At the turning of the 21st century, with the bicentennials of both Haitian Independence and the Louisiana Purchase, we found ourselves uniquely placed to reflect on the nature of our shared histories.
I have said on numerous occasions that black New Orleanians, rather than rushing to participate in celebrations of the Purchase, or, alternatively, to stand pat as such celebrations go on around us, ought to give serious consideration to what for us was not merely a real estate transaction of epic proportions, but the shifting from one slavocracy to another. Now is an opportune time to look across to Haiti, her heroic achievement of independence, and her continued struggle for existence in the face of all but insurmountable odds.
This is not the same as advocating projects to celebrate the "Haitian presence in and contributions to New Orleans" as was proposed and carried out (weakly) this past year. For, while it is true that gens de couleur libres emigrated from Haiti to New Orleans in greatest numbers during the period from 1796 to 1803 and thus increased significantly the free black population of our city, it is also true that they were members of the slave-holding mulatto elite on the run from the Haitian Revolution, human contraband in tow, and thus increased as well both the black slave-holding and the enslaved populations of our city.
The politically aggressive Afro-creole elite of New Orleans had, by that time, already made the irrevocably grave error of identifying with the ideals of the French Revolution as opposed to following the lead of and lending support to the Haitian Revolution. It is certainly not corrective now to rush to celebrate all things Haitian. We can, however, look deeply and critically at the nature of the history of our relations with and reactions to that island nation to which much of our understanding of ourselves as a people -- both in the larger historical sense and in terms of family history -- is undeniably linked. We must realize also that Haiti is only the most obvious of our many ties to the Caribbean and Latin America. There are also Martinique, Guadeloupe, Cuba, Mexico, Honduras and Brazil to consider.
Like enslaved and colonized people everywhere, Afro-Orleanians have been quick to identify with the masters. We point with pride to French and Spanish surnames and pretend especially to a French-ness that we perhaps in all honesty believe to be a distinguishing cultural and social characteristic. It is, however, our blackness, our specific origins as Kongo, Senegambian and Guinea peoples, and the inescapable history of slavery and its resultant economic and political oppression that define us as a people. These facts, without which we would have no historical reason for being here, are the source of our creole-ness and our link to peoples of the Caribbean.
In more than 20 years of working with archival documents, I have yet to come across a single record of African cargo volunteers on slave ships bound for the New World. No documentation of people lining up pounding for admission on the doors to the castles at Gorée or Elmina has ever surfaced. Even those who argue that slavery endured as long and as well as it did because of African participation in the trade have yet to make such claims. We became creole as a result of the trade in human cargo dating back to the 1400s. Prior to the opening of that trade there exists no recorded use of that word. It seems obvious enough but perhaps bears stating that we are black because we were African, first. Language, surname, skin color, color-caste systems, pre-Civil War free status -- these are all so many accidents of birth having their origin in the history of slavery in the New World, without which, no such distinctions would exist. To pretend otherwise is futile, absurd and dishonest.
To be a New Orleanian is not only to live in a majority black city. It is to be part of a people. It is to recognize that everything and everybody entering into this space and casting their lot among us is bound to be absorbed, creolized, blackened. There is no escaping the touch of the fabled tar brush. It's in the food, the river water, the music, the worship habits, the cane sugar, the brick, the black soil. And those who cannot accept that blackness must content themselves with being visitors or else find another place. Last I checked, we were still accepting all tourist dollars. The rest of us have to be about the business of living and working and consistently rebuilding an economy based in the trade and cultural exchange for which we are so optimally placed.
Every generation or so, it seems, we start up the idea of New Orleans as "gateway to Latin America" or "gateway to the Caribbean." It's such an obvious tack, but somehow we never get it quite fully realized. As a writer, of course I realize that I'm far better at formulating questions than answering them. But could it be that at least part of the problem is our inability to recognize and to present ourselves as a people? Discussions of identity and outlook can be tiring. But they are part of the apprentice work that we do to earn our keep and control our product, in larger terms, our destiny.
I'm reminded here of a friend in a band who, after the third or fourth "last set," late one night picked up the microphone and announced to the all-night hangers-on: "That's it, folks. We appreciate the love and all, but that's it for tonight. You don't have to go home; you just got to get the hell on outta here. Goodnight. And don't forget to tip the bartender. We'll see you at the next go-round."
My name is Brenda Marie Osbey. I am a native New Orleanian. I'll see you at the next go-round.
New Orleans author Brenda Marie Osbey is currently writer-in-residence at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, where she is working on a bilingual literary project addressing the history of slavery and rebellion in Louisiana under French colonial domination.