Louisiana got lots of snakes, the Mississippi being one, and I like that. The voodoo there is keen, not this Hollywood horseshit, titillating-white-people-with-black-magic crap, but Louisiana voodoo knows how it is with women and dancing and swamps and snakes. They know the story there. I love New Orleans because I don’t know why I am ever doing anything else besides dancing in swamps with snakes.
Once I met up with friends in New Orleans during a rainstorm on our way to Vacherie to see a Creole plantation by the name of Laura. My sister Jeane’s father-in-law had never been to the American South, so she was giving him a three-week tour. Outside of Jeane, who grew up in Texas, I was the only Southerner on board, and I’m pretty sure I was the only one who had ever seen a plantation. But what I had never seen was a plantation that spoke on the slavery story without bullshitting, and that’s why I agreed to travel along to Laura.
“What’s it like?” the father-in-law asked.
“What?” I said.
“Being Southern. Growing up in the South.”
The rental car tires hummed on the overpass. It was October, the month when I start my year-end reflective melancholy. Twenty feet below, the bald cypress, losing their needles, revealed an endless pool of still, black water. I felt the longing of my same old dream, the one where I walk into a swamp shack in the middle of nowhere and never come back out. How do you tell a Pacific Northwestern yogi who lives in Italy what it’s like growing up in the South? It’s a myth. It’s fraught. It’s a great place if you don’t mind killing things. It has extraordinary regional cuisine and music, and the people are hilarious and clever. Goddamn they can make a dessert. Just don’t bring up race or politics or alcoholism because the stereotypes are true, though grossly incomplete. There’s spirit and contradiction everywhere.
“Man,” I said. “It’s complicated.”
I-10 West twists from New Orleans to Baton Rouge hugging the rim of Lake Pontchartrain across some mighty swampland. We cut a sharp left back down toward the Muddy, crossing the river to a two-lane highway that, back in legal-slavery America, was a dirt-road litany of money and misery while plantation owners and their enslaved workers cranked out sugarcane. On this stretch of the Mississippi, from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, sugar plantations lined up one side of the big water and down the other like a row of Pick-Up Stiks. Cane was big business, family business, and half-year business for the owners, who spent the other half of the year in New Orleans for a lengthy social season that included the selling of the harvest.
This Creole country mixed West African, western European and Native American to forge a particular type of folk who spoke French, rebuffed European ways, and survived in a staunch, socially elite class system built around family status. This was not the white-and-black American history I grew up with in North Carolina in tobacco and cotton country. This was a leaked-up-from-the-Caribbean-hodge-podge, and there is a particular eerie feeling I get setting foot on an old plantation. The earth keeps all kinds of stories, and never ask what the river knows unless you really want to know. And let me tell you: you’d better really want to know. The Mississippi will tell you some shit.
Laura, preserved in the Creole style, retains its Caribbean-influenced color scheme of dignified yellows and purples with accents of baby blue and earth red. It is beautiful, and the land is fecund and lush, romantic. Laura Locoul, the plantation’s namesake and longtime owner, lived from Lincoln to Kennedy and wrote her memoirs detailing her history with the land and the family relations who often made her running of the estate a living hell. A plantation is a functioning, toxic body with almost everyone held captive against their will to something or other, and Laura herself admitted to being a hostage of the family business. The Civil War came and went. Nothing much changed at Laura, so the story goes, but the Africans told a good set of fables about a crafty and often presumptuous rabbit who got himself into a heap of scrapes. We would come to know these tales as the Brer Rabbit stories, and they were recorded right here on the wood benches of a slave house on the back of the property. So there it is, the song of the South we all come back around to, sooner or later.
Jeane is not my sister by birth but my sister in Christ on earth and we’re both a little voodoo, which is also a Southern thing that is hard to translate because it’s not about church but about truth and the Body, which is something I can get into later, if you’re interested. However, I must mention it because Jeane was also on a recon mission in Louisiana to find out where she came from, after she got some surprise results from Ancestry.com, part of which contained clues that led her to discover some of her people came to Louisiana via being French in the American Revolution, and via being enslaved in the Caribbean after being captured in West Africa. They got mixed up in slavery economics, but how and what happened to the descendants leading to Jeane remains a big mystery. (I do not want the reader to get confused, thinking Jeane’s family story is also mine. I did Ancestry after Jeane, and I am European AF, with almost all the British Isles on lockdown and not even an echo from Africa or Asia, which I’d erroneously assumed was impossible.)
I tell you this background on Jeane because it’s one thing to be all fucked-up feeling because you grew up white in the racist South (and no decent white person would admit they were racist, much less help you get over it, so you had to do it on your own), and here you are ambling down a brick path from the big house to a smattering of well-preserved slave quarters in Vacherie, Louisiana. But it’s altogether a different picture of racism in America to be walking down that path with your Christ sister who might have had people living in those quarters and you know for a fact that slave trauma echoed down through the generations, though folks tried to silence it so they wouldn't have to know. You can almost still hear a wailing. Jeane won't drive over the speed limit in the South because she looks black even though she's the daughter of a direct line of patriots in the American Revolution. That is the echo of these slave houses. It is the echo of shackles that sounds today like handcuffs for going too fast on a backroad. Jeane knows a lot about her people, and truth sometimes sounds like an angel band. Other times, it sounds like circles of metal biting themselves.
If you do try, even a little, to live in truth, not media truth or book truth, but gut truth, you know history is really the story of family. That’s why people stay crazy about the past. Forgiveness is a pleasing sound, but it's hard to come by. The snakes in the swamp will tell you. The river knows.