Sunday, December 16, 2012

My father, Dorson Louis Charbonnet
About that anger sensed by cousin Paul as the first words of my speech began to form ...

Earlier in the day I'd visited the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home on Claiborne and St. Phillips with my first cousin, Armand Charbonnet.  He is a co-director with his brother, former Louisiana State Senator, Louis Charbonnet.  They are both among the notables of the Creole world of New Orleans.  Together, they are the  team known for the legendary jazz funerals of New Orleans.  This impressive family enterprise was established in 1893, and has survived even Katrina, when it was inundated by 4 feet of flood waters.

He'd gathered me up at the WWII Museum on that day for a lunch of stuffed shrimp at Dookie Chase restaurant in the 7th Ward -- where there were huge photos of both President Obama seated at a table feasting on one of the specialties of the house, and George W. Bush doing the same.  This was storybook New Orleans Creole cuisine with art-to-die-for hung from the walls of the newly-restored building; post-Katrina.

Grandfather, Louis Charbonnet
During the visit I learned the answer to a question I'd wondered about all of my life.  Why on earth was I born in Detroit, Michigan?  My parents were both from families firmly-rooted in New Orleans, yet both my sister, Marjorie, and I came into the world in Detroit.

Armand:  "It was awful! Your daddy, Dorson, was working on a job with our father when a white man approached with a question for your grandfather.  Now -- as was the custom that no black man ever addressed a white person by their first name, and only by the surname.  On the other hand, no white man ever addressed a black person by their last name."

On that particular day, the white man spoke to my proud grandfather and in so doing called him, "Louie."  On that note my equally proud father, Dorson, called him on it saying, "... do you know who you're talking to?  And followed the impertinent question by using the forbidden first name of the offender.

click to enlarge
"Our father had to rush him out of the State, and to Detroit where your mother had relatives (the Breaux/Allens) until it was safe to come home."  That must have been in about 1917 and my mother was probably pregnant with my sister, Marjorie.  I was born 4 years later in 1921, and we returned to New Orleans shortly thereafter when my grandfather's health failed and the end was in sight.  My father joined with his brothers to complete work on St. John de Bertrand's Convent, for the first Order of Black Nuns in this country -- the Sisters of the Holy Family.

These photos tell the story, I believe.  I'm not sure there were ever two more prideful and handsome men.  The little business card served as my grandfather's resume, I suppose, and provides a picture of his eminence in the community.  He was a legend in his time.

Hearing this unknown ('til now) story just before having to face that audience of white faces in that grand ballroom of the Astor Crowne Plaza -- in the place where it had all happened -- was almost unbearable.  I stuffed it down into a corner of my brain until I could get through my speech, then cried myself to sleep upon reaching my room that night.  It was only in realizing the full impact of how much the human condition has changed with the times, and that some of the angst and hurt could be washed away by the triumph of the event in the grand ballroom earlier in the evening, that I was able to "let it go," and continue to exalt in the present.

Tomorrow cousin Paul and his wife, Shirley, who were my hosts on this trip -- would take me to St. Louis cemetery where we would locate the tomb of our ancestor-in-common, Amable Charbonnet, b. 1790 d. 1833, and reset our personal histories to take us into the future in truth.

More to come ... .

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