Monday, August 13, 2012

Matter of Perspective

Same object, different angles, different lighting. [Source]

Mr. Egge, my high school art teacher, emitted the stereotype of art teachers. He was quirky, creative, and clearly passionate about his craft. His classes were also quirky and creative while providing for new ways to think about, well, art. And art reflects life, right? In one drawing exercise, he had three white, geometric figures on a white sheet (a sphere, a pyramid, and a cube). Mr. Egge darkened the room and shined an intense lamp on the grouping of objects. We were given short bursts of time to sketch the three figures, each time with a light shining from a different direction. He had us focus on the shadows cast by the light. How did the change of light position change the shadows? How did those changing shadows impact our sketches? He pointed out that the objects never changed, rather it was our perception and then recreation of these objects that changed.

I think sometimes that my job as interpreter is to take the light and adjust is a little to shine it a little differently. The content of the history does not change; rather, I just want to provide a different way to consider the past, to provoke a little thought.

If you visit this region, you hear of the French influence, specifically of the Acadian influence. In fact, the National Park Service manages three Acadian Cultural Centers, telling the story of the forced deportation of the Acadians from modern-day Nova Scotia and how that population's arrival to Louisiana has resulted in the Cajun culture today. As I continue to read about the variety of cultures that have influenced southern Louisiana, I am struck how often I find references to people of color and the influence of those of African descent, but little substance of their story in local memory. People want to visit to see the Cajuns and hear French because that is what is promoted by the tourism industry (and pop culture). There are more threads that make up the cultural tapestry down here, though. Indeed, these stories can be understood as one of Mr. Egge's geometric objects, existing as a part of the composition.

We just have to take the light and shift it a little as a means to highlight different features of the story.

Let's look at some numbers, shall we? France handed the territory of Louisiana over to Spain in 1763 (nevermind that the American Indians in the region didn't agree to any of this, by the way). Spain invited the deported Acadians to the region (between 3,000 and 4,000 Acadians will arrive by way of Spain's invitation). Spain even paid for some Acadians' passage across the ocean, land, livestock, seed, and tools. Spain also imported captured Africans to be sold into slavery in this territory. In a 1784 census, approximately 25,000 people lived in the Louisiana territory (American Indians were not counted, however); 16, 544 of these people were enslaved African. Math is not my strongest subject, but those number tally up to over half of the population at that time. Then, a few years later, the slave revolt in Haiti in 1791 resulted in 10,000 new settlers in the Louisiana territory, mostly slaves and some of their owners.

I know, I know. My brain just broke, too. So many people arrived to the area during the last part of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries... people of color! The Africans who were captured and brought to work in the fields in Louisiana, however, were able to maintain some of their identity from Africa (language, some religious practices, even food- okra, for example) unlike many enslaved on the rest of the continent. The National Park Service partnered with Louisiana State University and hosted a conference that resulted in an outstanding booklet entitled African Mastery of a Strange Land. The book demonstrates how the enslaved Africans influenced the development of Louisiana. Its arguments, however, do not saturate the historical landscape (not the remembered landscape, anyhow). Many of the people of color also spoke French (some Creole, some not, some enslaved, some not). A more amazing part of this story is that of Creoles of color; because of its French and Spanish rule, Louisiana followed the "Code Noir" or the Black Code. Imported Africans usually became slaves, but in some cases could buy their freedom. They were understood to have souls and were required to convert to Catholicism (unlike the understandings of slaves in the east where the enslaved were often understood as nothing less than property). The African Mastery booklet goes into a little more detail about the Code Noir's impact on how Africans influenced culture in Louisiana. So why is this region well known more for the Acadians-turned-Cajuns? I leave that question open on purpose to see what visitors think.

I don't want to take away from the Acadian to Cajun story, nor do I think it correct to compare the travesties of people groups. There is plenty of rich and complex history in this region. In order to tell it completely, sometimes we have to adjust the light a little to shine on other surfaces to reveal new angles of our story. In addition to including more people in the story, this provides a form of contextualizing the story of populating the state. People arrived to Louisiana with a variety of backgrounds and for a variety of reasons. When people leave the movie and make comments about how they had no idea that there were populations who were forcefully removed from their homes and wound up in south Louisiana, I tend to remind them that, indeed, there were many populations who came to these States United that way.

Of course, I talk about these people groups who arrived over the course of the past 300 years or so. My next post about people groups and their influences on culture will most likely be of the indigenous peoples. They had no say on who came and stayed here. Yet, indigenous people have been here for thousands of years.  

*Note: these thoughts are my own and do not necessarily reflect that of the National Park Service.

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