Books & Film 2015 – Week 2
Spring 2015 Books & Film Class
Topic – From Kate Chopin to Swamp People
Held Wednesdays through February 11 at UL Lafayette
Instructor: Dr. Mary Ann Wilson
Notes will be updated each Friday through February 13; comment to join in the discussion.
Last week we discussed Kate Chopin and the people of Cane River as inspiration for her short stories. This week we took a more in-depth look at the Cane River Creoles through the eyes of writer Lyle Saxon and his book Children of Strangers. Nicknamed “Mr. New Orleans,” Saxon was a newspaper reporter and also directed the Louisiana branch of the Federal Writers’ Project as a result of the New Deal.
He was born in Baton Rouge but had three homes in New Orleans and an apartment in Greenwich Village. His first and only novel, Children of Strangers examines the relationships between Creoles, whites and blacks in the early 1900s. He lived on site at Yucca House on Melrose Plantation near Natchitoches, where the novel is set, off and on for many years while working on the book.
Saxon’s friends in New Orleans, including Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner and Times Picayune Editor Roark Bradford, would lure him back to the city for social events, but Dr. Wilson says Melrose owner Cammie Henry always dragged him back to Cane River to work.
When Children of Strangers was published in 1937, The Picayune said it was “not good reading for Southerners.” Mulattoes, or people of mixed race, didn’t like the book either because it implied their only goal in life was to be white. Saxon actually portrays four separate classes: wealthy whites, poor whites, mulattoes and negroes. Here’s an excerpt from the book written in the point of view of a clerk in the commissary explaining the system:
There were really four classes on Cane River: Mr. Guy and his kind, and then his, the clerk’s kind — he knew that Miss Adelaide considered him ‘trash’ — then there were the mulattoes who looked down upon the black people, and last, at the bottom of the heap, were the negroes themselves … And the negroes didn’t seem to give a single damn!“
Social class and race definitely divided people in those days — and still do — and Saxon had observed these people for long enough to be able to get into their heads and write in their voices. His “local color” is rich in dialect, superstitions and descriptions of the landscape.
We had an interesting discussion about several of the mulatto superstitions mentioned in the book, including not digging a hole in the ground on Good Friday for fear of seeing blood in the earth and putting an axe under the bed to cut pain. Several people in class had heard the Good Friday superstition growing up and still save their planting for Holy Saturday.
The negroes were shouting Baptists and did not observe these customs of the mulatto Catholics. They even plowed the ground on Good Friday, and, as a little girl, Famie had been afraid to look into the new-turned furrows for fear of seeing drops of the sacred blood of Jesus in the broken ground.”
The mulattoes or Creoles Saxon writes about became a sort of “forgotten people” after the Civil War. A documentary titled “The Spirit of a Culture: Cane River Creoles” is a great resource for learning more about this group from Cane River who have begun to rediscover and celebrate their culture in more recent years.
Cane River Creoles considered themselves citizens of France and, before the Louisiana Purchase, lived peacefully with blacks and whites. When the Americans took over, they didn’t understand the Creole distinction and literally saw only black or white. The Creoles found themselves without a box to check and had to classify themselves as one or the other when they were really somewhere in between.
There was also a struggle during this time to appropriate the term for white Creoles only, thus leaving darker Creoles in the black category and making them subject to Jim Crow laws. The 1892 case of Plessy v. Ferguson involved mixed-race Homer Plessy’s attempt to sit in the whites-only section of a railway car in New Orleans.
For many years, Creoles kept their communities tight to protect their culture and identify — and still do to some extent. Many migrated to Chicago and Los Angeles to escape racial discrimination in the South, but still have family ties to Cane River.
It’s a fascinating subject, and Children of Strangers sheds some light on a culture that’s been misunderstood and misrepresented for a long time. Lyle Saxon died at the age of 54 in 1946. He’s also credited with encouraging Faulkner in his early years and played a major role in the rebirth of the French Quarter, but Children of Strangers was his proudest work.
Next week’s reading: Lyle Saxon’s Children of Strangers continued