Sunday, November 20, 2011

Downloading Dad: The Search for Places of Origin Continues

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 as Oak Alley. Vacherie is a place of sugar cane and rice fields, of Br'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.

I chided my dad mildly for not telling me of Ms. Gussie's existence sooner, before she passed away. With knowledge of her her passing, I grappled again with my fear that the ordinary black history in Louisiana and my personal family history, the stories of everyday working men and women, are also passing away, slipping farther from my grasp daily and the grasp of the rest of America.

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.

I was disturbed, for instance, to learn in October that years ago the great-niece of one of my maternal grandmother's aunts, had misplaced the family Bible. In it was a genealogy going back to Africa, kept by the great-aunt, a childless woman.

Years before her death, this great-aunt had shown a great-nephew--one of my distant cousins who started doing genealogical research in the 1970s--this family Bible. She had told him also that her father--my great-great-grandfather, Tony Green Mott of Alabama--had been a runaway slave from South Carolina. As the story goes, Tony ran away after his master sold his parents. Apparently, he had learned from his own grandfather on the plantation that his family came from Africa's Gold Coast. The cousin who had been doing the research, but who has had a stroke since he began the work, thinks the family's African country may have be Ghana, but he's unsure. He said it perturbed him that the young niece had no clue about the family Bible's location: "Didn't she know how important that was?"

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.

I have stories about possible relations who visited my grandmother when my father was young, but many of these people went by nicknames and were known to my father only as children tend to know older adults, by titles with names such Aunt Veve or Uncle Sweet--rarely a legal name that may appear in a census record or on a baptismal certificate. Therefore, talking to Ms. Gussie, whose memory was intact and who was nine years older than my dad and had grown up across the street from him in the 1920s when my grandmother was still a relatively young woman, may have given me exactly the kind of information I needed.

Perhaps I would have gotten a name from Ms. Gussie that would help me dig a little deeper and find more clues about not only my grandmother's origin but also about the relatives of her husband--my grandfather. His father, my dad's grandfather, was born a slave. I know his legal, post-slavery name, but I have been curious about why people also called him Pop Dadon--or was it Dada? I have to take Cajun and Creole accents into consideration when I am told names and nicknames from Vacherie.

Among Louisiana slave records, there is a slave who insisted on being called "Dada," his African name. Who was he? Such mysteries abound in black families trying to unearth their roots back to the boats that brought their ancestors from Africa through the middle passage to the United States of America. Almost everywhere we look fog rolls off the Atlantic, obscuring conclusions.

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.

Photo from USA Today's article on Louisiana's African-American history trail. I posted that picture of a slave's room because I know from my father as well as the writings of Ernest Gaines that while my dad lived in a house that his father bought in the Magnolia section of Vacherie, as late as the 1960s some black people in rural Louisiana still lived in the slave quarters on old plantations.


msladydeborah said...

I will co-sign this post totally.

Many people do not realize that we need to keep records and listen to our groits because the stories that they share are the one that shape us.

My maternal great aunt was so into this type of collection before she passed. I have been thinking about picking up the mantle--as soon as I can clear up some of what is already before me. However, it cannot be stressed enough--keep up with the information from the past.
It will help you to know who your folks are/were and how you came to be.

Regina said...

Love this post! I have been doing some ancestry work for the past couple of years and had been focusing on my father's side of the family first but have now started on my maternal side and it is enlightening and frustrating all at the same time. Most of the one's (other than my mother) with the information have already passed on. I am trying to impress upon the younger generation how important this information is. I am slowly but surely putting together my family history. I now want to travel and visit archives! You cannot know where you are going if you do not know where you have been.