Sunday, September 27, 2015

And Betty's ... .

About the time that my distant cousin, Paul, was searching out his family history on Ancestry. com I was engaged in the same process on the West Coast where I'd grown up in an extended family of Creoles of Color, re-settlers from the early days in the Tremé of old New Orleans.  My own family had been uprooted by the great floods of 1927.  Unlike Paul, who had access to records left by his grandfather, Joseph Numa Charbonnet, my search had abruptly ended upon reaching the bewildering and forbidding slave curtain somewhere in the mid-1800s.

Though there were surely ancestors before those years, I'd hit a psychological roadblock caused by self-imposed prohibitions -- something nearly every African American has experienced in attempting to trace their beginnings.  The thought of trying to connect my family with their white ancestors simply didn't occur to me.  My history ended with my great-grandfather, Dorson, for whom my father had been named.  It was as if his had been a virgin birth.  I didn't even allow myself to wonder past his birth or who his parents might have been.  It seems curious now in retrospect, that I wouldn't have been curious to delve into his mysterious beginnings.  The word illegitimacy would hardly have come up except in those early conversations spoken only in that patois of French the grownups resorted to when necessary to protect family pride.  So one just didn't go there, even as I grew to adulthood.

Eduoard's signature and Celestine's "X"
It was at this point that I closed the books and returned to exploring my maternal line which offered little more.   The earliest record unearthed from the Diocese of Baton Rouge was the marriage certificate of my enslaved great-great grandmother, Celestine "of no last name"; the paper  that radically changed the nature of her relationship to her owner, Eduoard Breaux, in 1863 (a story for another day).  Both my maternal and paternal lines ended somewhere just after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.  Notice that their marriage papers were written in French, an official language both of the State of Louisiana, and the Catholic Diocese at that time.

I was satisfied that both ancestors of color would have to serve as the beginnings of my story, that is, until I received a message from this stranger, cousin Paul, reaching out with warmth and acceptance from the white side of our family.  He was seeking to identify a list which held the names of my father's siblings.  This would become the onset of the possible coming together of the great American Charbonnet family narrative that would unite black and white relatives after centuries of separation.  Our story is America's story -- a story lived by most of us as the result of a still unprocessed history indelibly marked by slavery and the cruel national tragedy of the Civil War.

Our standing together at the burial place of our ancestor-in-common, (white) Amable, closed the circle with us both inside.  That moment still stands as one of monumental importance in a lifetime of incompleteness, a feeling that I didn't recognize until it was gone.  I'm still adjusting to the exalted feeling of being whole that was born that incredible day as we stood together beside Amable's beautiful marble tomb in St. Louis cemetery.

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