Saturday, December 29, 2012
I remember clearly the day cousin Ruth (Isabel Allen LeBeouf Warnie's daughter) and I were driving back from the Golden Gate Federal Cemetery in San Bruno after discovering the earliest microfiche records of our great grandmother. In the Catholic Church records in Baton Rouge that of Leontine's mother, Celestine ("of no last name"), had turned up as being married to slave owner and planter, Edouard Breaux, of St. James Parish, Louisiana. That was in 1865 as enabled by the Emancipation Proclamation. At the time of that marriage, Leontine was 19 years old.
I'd assumed that this was an intact family that consisted of Celestine, Eduoard, Leontine, and Theophile (whom we've lost track of). According to Diocesan records, 3-year-old Theophile's birth was legitimized by the marriage. I remember wondering just how it had been possible to limit that little family to two children, and by what method was their spacing accomplished?
But the important fact to me was that -- atypical of many black family histories -- ours had not resulted from rape or sexual exploitation, but that there was a traceable familial relationship sanctioned by the church. How naive was I? Having learned over time that it was because of the fact that the Cajuns were an agrarian people with a long history of working the fields alongside their slaves at that time, that marriages were not a rare event, but were fairly common. It was clear that Leontine was the result of a bi-racial union of some sort.
I suppose that I was so wedded to that positive story, that when we received the documents from the War Department that included testimonies by the neighbors and friends in St. James, I failed to notice that Leontine provided the name of her father as Sylvestre Breaux, who is listed in the census of the time as Edouard's older brother. These were the testimonies submitted to justify her as deserving of a widow's pension ($45/mo) for her husband, George Allen's, Civil War service to his country.
It is cousin Sandra's suggestion that Celestine had been raped 19 years earlier than the 1865 date of her mother's marriage to Eduoard, and that Leontine had been aware of her parentage all of her life.
I suspect that rape would have been so common at that time, that it would have been of no particular importance in the scheme of things. In 1846 -- more than a dozen years after the British had outlawed slavery (1833) -- American slave-owners were producing their own "stock" by impregnating their female slaves in order to compete in the marketplace; in order to have chattel to pass along to their heirs; in order to preserve the Southern economy and the time-honored southern way of life which had been built upon the slave trade. I've never gotten over the fact that those planters were quite literally producing and selling their own children. Under those circumstances, it was necessary that Blacks be regarded as less than human. Were that not so, the entire system would be undermined. You can imagine that such a practice would been one of the inhumane results of human bondage that ended with the Emancipation Proclamation -- but would have been left out of history books in defense of our national integrity, or at least the integrity that we claim in theory.
But then I would not have been viewed as a part of the "we," at that time, since white male supremacy ruled the day, much as it has since that time. White supremacy along with white privilege have been prohibitive of social change and has resisted any attempt at altering the lens through which we see "American" life in the century that followed.
Small wonder that we've never been able to process that history. It says horrific things about us as a nation and of our trail of cruelty and abusiveness since we landed on these shores over 300 years ago.
That's a part of my maternal family history, and there is no escape from its influences upon my life to this day. Maybe the best we can hope for is that the country gradually begins to own its history and find ways to excise the trauma in order to move on. There are visible signs that this is happening, at least in my world.
There is still significant work to be done before we're home free.