Cane River - By Lalita Tademy Page 0,1
the Natchitoches genealogy society led me to some private collections, including letters. The search for my ancestors moved beyond a pastime and became an obsession.
A series of discoveries challenged what I thought I knew about Louisiana, slavery, race, and class. I thought Creole meant mixed-race people, black and white, but was informed in clipped tones that Creoles were only the white French-speaking descendants of the early French settlers, a snobbish distinction that clearly separated them from the black families the Creole men created “on the side,” as well as elevating them above their lower-class French-speaking Cajun cousins. I discovered that most plantations were not like the sprawling expanses of Tara in Gone With the Wind but were small, self-contained communities, surrounded by farms that were smaller still. I discovered that the horrifying institution of slavery played out in individual dramas as varied as there were different farms and plantations, masters and slaves.
As I tightened my search for Philomene’s mother, the trail led to Cane River, a complex, isolated, close-knit, and hierarchical society whose heyday was in the early 1800s. It was a community that stretched nineteen miles along a river in central Louisiana where Creole French planters, free people of color, and slaves coexisted in convoluted and sometimes nonstereotypical ways. In Cane River the free people of color, or gens de couleur libre, had accumulated a great deal of land and wealth and were just as likely to be slave owners as their white neighbors.
As a child I had spent many muggy summers in Colfax, a small country town not far from Cane River where both my parents grew up. The road trip there took days, with me sandwiched in tight between my brother and sisters in the backseat of our 1951 Ford, riding cross-country from California to Colfax for our annual two-week stay in July. In 1978 my father and I took a Roots trip to Louisiana, my first time to go back by choice. My mother sent me off with a “must talk to” list for her side of the family, and it included an elderly great-cousin living in Shreveport, Louisiana. My father drove us the hundred miles from Colfax, and we were eagerly welcomed into the home of a large, light-skinned woman with dark, piercing eyes. I still remember those eyes. Cousin Gurtie lived alone and radiated something almost touchable—a relish for life, an intensity, an undefeatable spirit. She was chatty, but her mind wandered, one minute talking about her shoelaces and what she had for breakfast, the next spinning tales of distant ancestors, grisly murders, suicides, and forbidden love. I assumed she exaggerated for effect, but I was hooked. It wasn’t until sitting down to write this author’s note twenty-two years later that I realized she was the same woman who had produced the two-page typewritten family history I relied on so heavily in trying to re-create my family’s past. She had not exaggerated.
When I quit my job in 1995 I hired a genealogist to help with the search for Philomene’s mother. It took her two years before she found the bill of sale in a private collection of French plantation records that positively identified Suzette as Philomene’s mother. Only then was I sure that my ancestors were not free people of color. They were three generations of slaves owned by Françoise Derbanne, a Creole widow whose husband left her a medium-size plantation in Cane River, Louisiana. It was then that I resolved I would not allow Suzette or her family to be lost from memory again.
Revealed bit by bit from mounds of documents and family stories, I connected the line backward between these women of my family, daughter to mother. From Emily, back to Philomene, to Suzette and Elisabeth. They were not Mammy or Jezebel or Topsy, the slave images made safe and familiar in Gone With the Wind tradition. They were flesh-and-blood women who made hard choices, even in oppression.
Emily’s mother, Philomene, came to life before any of the others. She visited my dreams, urging me to tell their stories. No, “urging” is too tame a word, too remote. Philomene demanded that I struggle to understand the different generations of my family and the complexities of their lives. She made it unacceptable that any of them be reduced or forgotten. It defies description in words, this bond I have with Philomene and her ability to reach across four generations to me with such impact. There were demanding days in the beginning when I feared