Sunday, August 19, 2012

Opelousas Massacre: Accidentally Racist?

So here is a question. Or three.

When is it okay to bring up race when I tell a story?

How necessary is it to include race when telling a story?

Can a storyteller be accidentally racist?

While investigating some local history, I stumbled upon the “Opelousas Massacre.” I don’t know what specifically piqued my interest about the title of the event. It could be the fact that I live none too far from Opelousas and had visited the Opelousas Orphan Train Museum recently. It could also be that word “massacre.” A former professor of mine challenged audiences regarding the use of that word. “What qualifies a massacre? Intention? Method? Numbers? Can 3 killed be a massacre? How about if 1,000 fall in battle, is that a massacre?” So now when I see the word “massacre,” I want to investigate how it is used.  It could also be the subject, historical era, and how the event has been remembered (and the fact that I have never specifically heard of it that I recall).

It turns out on September 28, 1868, members associated with the white supremacist group, The Knights of the White Camellia, descended upon the little town of Opelousas, Louisiana, killing upwards of 200 people over basic civil rights, like education and voting.

Constitutional Rights were not guaranteed for all citizens
for a long time in our nation's history (Library of Congress)

Have you ever seen the film, Groundhog Day? In it, Bill Murray relives the same day over and over. He has one day that plays out perfectly and attempts to try and retry to make that day exactly the same. Circumstances keep forcing how the day plays out. Every new day is different (sometimes vastly so). Every time Bill Murray tries something new, it impacts the day. 

I am sorry for the abrupt shift in thought, but I have a method to my madness. Let’s revisit the Opelousas Massacre. I stated the facts earlier: A group of men wanted their legal right to vote. They wanted their children to grow up educated. Another group of men did not want those things to happen. So that second group of men mass murdered the first group of men.

Let me try again. Free people of color in the area wanted to express their freedom by exercising their rights to vote. They wanted their children to have an education. Whites in the area did not want these free people of color to vote nor be educated. So the whites killed them.
Again. Free blacks in the area desired to vote and learn. Free whites in the area desired oppression of a group of people based on the color of their skin. The free whites killed the free blacks as one form of oppression.
And again. Once enslaved like chattel, understood to be nothing more than property, newly freed people arrived at the polls, ready to vote as American citizens. They advocated equal rights, holding positions in office and wanting their children to grow up educated. Completely overtaken with fear and hate, members of a supremacist group showed up ready to use whatever force necessarily to prevent these people from having basic American rights.
Once more. Formerly enslaved, thought of as nothing more than property, newly freed blacks were soaring to new societal heights, voting, holding office, establishing schools. Members of a group who considered the pigmentation of the epidermal cells a factor in evaluating the value of people did not want people of color to succeed. So these members of this group slaughtered the people of color.

I can keep trying over and over again. What gives this story more meaning? Can words even do justice to what happened in St. Landry Parish in 1868? Can this story be told without including the element of skin color? How much does race play a role in this story?

I ask these questions because one of the headlines that originally caught my attention about the event stated, “200 to 300 blacks were killed.”  Race is rarely a descriptor in events that include people of fairer skin color. How often do articles read, “200 to 300 whites were killed?” And if the article had said, “200 to 300 people were killed” would that make a difference? 200 to 300 civilians? 200 to 300 fathers? sons? brothers? 200 to 300 lives ended? 200 to 300 hearts that stopped beating?

These individuals were killed over their basic civil rights.



                 Desiring to make change by holding public office.

                       Living a life 


And yet, tragically, the heart of the reasons why this massacre occurred rest in the skin color of these 200 to 300 people. So does the storyteller of this event become an accidental racist by including the color issue? Or does the storyteller of this event become an accidental racist by not including the color issue?

No, I don’t expect a simple answer for I don’t believe there is one. But neither does that mean we should not talk about these things.

*Note: these thoughts are my own and do not necessarily reflect that of my employer.

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