those who had done him wrong—racists and everybody else—sometimes worked to his disadvantage. Said my mother, “L.H.’s biggest enemy was himself.”
L.H. had a good job working for the local sheriff, but rashly quit one day, out of pride; he thought the sheriff ought to take his advice more seriously.
L.H. didn’t need the sheriff’s department job. He owned a nice store in Bertrandville. Trouble was, he had gotten way behind on his commercial taxes. Our cousin in parish government told Mamo to get L.H. to pay his back taxes or there were some white people who were going to use his delinquency to harm him.
“But L.H. wouldn’t listen,” my uncle L.C. said. “He made a mistake. He left the sheriff’s department. Two days after that, they put a lien on his store for twenty thousand dollars in back taxes. That’s how he lost his business.”
Papo had a saying: “Always keep a dollar in your pocket, because you never know when the world is going to be sold for a dollar.” He meant that a wise man always held money in reserve to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities, and that a wise man always keeps a close watch on his financial matters. As brilliant as he was, Uncle L.H. didn’t do as Papo taught, nor did he discipline his emotions to protect his exposed financial flank—and he suffered for it.
But he never gave up. Even after he lost the store, and his son Louis later had a similar setback, he was full of encouragement. “You know what, Lou?” he’d say. “Colonel Sanders didn’t make it until he was in his seventies. So keep fighting.” He always did, until his last breath. As he lay dying of cancer in 1999, his sisters thought L.H., a believer though estranged from the Catholic Church for parts of his life, would be willing to speak to a priest. But when Uncle L.H. saw a priest walk into the room, he all but rose up out of his deathbed and delivered a hellacious cussing to the poor man—and to his own sisters for summoning him. “Get him out of here!” he yelled. “Goddamnit, you niggers worship a white man like he’s God! He don’t look like you!” L.H. left his earth without last rites, but as master of his soul.
Here’s what you need to know about Uncle L.H. and his anticlericalism: He had endured the Catholic Church’s failing to stand up to racism on behalf of its black communicants, and he had seen a close family member drink himself to death, never able to recover from his childhood molestation by a Catholic priest. He never forgave it. In “Strong Men,” a scathing poem rebuking hypocrisy in white Christians and passivity in their black brothers, the African American poet Sterling A. Brown spoke for Uncle L.H., a strong man whose spirit was never tamed. To honor my uncle L.H., I read that poem at his funeral as his body lay in St. Benedict the Moor Church, where he was baptized as a child.
It took incredible inner strength to survive Jim Crow, much less to thrive under it. Mamo and Papo raised their children in a time and place when whites held all the power and were not afraid to use it. No black man or woman could afford to make a false move. Black people were supposed to know their place, and God help them if they challenged the racist social order. To guard your heart by learning how to endure daily humiliations without fighting back was the only way to survive.
Papo was well respected within both the white and black communities, because everyone knew he was a righteous man. “He thought he was the equal of everybody,” my aunt Tee Gladys told me once. “He never backed down.” Except once, which was one of my aunt’s most painful memories.
When my aunt Gladys returned home to the bayou from California after her first marriage broke up, she was dismayed to see that Papo was still selling his cane crops to a particular sugar-buying firm that paid Papo in credit at its grocery store. At the end of every growing season, the company would tell Papo that his cane crop was just enough to cover his family’s grocery bill.
Tee Gladys told Papo that he was being ripped off by those people and he should quit buying groceries there. Mamo backed her up on this; she was tired of having to depend on that company and its store for the family’s food needs when there were other stores in the area that offered better prices. Papo was afraid no brokers would buy his cane if he moved his grocery trade to a competitor.
“Daddy, it’s like having your hand in the lion’s mouth,” Tee Gladys told him. But he wouldn’t budge.
“The first and only time in my life I saw my daddy cry was after a bad year in the cane field,” Tee Gladys said to me a few years before she died. “Cane didn’t produce well. Me and my daddy, I’ll never forget, it was a cold, rainy day in January. We went to that company store, shopping for all our groceries, and came to the cashier to check us out.
“One of the owners knew we were in the store, and he had not had the courtesy to send a letter to my father to tell him we didn’t have any more credit there,” she continued. “When we got up to the cashier, the man came and took Daddy to the office, and told him he couldn’t have those groceries. They humiliated him.”
When Papo and his daughter made it back home, he had to break the news to Mamo.
“He was crying, tears running down his face,” Tee Gladys remembered. “But let me tell you, the white man didn’t do him wrong. He set him free. He wasn’t scared after that to shop other places. It hurt my father, but it got his hand out of the lion’s mouth. In the end, he was victorious.”
Mamo and Papo were well respected in the entire community. Most of the time, however, whites in Assumption Parish felt entitled to treat their black neighbors with utter disrespect. There was no grocery store in College Point when my mother was a child, so she and her siblings would have to walk to nearby Plattenville to buy food for the family. As they passed the houses of whites, children their own age would be playing in the yards and would call out to their own mothers inside, saying, “Hey, Mama, a little nigger is going to the store. You want anything?” If the white woman said yes, her child would call out, “Hey, little nigger, stop.”
If you were a black child, you had no choice but to do as that white child told you. This is how it was.
My grandfather was a steadfast, quiet man, a poor country farmer of great dignity. That’s why the rare occasions when that dignity slipped were so shocking to his children. Tee saw him lose his cool only once. It was during the Depression, when a white hobo came to their door, begging for food. Papo exploded with anger.
“Who are you to come here?!” he yelled, driving the beggar away.
Why would Papo treat someone like that? Tee wondered. She saw him as the soul of justice and compassion. Then Papo said, indignantly, “He’s a white man in America, and he’s coming begging from me?!”
Papo saw the hungry hobo as privileged because of the color of his skin. Was that fair? No. Nor was it kind. But you have to understand his intemperate reaction in the context of the pervasive and overwhelming power the white man had over the black man, and how gratuitously cruel was its exercise.
WHEN TEE WAS A CHILD, a black family in College Point somehow scraped the money together to buy a new car. They were so proud of that automobile and showed it off to all their neighbors. It was like a gift to the community, because they could give people who walked everywhere a ride.
“I remember the night that the night riders came and burned that car,” Tee told me. “They said, ‘You niggers, don’t you think about getting no cars. Let this be a lesson to you.’”
From the Hardcover edition.