Tuesday, November 28, 2006

How Ironic is this Picture?

Comedian Michael Richards apologizing for his use of the "n" word on Nov. 17 at a club show in West Hollywood. Is that Jesse Jackson he's pictured with?

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Act Two - Journey

One of the prevailing myths of American slavery is the impermeability of the color line. Most Americans of all races believe that only Africans were slaves, only Europeans were masters, and any mixing between the two was rape pure and simple. The existence of New Orleans Creoles gives lie to this myth, of course. I suspect that 20th century Americans, especially blacks, have always felt uneasy about this because rather than hide in shame for sleeping with the enemy many Creoles proudly claim their mixed ancestry. Not too many tragic mulattos to be found here.

But travel further down the rabbit hole Alice, like I did, and you will find that reality is far more complex then that. Dig more into the history of the Spanish on our shores and you'll find that Africans and Europeans occupied each tier of society, albeit unequally. The
British colonies, too, had both European and African landowners and laborers during the 17th century. To understand how this is possible, one must first understand how the management system of slavery actually works. History and molecular anthropology PhD candidate Frank Sweet explains that:

Not only was it necessary to deter runaways by making examples of those caught, but it was also vital to deter revolts by keeping on hand a traditionally large buffer class of armed yeoman. The challenge faced by colonial rulers was that the buffer class had to be roughly as numerous as the colony's forced labor population, and the forced laborers themselves were its only possible source. Like it or not, every New World colony lacking sufficient yeoman had to transform at least half of its forced laborers into landed yeomen if it was to survive.

The Spanish, by taking the place of Latin America's indigenous aristocracies, implanted
their rule into pre-existing stratified societies so there was no need to recreate a yeoman class. In the Caribbean and North America, they simulated the French who intermixed with their African slaves to create a yeomen class of Creoles. In contrast, the British conquered lands that lacked indigenous empires so the Spanish tactic could not apply. And unlike the French, the British slave population initially consisted of more Europeans than Africans.

Unable to birth a biracial class of yeomen in time to control their erupting slave revolts, the British employed a race-based divide and conquer strategy that doomed African slaves to eternal servitude and graduated newly freed European indentured servants to yeomen class status. Reinforcement in the form of anti-miscegenation laws grew in severity until laws banning interracial marriage altogether were passed, and then spread from colony to colony in the British territories.

In 1705, Virginia passed history's first law defining blackness: a person with one or more great grandparents who were African - called an octoroon for having one eighth fraction of black blood. Taken together with the 1662 partus sequitur ventrum law that defined slave status through matrilineal de
scent, biracials still continued to be born, but at considerably slower rates of miscegenation. More importantly these two laws combined meant that, unlike the French and Spanish systems where color and class necessarily correlated, white or lighter colored skin only mattered if one were free.

- These series of posts are dedicated to the ‘finest woman in East Elmhurst’ of her day, my mother Kathlean Elizabeth Barnes. I am bold because she could not be.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Act One - Awakening

They say falling in love changes your life. However, I never expected it to change the world. A little over a year ago I met and fell madly in love with a New Orleans Creole. A near replica of my late mother in looks, he charmed me completely with his genteel manner, fun-loving spirit and dedication to Creole culture.

As he and his family began to accept me into the fold and share their traditions with me, I began to examine my own history – and lack thereof. What was so different about these people? Other French Creole friends of mine, New Orleanian and Haitian, also shared family bonds an
d traditions that were far more cohesive than my own. I suspected that it had something to do with the French connection and set out to find just what that thing was.

Frankly this connection didn’t surprise me so much, as France has enjoyed a kind of favored nation status within the African American arts community for its acceptance of our greatest artists when our o
wn country did not. But the link between the French and Africans here in our own country I think is less well known.

One upside of Hurricane Katrina, if there could be one, was the reintroduction into the American mainstream of New Orleans’ unique centuries old tradition of race mixing. The inference of course is that plenty of miscegenation had been goin’ on, and not just of the white master raping the black slave variety that lurks unresolved in the imaginations of contemporary Americans, both black and white.

Creoles are a special bunch because they are heirs to an atypically enlightened view of interracial relationship that was squelched by the Louisiana Purchase and did not have a resurgence until after the Civil Rights Movement. If the French and the Africans could love each other under those circumstances, then maintaining familial unity over petty internecine rivalries must be a no brainer for their offspring.

I was about to leave it at that when I learned that the Spanish controlled Louisiana for a period of 40 years (1763 - 1803) before ceding it back to the French - who then sold it to the Brits (Americans) a year later in the Louisiana Purchase. Interestingly enough it was actually under Spanish rule that the gens de couleur libre grew from 3% to 20% of the total population of New Orleans. Turns out the French weren’t so damned special after all!

Why d
idn’t I remember any of this stuff from my US history classes? Intrigued, I decided that I would need to dig deeper. Maybe Virginia, where my family hails from, had more complex race relations during its pre Civil War period, too.

These series of posts are dedicated to the ‘finest woman in East Elmhurst’ of her day, my mother Kathlean Elizabeth Barnes. I am bold because she could not be.

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