Les Gens de Couleur Libres.*
The Route: Somewhere around Exit 875 on I-10, Texas stopped messin’ with me and I entered the whole different world of Louisiana. I followed 10 all the way to New Orleans, stopping in Sulphur, LA for Cajun boudin (boo-dan) and a crawfish peaux boy at Richards (Ree-shards) Boudin and Seafood.
The Landscape: I crossed the Black Bayou just after entering Louisiana and later cruised along 14 miles of interstate-on-stilts across Henderson Swamp, part of the Atchafalaya Basin east of Lafayette. It was only the second time I had ever seen a swamp (the first was sea kayaking with my two sons in South Carolina). Swamps are fascinating biological wonders. Trees with several species of raptors perched in high limbs shot up seemingly right out of the blue/gray water. An occasional swamp boat motored around the tiny islands. It has been beautiful balmy weather here in the low 70s.
The Steinbeck Connection: In late November, 1960, when Steinbeck visited New Orleans, he was preoccupied by a vicious display of bigotry know in the national media as “The Cheerleaders.” The Cheerleaders were adult white women who heckled and harassed small black children attempting to integrate public schools. I visited the Main Branch of the New Orleans Public Library and studied both the white and black press from around November 14, 1960, the first day of the federally mandated desegregation. Thirty percent of white students were absent, most with parental consent, during the first few days of integration. The Louisianan Weekly described the protest activity as “jeers, catcalls, screaming uncomplimentary epithets, and waving crudely printed, misspelled signs.” The Times-Picayune described the greeting the U.S. Marshalls received escorting the “negro children” to schools as “hooting and hollering, booing and name-calling, but without the threat of violence.” What is most striking about the newspaper accounts of events of that pivotal time is that the black children and their parents stated that they were not afraid.
It was clear that, in 2009, I was not going to witness this sort of virulent bigotry in this most tolerant and diverse of American cities. However, there are ads running on TV featuring sports celebrities calling for interracial tolerance in this region. Also, Sean Olivier of Olivier’s Creole Restaurant (the gumbo was delicious), a drop-dead handsome man typical of mixed races (think Tiger and Barrack) informed me that when he stands outside his French Quarter Restaurant in a shirt and tie, some white visitors cross the street to avoid him. Pierre La France, also a Creole of Color, who has been driving cabs for New Orleans for over 40 years, never attended an integrated school as a child. He remembers riding on busses to baseball games—when white boys entered the bus, he was expected to move to the back. “My children and grandchildren wouldn’t stand for it today. Things have changed, thank God. But it was 200 years of captivity and we are still not all the way there.”
My brother David and I agreed that the Baptist Church leader, who hosts the “Jews Killed Jesus” and “God Hates Fags” websites, represents the frontline of vicious bigotry today. In fact, they are
planning a protest of the Fort Hood Memorial Service because the U.S. Military is “fag-infested.” David and I have both attended events that were protested by the infamous group. One of David’s photos is at right—sad, sad indeed.
I was curious about the lingering effect of Katrina. Sean Olivier said it is depressing—his mother’s house is the only one on her block that has been reoccupied. Many houses are still being razed because it is often cheaper than trying to remodel. I spoke with an African American man named Philip who was painting an iron fence on St. Charles Street. Philip said he had to leave his home in the 9th ward during the storm and returned after 3 days to find water over his head. Philip feels New Orleans is still only 75% back to normal.
The Dog: Although Max has not gone crazy here in the city like he did in San Francisco, by now he must have memorized every pee-gram in the alley next to the The Best Western-St. Christopher Hotel were we are staying. We certainly have moseyed up and down the alley enough times, stopping at every scent. Oh, I get it. He’s just picking up on the pace of the south and the city, walking with all the urgency of an elderly Louisiana gentleman on the way to nowhere in particular.
Sweet Notes: After journeying successfully for over 12,000 miles, I felt it was time to pay my respects to St. Christopher. I stayed in the Best Western-St. Christopher Hotel in New Orleans, just two blocks from the French Quarter. The St. Christopher resides in an historic brick building built on property Paul Tulane gave to Tulane University in 1882. The original bricks are exposed in the comfortable and well-appointed rooms. My well-lit suite had four floor-to-ceiling windows including one in the bathroom, looking out over the city.
I am long overdue thanking my good hiking buddy David Swift for his excellent photographs, which launched my little pal and me on this trip. Thanks for riding along David.
Thank you for riding along. Let’s talk again soon, shall we?
Travels with Steinbeck: In Search of America Fifty Years Later
Copyright © 2009
*”Free People of Color,” known today as “Creoles of Color” or simply “Creoles.”