THE HEART OF THE BAYOU
by Judith Fein
photos by Paul Ross
When most people think of Louisiana, they conjure up images of New Orleans-the French Quarter, the wildness of Mardi Gras, even the Voodoo queen Marie Lavaux. But a few short hours away, on roads much less traveled, there is a cultural depth and richness that gently unfolds for curious and adventurous visitors. In the beautiful, impossibly green bayou country, are communities of formerly disenfranchised people who have survived, persisted, and are now telling their own stories with joy, sadness, and great pride. They are, to me, the heart and soul of the bayou country.
The trip begins at the sprawling, luxurious plantations, where visitors from around the world ogle the period furniture, the ostentatious silver, marble and finery that adorned the main houses, and the alleys of magnificent trees that led from the comfortable living quarters to the banks of the Mississippi. But what about the slaves who were ripped from their homelands in Africa to make the plantation lifestyle possible? Who remembers them?
Kathe Hambrick does. An African American raised in rural Louisiana, she left, vowing never to return. She moved to Los Angeles, worked for I.B.M, and then, when she got laid off and her father became sick, she returned to Louisiana to help out. She was very depressed to be back in the middle of “plantation syndrome,” where everywhere she turned there were plantation restaurants, plantation roads, plantation houses. One day, she went to the river, stood on the levee, and had a vision where she saw the slaves working in the sugar cane fields and standing under the oak trees. She started to cry uncontrollably. Then a light breeze passed by her and she heard a voice telling her to go on plantation tours, asking questions about the black people who worked there. To her dismay, almost nothing was known about where the slaves lived, how many there were, or where they came from in Africa. She began to meet with historical societies, plantation owners, anyone who had information. And the more Kathe learned, the more she wanted to know. She hoped someone else would record and tell the story of the slaves; she resisted the call, but one day she couldn’t resist it any more. She began to have mystical experiences, where the sugar cane field lay down in front of her, where she had a vision of a weeping slave woman asking why it had happened to them. It was as though the spirit of the ancestors was calling to Kathe, and she knew she had to tell the slave story herself
According to Kathe, many African Americans make the ancestral voyage all the way back to Africa, but few want to look right here, in the U.S.A., to learn about the slave forefathers and foremothers; there is too much shame and discomfort around it. And yet, many of the slaves were remarkable and talented people. Slave owners paid upwards of three thousand dollars for Africans who were master architects, metallurgists, home builders, who knew how to plant rice and make crops grow. These slaves were the teachers, who were indispensable to the economy of the south. They were ingenious in their adaptation, in their ability to form communities in their slave quarters, in their survival.
Kathe opened the River Road African American Museum, right on the grounds of the Tezcuco plantation. Visitors can see a wooden chest, just big enough for a man, that a slave engineered for his escape. They can see chains, manacles, and records of slave auctions. They can also see intimate photos and art that commemorates slaves who succeeded, who survived, who beat the odds that were so stacked against them. There is something almost holy about Kathe’s museum. It pays tribute to the endurance of the oppressed Africans, it allows their voices to be heard, it looks AT them, instead of looking AWAY from them. And Kathe reports that in the course of establishing the museum, she has transcended her own anger and resentment. She now accepts and embraces the past of her people, and hopes others can do the same.
For anyone who longs for a heartful meeting with African Americans in the bayou, on any Sunday morning, stop in at a gospel church. I pulled up in front of Buena Vista Baptist Church in St.James, and when I opened the large, wooden door, a woman named Velma Rhodes immediately came to greet me. I asked if it was okay for me to attend services as a guest. She nodded vigorously and escorted me to a seat with an unobstructed view of the pulpit. Minutes later, the church was filled with the most glorious odes to Spirit: get-down, jump-out-of-your-seat music that would make the dead dance. When I had to leave for an appointment, Velma insisted on escorting me into the kitchen and feeding me jambalaya and fried chicken. When we went to some of the finest restaurants in bayou country, the chefs all agreed: I had eaten the DNA, the best the area had to offer; the soul of southern cooking in every bite.
About 85 miles north of New Orleans, in Carville, are another group of people who suffered terrible indignities, but are still around to set the record straight. Those afflicted with Hansen’s disease (formerly called leprosy) were isolated from the general population because they instilled horror and fear. They were shipped to a “leper colony” in Carville in 1894, on the site of the old Indian Camp Plantation. Little was understood about Hansen’s disease, and misconceptions about disfigurement and atrophy circulated widely. In fact, neurological damage from the illness made sufferers lose sensation in their extremities, and they were likely to burn themselves without feeling anything. Fortunately, in the 1940’s, drugs were developed that made the disease treatable and non-contagious. Today, there are 2,000,000 people afflicted worldwide, but only 31 patients still living on the grounds in Carville. The main building has been turned into a museum where visitors can see special pot handles that prevented patients from burning their fingers, special shirt buttons that were easy to open and close, adaptive devices to make life easier. Former and current patients act as tour guides. I was shown around by a woman who has been a resident for sixty-two years; her disease is controlled by medication, and she is cheerful.
In the museum, there are written personal testimonies about the pain and indignities suffered by residents at Carville. They were transferred to the “leper colony” in shackles, and their houses were burned. If they touched money, it had to be fumigated. They were given the dreaded “fever therapy” where they were locked in a cylinder while their body temperature was raised to 104 or 106 degrees. There are stories of love and torment, of degradation and survival. There is also a lot of art done by sufferers, and they show the imagination and creativity that allowed them to transcend their condition. Also moving are the photos of the nuns of St. Vincent de Paul who started selflessly caring for the residents in 1896, and continue to do so today. The nun who was on duty when I visited told stories about spouses who tried to get infected to they could move into Carville with their loved ones; fortunately or unfortunately, they were unsuccessful.
I rarely use the word “hero,” but it seemed appropriate in relation to the sisters of St. Vicent de Paul; during a period of wide-spread panic about leprosy, the nuns risked their personal well-being to care for the afflicted. It is hard not to weep for their charity at Carville and to admire the sense of meaning and purpose they had in their lives.
An easy drive from Carville is Lafayette, a good place to stay for a visit to the Cajun people who live in the Louisiana bayou. Originally, they set out from France during the 17th century, seeking a better life in eastern Canada. They farmed, fished, trapped and knew halcyon days in an area they called Acadia (present-day Nova Scotia). They were so successful, that the British became covetous of their fertile land. In an act of cruel deception, the British rulers separated wives from husbands and children from parents, and sent the Acadians off on ships into exile in 1755. Some returned to Europe, close to half of them died, and another group made their way to the American Colonies and eventually ended up in the bayou area, which they named New Acadia. Over the next decades, thousand of other exiles joined the first band. They turned misery into opportunity, worked the land, fished, and maintained their Acadian, or Cajun, culture to this day.
What is remarkable about these stalwart survivors is how joyous they and their culture are. It is easy to meet Cajuns everywhere; they are friendly and garrulous and they will invite to you visit their homes five minutes after they have met you. If you show sincere interest in them, they will happily speak to you in their old French dialect, give you pointers on the best places to eat down-home etouffé, crawfish, crab boil, boudin (sausage) and pain perdu (French toast). Eating is a big part of the Cajun culture, and, according to several of them, as soon as they finish one meal, they are already thinking of the next.
At night, you can kick up your heels Cajun-style in wonderful establishments that are combination restaurants and dance halls. To the accompaniment of live Cajun bands (violins, special accordions, guitars, bass, sometimes drums), everyone laughs and talks and glides across the dance floor. It’s Cajun-style aerobics, suitable for every age, and extremely easy on the wallet.
There are wonderful towns like Rayne, the frog capitol of the world, Duson, where you can hang out with locals at a great unsung restaurant named Thibodoux’s, and St. Martinville, which may as well be called Evangelineville. Most of the tourist attractions are centered around Evangeline, the heroine of Tennyson’s poem about two star-crossed Cajun lovers who are separated forever by the forced exile. There’s the Evangeline statue, the Evangeline tomb, the Evangeline oak. A bit more weighty is the new and nearby Cultural Heritage Center, which draws a parallel between the Cajun and African diasporas.
It’s impossible not to have light-hearted fun in Cajun country, but if you look closely you will also see reminders everywhere of the roots of the culture. The refugees who arrived on the boats were poor, and they had no official medical care. They relied on traiteurs, or treaters, to heal their illnesses. The treatments were simple but powerful prayers, passed down from one person with a calling to the next. Today, every Cajun can tell you modern stories of miraculous healings performed by traiteurs, and, if they trust you, they will direct you to their favorite traiteurs for treatment. Most treaters don’t ask for money, but you can choose to leave a small amount for phone calls or just as a way of saying “thank you.”
Except for the supersticky and hot summer months, any time is a good time to wander around in Cajun country. But if you can, try to go when there is a festival. I was there during the annual Festivals Acadiens, where, for one glorious weekend in Lafayette, all the Cajun highlights are grouped together in Girard Park and in front of the National History museum. There’s non-stop music from the top bands, jewelry, traditional crafts, demonstrations, folklore, and, of course, food.
The only two expressions you have to know before heading for Louisiana are “bon appetit” and “laisser le bon temps rouler.” And if you have an open heart, the rest will all unfold in front of you.
The guidebook locals recommend is CAJUN COUNTRY GUIDE, by Macon Fry and Julie Posner, Pelican Publishing.
For a comprehensive website: Louisianatravel.com.
Call 1-800-33GUMBO for a free guide, highway maps and brochures.
River Road African American Museum in Tezcuco: 225-562-7703 (call for hours)
National Hansen’s Disease Museum in Carville: 225-642-1950 (call for hours, although 10 a.m. and 1 pm are the best times for guided tours)
In Lafayette, I stayed at a restored 1820’s plantation house that also offered an exciting swamp tour: Bois des Chenes B % B: 338 N. Sterling Street, Lafayette firstname.lastname@example.org 337-233-7816. Suites are $100-$150.
Famous eatery in Lafayette: Prejean’s: 3480 I-49 North, in Lafayette
St Martinville Tourist Information Center: 337-394-2233
Dance halls in and around Lafayette:
Mulate’s Cajun Restaurant and dance hall in Breaux Bridge: 1-800-42CAJUN
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