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Valence Street Art
The Thirteenth Ward. Uptown New Orleans. Where I started out. Where I am now.
Charles and I were born at 1016 Valence. We lived with my father and mother and my father's mother, whose name was Rowena. We called her Ma Ma. She had three sisters: Virginia who was Auntie Cat Aunt Espy who was blind and Aunt Lela. Auntie Cat, Mrs. Virginia Harris, was the power. Her husband, Peg Harris, was a master carpenter who built three houses in a row on Valence.
Let me paint you the picture, bro. Valence was a cobblestone street made up of shotgun cottages. Straight-up shotgun houses. There was an outhouse in back, and we took baths in little galvanized tubs. In those days you'd look for the iceman to come 'round with ice for your icebox. I'd scrub the splinters out of the hardwood floor with broken pieces of red brick.
The 'hood was alive with good feeling. Smells of good food and sounds of good music in the air. Good folk. Folk protecting one another. You might get three beatings a day your mama, your daddy, and a neighbor lady who saw you do something wrong. It was all one big family. One little village. We were all in it together. I'd call it a beautiful time.
If you look at the way New Orleans was gerrymandered, the black neighborhoods were surrounded by the white ones. It felt like living in occupied territory. You'd have to watch where you walked. It was scary. An old white man sat on his porch on the corner of Valence. He was a grocery-store owner and a big shot at the Catholic church. As soon as he sawus coming, he'd open his gate and let out his dogs. Vicious dogs chasing us down, scaring the shit out of us.
I realize I'm remembering Valence Street ten years after my brothers do. When I was growing up, they were already gone, deep in their own worlds that had nothing to do with me. At home I mainly hung out with my older sister, Athelgra, and my baby sister, Cookie.
Valence Street was a blue-collar neighborhood on the edge of the Garden District, a major New Orleans tourist attraction made up of imposing mansions and beautiful, stately old homes. Many of the little houses on Valence were originally occupied by people who serviced those mansions. Auntie Cat was one of those people. She opened our eyes to that world a world that was very near and very far.
Auntie Cat owned property. She was a person to be reckoned with. She worked for a white family in the Garden District on Prytania Street. She must have raised a couple of generations of kids for those white families. She cooked and cleaned and took care of business. She swept the sidewalk in front of the Trinity Methodist Church, just across the street from us on Valence, where she was a member in good standing.
Auntie Cat was light-skinned enough to pass for white, but she didn't. We had other relatives who actually did pass to get better jobs. Our parents warned us not to speak to one particular relative if we bumped into her. They'd say, She's working at a white theater and she's passing for white. There was a part of New Orleans " the Seventh Ward" that was passe blanc. It was a Creole section, and light-skinned Creoles had certain professions sewed up. The bricklayers' union, for instance, was mostly men from the Seventh Ward, while the longshoremen were darker-skinned cats from Uptown, where we lived.
The hierarchy of skin color in New Orleans has a long history. There were whites, there were slaves, and there were free people of color Creoles. If a black mistress of a white man had a boy, he'd be schooled in France; if she had a girl, the girl would be groomed to woo another white man so her children would be even lighter. It wasn't done for shame, but for practicality; the lighter you were, the less your chance of being a victim of murderous antiblack racism.
My mother and her family her mom, brother, and sisters were also a big part of the village of our childhood. They had Creole roots and were Catholic as opposed to Dad's people, who were Methodist.
Mommee's folks spoke plenty Creole. They knew that patois, that broken French. Talkin' about Maw Maw, who was Marie, Mommee's mother. She and my other grandmother, Ma Ma, who was Rowena, would fight over me. Wouldn't let no one spank me. Put me on their laps and rocked me to the good-time gospel music Brother Joe May, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward. That music soaked in me while I was still soaking my diaper.
Mommee's sisters were tremendous figures in my life. Earthy women. Big bosoms. Salt of the earth. Aunt Odile wasn't but four feet tall, but, Lord have mercy, she'd stand on a chair to punch the face of her six-foot husband. On her way to work, Auntie Deal that's what we called her would give you a snap of the switch, just in case you were thinking about doing wrong. We called Aunt Lena "Nanny." All strong black women who stood on their own two feet.
My mother's sisters were big in every way bighearted ladies with big laughs who loved to dance with big movements. They cooked big meals in big pots and would feed anyone who was hungry. Their origin was more than Creole, I believe. I heard talk of Native American, French, Spanish, and even the island of Martinique.
Their maiden name was Landry. Mommee's father had disappeared. The story was that he was working on the railroad when the white brakeman got drunk and abusive. The abuse continued until my grandfather came home one night and told his wife that the brakeman had attacked him. In retaliation, Grandpa pulled the coupling pin from one of the cars and hit the motherfucker over the head, killing him instantly. "I'm leaving tonight," he told Maw Maw, "and chances are, you'll never see me again." Just like that, he slipped into the dark night, gone forever. His family didn't blame him; no one expressed anger. In the South it was understood: survival at any cost.
Auntie Cat was a great survivor, a different kind of personality. She was a pillar of the community, a representative of that generation who lived by a strict code of hard work, integrity, and self-sufficiency. She was quick to put down anyone who was not like her. And, of course, there was no one like her.
We called her Auntie Cat because she had all these cats. And she'd talk to those cats all the time. She'd take us to a public swimming pool, where we'd watch the white kids swim. We weren't allowed to swim, but we got in because she looked white. White people assumed she was taking care of us. She'd take us to stores we could never have entered without her. In those days, blacks could try on clothes only in certain establishments like D. H. Holmes. Once, we were at a food store with Auntie Cat when a woman started saying shit about "niggers." Cat grabbed a long loaf of that hard French bread and bopped the lady over the head, saying, "You're so ignorant, you don't even know when you're in the presence of a Negro. For your information, I am a Negro."
I also remember Auntie Cat winning the cakewalk contest at the Trinity Methodist Church. She was carrying this pretty parasol, doing her dainty steps, and, at just the right moment, dropping her hankie. Cat was something to see.
Auntie Cat would take us over to the people's big home where she worked in the Garden District. I remember playing croquet with the white kids on the lawn. It was cool, a view of another world we would never have experienced were it not for Cat.
I was only one when we moved from Valence to the projects. Cyril wasn't even born. We'd move back to Valence in the fifties and, of course, we'd come Uptown to visit our aunts every week. But my first real memories, especially of Daddy and Mommee, are back in those projects.