Downloading Dad: Searching for Black History
When my father, age 91, told me a few weeks ago that a woman, born Augustine Lemieux Stevens (a.k.a. Gussie), had died, I shuddered for moment in a spasm of grief. I grieved not because I knew Ms. Gussie but because I did not know her.
Born on September 13, 1911 in Vacherie, Louisiana, of St. James Parish, she lived near him when he was a child growing up in that rural town. Vacherie sits on River Road, next to the Mississippi. It is in an area of small farms and sprawling historic plantations, such asOak Alley. Vacherie is a place of sugar cane and rice fields, ofBr'er Rabbit and of the slavery/Antebellum South tourism industry.
Ms. Gussie died on October 7, 2011, so she lived almost a month past her 100th birthday. According to my cousin, she was still cognitively sharp and had worked in her garden almost until her death. My cousin said she and her sister would marvel sometimes when they drove by and saw Ms. Gussie nearing a hundred years old out in the ditch in front of her small house, pulling weeds.
My family is one of many families that lost during Hurricane Katrina tangible and intangible pieces of their history--photographs, family bibles, and other official forms of identification that tie us to our past and the sad or silly stories that elders, some undone through the storm displacing them, no longer tell. I may think about these matters more or be more stricken with a sense of loss because in 2008, my mother, our family historian, died after suffering from Alzheimer's for at least eight years. I suspect she may have suffered longer, may have had other signs and symptoms that she hid from us because she feared losing her memory; my mother had watched her own mother wrestle with what was more often called senility back in the 80s, and the terror of being a bright woman trapped in a thorny thicket of dementia haunted her.
Not hearing of Ms. Gussie until after she died illustrates the challenge black historians and genealogists in particular face as they race to collect stories, artifacts, and wisps of memory that yellow and decay in a senior citizen's home or live in the collective consciousness of our elders left alone or in retirement homes or who wait forgotten with a caregiver who has also been forgotten. Too often these artifacts and memories--shoved into cobwebbed closets and minds--will never receive the attention and respect they deserve. A younger and ignorant person may toss out the dusty Bible heavy with strange odors or ignore the story told and retold by an aged and irritating aunt: old people and their mutterings in our youth-obsessed culture are rarely deemed important unless with them come shiny objects that look like something an antique dealer or pawnbroker may appraise and match to monetary value.
For the past two years I have actively pursued information about both sides of my family, in particular I have been seeking more information about my grandmothers, both paternal and maternal, and so, I have been interrogating family members as they and I have time. Anyone involved in genealogical research can attest that tracking our mothers, grandmothers, aunts' histories through official documents proves difficult; women's names change through marriage and rarely are their names on property deeds. Nor do they show up often in military records. A conversation with Ms. Gussie may have provided me a hint about my paternal grandmother's family, a suggestion of where she came from because no one alive now seems to know. Her origins have been a mystery for as long as I remember, a topic my father and his siblings did not discuss often because their mother--my grandmother--was half white, a potential passe blanc, fair enough to pass for a white person if she had so chosen, some say, but she never tried to pass.
Nevertheless, nearly each day I find out new information about my father. Parts of his past pop from his mouth at the oddest moments. Sometimes he speaks after seeing something in the news that means nothing to me. Sometimes a story erupts with while he's eating a sandwich or sorting his mail and has no clear segue. The anecdote may be one I have never heard such as the one he told me a few months when I asked him about his service in World War II. He was in Italy when Mouth Vesuvius blew, news to me, but he told my younger brother this years ago,, it turns out.
Two days ago he told me about his adventures as a teenager in Vacherie's rice fields. I have a friend who has been writing about rice cultivation technology, which came to the American South via African slaves, and she had told me less than a month ago how she wished she could find someone who knew something about the old technology. I advised her to find someone who owned a farm when humans still harvested the majority of the rice, someone who knew what rice farming was like before rice cultivation was mechanized. It never occurred to me that my dad may have been the person she should talk to.
So, after he mentioned, unbidden, what is was like to harvest rice, I asked him about the fields' irrigation system. He told me about water being piped from the Mississippi River into the rice field ditches and that when the ditches overflowed, the water seeped into the fields. "You can't grow rice without water," he told me.
He also talked about how he would itch after dealing with the rice and about the danger of encountering cotton mouth snakes. He avoided that part, which required that the field worker stand in water and reach down into leaves where a snake may be hiding. He also said that nobody in Magnolia, a black area in Vacherie, ever bought rice. They would just collect fresh rice from whatever the fields' owners left behind in the collection area.
He told me as well that the workers were paid about 45 cents per day. However, the "old Creole" (could have been a Cajun) that paid them wasn't too swift, and maybe the old man could not tell some of the black workers apart, and so some days the workers would return to the pay line and get paid two or three times.