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Friday, June 05, 2009

Where is film director Robert Altman now that we're ready for him ? (Oh yes ... I'd forgotten) ... .

Some years ago an email arrived from a member of the white Charbonnet clan -- a branch of the family I'd not ever expected to hear from. I think it's probably fair to say that they simply never existed for me. It's like ... we have no black ancestors prior to the dropping of the slave curtain around the time of the Civil War, and no white descendants since. Funny. An illusion but quite real; defying logic. I suspect that this is a common and perhaps defensive attitude among African American families, but I don't recall ever discussing it with anyone.

Paul was writing to confirm something I'd written in my blog about the casual nature of the family relationships that existed between his (white) father and my (colored Creole) dad's younger brother, Louis. Both were contractors working throughout the city of New Orleans. My father and his seven brothers followed in the footsteps of their talented father, the highly-respected elder Louis Charbonnet, inventor, millwright and builder of note in the city. Many of the Creole Charbonnet men were expert craftsmen and had been for generations. Paul wasn't sure, but felt the story likely. He certainly was aware of our side of the family. In later generations Uncle Louis's eldest son, another Louis, would enter the Louisiana legislature as a state senator which must have brought more prominence to the family. But my dad, Dorson, had settled our family here on the West Coast long before that happened, as the result of the great flood of 1927 which followed the bombing of the levees.

Unknown to me, Paul has apparently been following my blog for years, and had become familiar with the genealogical work that I'd completed and posted online. Since the family tree (under the Betty Soskin Pages link) tracked ancestors whom we shared over many generations (since the 1600s). The family story must have become more important to him over time. Our Creole branch emerges in the mid-1800s when a member of the family (said to have been trapped in an unhappy marriage) left his wife and chose a woman of color as his mate. Their union produced 9 children; children who were obviously educated and trained and none of whom were enslaved. Uncovering that history proved to be difficult but finally -- through Lisa, a researcher in Atlanta, surfaced from some arcane code of silence created by the taboos associated with crossing color lines. She somehow managed to break through it while doing some research for another member of our family whom I've also never met.

All that is to say that a few days ago Paul's note came suggesting that we unite the black and white branches of our families by bringing my genealogical work onto a new all-inclusive family website which he would maintain. I was stunned! I am also wildly pleased since I'd always intended that my work might become the foundation upon which others would eventually edit, correct for errors, build upon, and continue the research into the future.

After many generations of Charbonnets descending from two brothers who arrived on this continent at a time before the Louisiana Purchase, for the first time since before the Civil War -- we will come together to begin the work of becoming one family. Through the wonders of technology, we can do that virtually, and -- in time perhaps ... .

I've been lying awake the past two nights dreaming of the possibility of having an interactive website designed in such a way that Charbonnet descendants in all of their permutations can sign themselves in in some way and become known to one another. There are by now hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of us scattered through the country and the world.

The exciting prospect is that Paul, his wife, and I, will meet -- symbolically uniting our historic American family across the lines of racial separation -- in San Francisco, perhaps soon. He suggested that possibility in our last exchange, and I am thrilled!

We're moving quickly to bring the new website into being. It will be linked to these pages, of course, but will take on a life of its own.

Life continues to unfold -- and to grow into wherever our colorful Charbonnet past will continue to lead us -- but perhaps now it will be -- as the one great American family that we are.


Photo: My father, Dorson Louis Charbonnet, 1894-1987; My grandfather, Louis Charbonnet, Sr. (died in 1924)

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