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The Year Before the Flood
A Story of New Orleans
By Ned Sublette
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2009 Ned Sublette
All rights reserved.
Jump Jim Crow
As time passes, people, even of the South, will begin to wonder how it was possible that their ancestors ever fought for or justified institutions which acknowledged the right of property in man.
— Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs
My first grade teacher explained to us why we shouldn't put coins in our mouths.
"It might have been in the hands of a" — she held up her hands like they were diseased, and contorted her face — "sick person."
"It might have been in the hands of a colored person."
We lived a couple of other places before we moved to Natchitoches, but I don't remember them. I learned to talk in Natchitoches, and to read, and to tune the radio, in that order. I came to consciousness there, in the northwestern part of Louisiana, sixty-eight miles south-southeast of Shreveport.
As the locals never tire of informing you, Natchitoches, founded in 1714, is four years older than New Orleans. The town's name, that of a now extinct group of Indians, is pronounced Nackatish — a terrible trick to play on a kid learning to spell, courtesy of French colonists who tried to write down an Indian name.
I was born in Lubbock, Texas, where my mother's parents lived. My mom was a flatlander from West Texas, and my dad was a hillbilly from Arkansas. He had polio in the big epidemic when he was a child, and his right arm was withered, so despite his energy he couldn't make a living doing manual work or go into the military. Instead he earned a Ph.D. in freshwater biology, though his brother and two sisters never finished high school. He met my mother in graduate school at the University of Oklahoma, while she was getting a master's in biology. On July 8, 1951, a decent year after they got married, I was the first biological result.
My parents got in on the ground floor of the postwar boom, when higher education was a growth industry. American universities expanded like never before or since, and if you worked hard you could go to college. Part of the broad middle-classification of America that took place in the mid-twentieth century, it represented a dignified form of upward mobility, one that let a country boy grow up to own a home in a small town, buy a new car every few years, and raise four kids. All across the country, children of farmers became professors, bureaucrats, professionals, businessmen, homeowners. As the determination to beat the Russians intensified, science in a small-town college was a good place to be. Compared with what my dad's father had to do raising his family in Arkansas during the Great Depression, it was the life of Riley. One of my first memories of Grandfather Sublette is of him coming home with squirrels he'd shot, and Grandmother fixing them for dinner. They didn't have to do that in the 1950s, but they did it anyway, because that was who they were.
I was born six years after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, prodded by mass movements, was forced to create a social safety net to save capitalism in its moment of crisis. The Depression had radicalized the American public, which was as close to revolution as it's ever gotten. Then the country went to war against fascism and racism, which cranked up the economy. My generation, the so-called postwar baby boom, enjoyed the benefits. I attended free public school, went to an almost-free state university from which I graduated debt-free, and drank water out of the tap. Income taxes were progressive: Elvis Presley and Fats Domino had to pay 91 percent of their taxable income over four hundred thousand dollars.
My childhood coincided with the United States of America's peak of prosperity. I was born ten years after Henry Luce declared it the "American Century." In the interim, World War II had trashed the United States' major economic competitors. We had the natural resources of a good chunk of the North American continent to exploit, a literate workforce, and a drastically expanded middle class of consumers. We had the reserve currency, did much of the world's manufacturing, produced oil (I can remember seeing gasoline for under twenty cents a gallon), and raised vast surpluses of food on our rich farmland.
The United States' economy grew by an average of almost 4 percent a year between 1948, before I was born, and 1973, when I was twenty-two. Economically, politically, and, whenever it was deemed necessary, militarily, we ruled. When I was a toddler, our new Central Intelligence Agency began destabilizing other countries' governments (Iran when I was two, Guatemala just before I turned three), while denying it was doing so, nor did the newspapers of the time suggest it, nor would Americans have believed it. As a nation, we were as united as never before or again after the effort to defeat Hitler and Tojo (never mind that Stalin and the Soviet Army did the heavy lifting on Hitler).
But there was one group of people to whom this prosperity, feeling of unity, and sense of nation were not extended, and they made up a sizable portion of our town. Laws and force of custom divided Natchitoches, and the state of Louisiana, and the entire former self-declared nation of the South, into two color-coded castes.
Even in slavery days, "white" and "black" children might have personal contact, but in the South of my childhood we were kept as separate as humanly possible. We literally didn't know each other. I lived until I was nine in an approximately half-black town without ever having any social contact with a black kid. I don't mean I didn't have any as close friends. I mean I never had a single conversation with an African American child. As people say when they talk about those days, that was just the way it was. I can remember having it explained to me that no, their color didn't rub off when they touched things.
The polite way of describing southern society in those days is to say that it was segregated. But it is also fair, if less polite, to say that it was a white supremacist society. The program of the Ku Klux Klan had been implemented. African Americans were overtly, legally, literally second-class citizens.
When Mrs. Harrison asked us if we knew why our school would always remain all white, I hazarded a guess. "Because the Negroes have schools of their own?"
"Yes, they do," she replied, "and they're just as good as ours!"
* * *
Bullshit, they were just as good as ours.
She probably believed it. A lot of white people lived in fantasyland. But the push to integrate schools didn't come because black people loved being around white people so much that they wanted to come hang out with them. It was because if there were two separate school systems, the black one would get less of every resource. In 1950, "colored" schools in Shreveport had no electricity, and the students used outhouses.
Which is not to say that no educating took place; African Americans who came up in that system remember heroic teachers. Jerome Smith, born in New Orleans in 1939, told me: "We had the worst books that you can imagine, but we had such dedicated educators that it gave us a kind of readiness. ... We didn't recognize that [at the time], but in the years that followed, we had a foundation." Not everyone was so lucky, and the deck was stacked against African American children getting an education. Overcrowding was the norm for their schools; the Macarty school in New Orleans's Ninth Ward had 2,536 children in a building designed for 1,200. No wonder Fats Domino dropped out of that school in the fourth grade.
No, Mrs. Harrison explained, the reason Northwestern Elementary would always remain white was that the nuns who deeded it to the state had included that as one of the conditions.
Well, that settled it. The deal had been cut long before we were born.
Our white-forever school was a lovely place. Located on the campus of Northwestern State College, where my dad taught, it had expansive, handsome grounds, with a long, sloping hill that led down toward Lake Chaplin, and big airy classrooms with a piano in every one.
We were raised with the southern ideal of the innocent, indolent child. With its pretensions to aristocracy and perhaps a French aversion to exercise, Louisiana was never big on making kids do calisthenics, so for physical education we played Drop the Handkerchief and singing games. I was what was later called hyperactive — I always had a rhythm, or a rhyme, or a song going on — and visibly bored. The class seemed to work on the alphabet all through the first grade.
My parents, being teachers, had taught me to read and do arithmetic at home, so I was considered a gifted child when I started school. This was surely, presumed my biologist parents, the result of good genes, though I think it was more the amount of attention and care they gave me. It was the era of IQ tests, and I was given batteries of them. When I was seven, in some kind of educational experiment that my parents must have had a hand in promoting, I was placed five grades ahead of my level, into a seventh-grade class, for two weeks. (Elementary schools in Natchitoches included grades one through seven.) I found I could handle the academics pretty well, not because I was a genius but because they weren't that tough. Socially, however, I wasn't prepared to be in a roomful of seventh-graders all day.
That was the year Attack of the 50 Foot Woman came out — where is this kind of inspiration today, when our cinema needs it? — and I felt myself surrounded by fifty-foot women. There's nothing as mysterious to a seven-year-old boy as a passel of twelve-year-old girls. To further heighten the eroticism of the experience, they had portable transistor radios, and could summon up rock 'n' roll at recess. I could read better than they could, but so what? They had something else going on.
One of my enduring memories of Natchitoches dates from that surreal stint among the giants and giantesses of the seventh grade. The social studies class was instructed to break up into groups and write, and act out, scenes that were to dramatize ...
A slave auction.
They had us play slave auction in social studies class.
I'm not sure what the purpose of that exercise was. But what it demonstrated for me was that some people lived between the piety of knowing that slavery was bad and the desire of living it once again. It proved something I already knew, even at that age: the white South loved to reminisce about slavery days.
Since I wasn't a bona fide seventh-grader, I was an auditor for this event, not a participant. No one interpreted the slave roles. No one would have wanted to. The slaves were imaginary. One kid, playing the role of an auctioneer, read haltingly from the script he had laboriously written himself:
"I. Don't. Like. To. Break. Up. These. Families," he read.
"But. What. Can. I. Do?
"It's. My. Job."
* * *
I've been a library rat all my life, and though I've escaped into places where books don't go, sooner or later I always find myself back in the library. My first was the Natchitoches Parish Library, where my parents took me regularly. (Different in everything, Louisiana has parishes instead of counties.) It was a new facility, as pretty as my school, as pretty as the town, with comfortable modern Scandinavian-style blond-wood furniture — there were no other chairs like that anywhere else I ever went — and picture windows overlooking the Cane River Lake. They had big wooden stereoscopes that you could play with, with a vast collection of stereographic photo cards for them — three-dimensional pictures of wondrous long-ago people and places. There was a reading program for children: for every book you read, your clown got another shiny-sticker balloon.
Guess who couldn't go into the library.
In many southern towns, libraries were the first public facilities to desegregate, but back when my clown was getting his balloons, if black people wanted books from the public library they had to get a white person to check them out. All across the South this was the case. It presupposed that any black person who was on the ball enough to read a book had a white sponsor. In some places, African Americans could go to the back door and the library's maid would get the books for them (which meant that she was functioning as a librarian but paid as a maid). They couldn't go to museums. They couldn't take the undergraduate biology course my father taught, let alone get a Ph.D. like he had. Black people were born into a system that was deliberately contrived to keep them poor, ignorant, professionally disadvantaged, and politically disfranchised.
Natchitoches was at the southern end of the tristate corner region known as the Ark-La-Tex, a zone of Confederate nostalgia. Many of our townspeople seemed quite clear that the South was going to rise again. One of my classmates — I'll call him Donnie — spent recess every day running at top speed down the hill with his Stars and Bars flying, followed by the other members of his gang, the Rebels. Donnie wasn't very good in school, but he was a natural leader. He was a good-looking kid, with a full head of dirty blond hair, and even when he was in the second grade he had seventh-graders running with him. Donnie didn't say Negro.
I had my own gang, the Texas Rangers — asserting my Texanhood, I guess, knowing even then I didn't belong in Natchitoches. It consisted of me and one other kid, who lived by the cottonseed plant. His clothes smelled strongly of cottonseed, which had to be crushed and deodorized as part of the oil-making process. Not like the smell you might get pouring Wesson Oil over a salad, but an industrial-strength smell. Nobody lived that close to the cottonseed plant if they could help it.
In many southern towns, the stinky old cottonseed plant was located in the colored part of town. You could smell it across a broad area. In Natchitoches, it wasn't all that far from the tiny black business district, where black folks from the country would come on Saturdays. Researching this book, I learned something I didn't know at the time: that the black commons, on Horn Street, was popularly known as ...
The Ape Yard.
The name was presumably put on it by whites, but black people called it the Ape Yard too. As we say when we talk about those days, that was just how it was.
* * *
Our principal at Northwestern Elementary was a man and all the teachers but one were women, as if that were the natural order of things. My father's few female college teaching colleagues were quite openly, and as a matter of course, paid less than the men. When I found that out, I asked my father why, and he explained it to me: they don't have to support a family like men do.
My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Gimbert (pronounced Zhawm-bear), was a sweetheart, almost like a second mother to me, and I never heard her say anything racist. I didn't get along so well with my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Mayeaux (pronounced Miz My-yoo, because French vowel combinations, whatever they are, tend to reduce to "oo" in Louisiana, as in beaucoup becoming bookoo).
Our only male teacher was the music instructor, Mr. Westbrook, who had a hypnotic singing voice. His visits to our class captivated me: he came into the classroom, took out a pitchpipe and played a tone, and had us sing a melody on the syllable, lu, lu, lu. His daughters were named Melodye and Harmony. (He had a third musical daughter whose name I don't remember, but it wasn't Rhythm.) Melodye was in my class, and I was entranced by her: she could sing. By then singing, for which I exhibited no talent at all, was fully ingrained in my consciousness as a mystical act. I was astounded when the three little Westbrook sisters appeared on a television show in Alexandria singing "May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You." I didn't know real people could appear on television.
Music was an integral part of our school day. The nineteenth-century stage repertoire was still current, so we all knew songs like "Polly Wolly Doodle," "The Blue Tail Fly," and "Old Dan Tucker." Our education included dancing in the classroom, pantomiming as we sang: "Jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton."
And Miz My-yoo taught us to Jump Jim Crow.
We kids had no idea that this was one of countless variants of the foundation song of blackface minstrelsy. Nor was I aware, at the age of eight, of the term Jim Crow to refer to laws and customs of racial preference, but even after I found out about that meaning, I still heard the tune in my head when I heard people in the civil rights movement talk about Jim Crow.
Miz My-yoo was none too young, but she bent down, leaping around and singing, as all us white kids bent down and hopped around the room, wheeling about and turning about with her just so, singing:
Jump Jim Crow!CHAPTER 2
Are You a Yankee or Are You a Rebel?
I remember my parents saying that people in Natchitoches didn't want to know you if your grandparents weren't from there. Which, I realized, meant me too.
Natchitoches was where we lived, but it wasn't really our home. We didn't belong there, though I didn't have a clue how to belong anywhere else. Between my parents' two different ways of talking, I spoke Southern, but not the same dialect as the kids in school. Some of them thought I was a Yankee, though I'd never been farther outside Louisiana than Arkansas and Texas. I remember being asked: are you a Yankee or are you a Rebel? I was neither.
We never spent Christmas in Natchitoches. To see grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, we drove hundreds of miles every holiday. One of the less humane features of life on the land-grant university circuit is that you rarely get a job in the community you come from, so you have to move to a small town with your family and live there as an outsider. Then, if you change jobs, your family has to pull up stakes. College brats don't have the luxury of roots.
Excerpted from The Year Before the Flood by Ned Sublette. Copyright © 2009 Ned Sublette. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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