Friday, June 24, 2011

Be Careful What You Say to Census Workers

I'm joking. I don't think today's census workers would ever write down what this census work did in 1880. Check what's listed as Joseph Jean Baptiste's occupation.

Also notice how neat the handwriting is on the snippet of the screenshot from the original document. I doubt this guy was walking and writing at the same time.

Mr. Jean Baptiste was most likely a farm worker living on the Laura Plantation or St. Joseph Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana. Most of the white people listed on the form are Waguespacks. While slavery was technically over, it's quite possible Joseph Jean Baptiste never spoke to the census worker himself and an overseer or somebody from the "big house" gave the census worker the information. But if that worker did talk to this black man himself, I can only imagine how that conversation went.

In addition, here in Louisiana census workers often ran into people who could only speak French, and so, sometimes what made it to the census form was not accurate for that reason. But it's quite possible the man himself said "drunkard" out of his own mouth.

Last semester I read Ernest Gaines's collection of short stories, Bloodline, in a class. I recommend the short story of the same title about the passing away of old plantation life and the complexities of the Laurent family to anyone who wants to see how the effects of paternal and overt racism as pathology worked itself out on the plantations of River Road. However, it's also a class issue. No census worker would have dared write anything so negative about one of the plantation owners even if he'd come upon him dancing naked in a drunken stupor on the veranda.

I found the census record at

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