Friday, July 3, 2015

Heritage of Racism in Louisiana

With all the newspapers reporting on the Confederate flag, the wheels in my brain started turning. A lot of people are claiming that the Confederate flag represents history and pride in heritage, but that idea is a complete foreign concept to me. I see none of my heritage in the Confederate flag and have never heard anyone in my family say anything about it. Around here, it's the flag that arrogant uneducated people in giant pick-up trucks like to put on the front or back of their vehicles, but it's not a symbol of Louisiana's heritage.

When outsiders come to Louisiana, especially southern Louisiana, they always tell me that Louisiana feels like a foreign country. To be honest, for a really long time, it was owned by foreign countries, so I suppose it's not too much of a stretch to say that those foreign countries affect Louisiana's culture a lot more than the British colonies did. I see my heritage and pride in the Acadian flag that one can see flying in Lafayette at the welcome center.


Regardless of which flag we accept as a symbol of our heritage, Louisiana is still a part of the South and still hasn't escaped racism. Cajuns have an odd relationship with black culture. Back in the day, we were called "coonasses," and while there are two different theories about where this word comes from, one theory is that blacks were called "coons" and so Cajuns were called "coonasses" because we were the lowest of the low, lower than blacks in the social system. I'm not sure if I believe that. However, I can say that blacks and Cajuns have interacted and influenced each other over the years The major difference is that over time Cajuns learned to hide their Cajunness and blend in with other whites. All because of our skin color, we could pass for WASP even though we spoke a different language and were stubbornly Catholic.

There has always been tension between blacks and whites in Louisiana. It's always seemed odd to me. Blacks that I grew up with in elementary school treated me differently by the time we got to high school. Perhaps that was just growing up and didn't have anything to do with race. However, I've noticed that when blacks talk to me, they're very respectful, and when they're around whites, it's very much keep your head down, yes sir, no sir, and get out of there as soon as possible. When they talk with one other, they're much more lively and rowdy and they seem free. It always felt awkward to me because it seems like they stifled themselves around whites.

I can't blame them. It's hard to deal with people who are convinced you're a terrorist or criminal just because of your skin color. My grandpaw always used to say that he wasn't racist, but "some people had to be put in their places," always winking right after he said that. We just nodded our heads and kept our mouths shut because he was the patriarch of the family, but we all knew he was racist. Even he knew he was racist.

This type of racism literally permeates the social fabric of Louisiana everywhere, both in the Cajun world and non-Cajun world. Frequently, on both sides of my family, it's implied that wherever blacks go, there will be trouble. They're automatically criminals who game the system, steal, and cheat their way through life. Low income housing automatically means blacks who do drugs and white people who are corrupted by blacks'influences. 

It's really painful to sit there and listen to the chatter. They accuse Obama of being a Muslim and that blacks hate him because he has abandoned their race. Because Obama isn't giving the blacks free rides, they're abandoning Obama. They say blacks are the destroyers of communities and only want free rides. They're lazy, only get into college because of sports, and are horrible workers.  I wish I was making that up, but I'm not. Even when I attempt to argue against that stereotype, that not all blacks are like that, only very very few of them are, I get shut down. "Oh, I worked with them. You don't know how it is. You're just too nice to everybody.""

Sometimes I want to scream at them. You're talking about a whole segment of the population, how can you stereotype everyone like that? It's not right. If anyone is tearing down communities, it's those who hold grudges and biases against others instead of approaching each human as an individual. The absolute worst part of this is that the whites, like my family, don't think their beliefs are a problem. They view their beliefs as fact. They say they're not racists, and that it's black people's behaviors that are the problem. Whites complain a lot that blacks play the race card all the time. Most likely, I think white people say that when they're afraid to lose control and power. They don't realize how ironic their statements are.Yeah, blacks play the race card because they deal with people hating them automatically. They deal with people assuming they're criminals all because they were born with certain dark pigments. 

When one group of people put downs another just so that they can keep power, I think there's something wrong with that situation. Whites say "they're playing the race card," but blacks are calling out the racism and nonsense they have to deal with on a daily basis. Instead of discounting blacks' experiences and cries of racism, why aren't we listening and trying to understand what they think is oppressing them? Why aren't we creating a better system? It's as if whites have this idea that they couldn't possibly take part in any horrible system, not even unconsciously so it's not them that's the problem. It's blacks' behavior.

Having pride in your heritage can be inspiring and can encourage you to develop an interest in history. We shouldn't have to hide where we come from, but we at least need to question the symbols and beliefs of the past. Some of the current stereotypes of blacks exist today because they came from periods of slavery. Somehow, we need to be able to have a dialogue about pride yet admit that mistakes made in the past need to be corrected. The Confederate flag doesn't mean much to me, so I don't think I can comment on its removal. However, it is associated with slavery, and it's about time we have that conversation. The Confederate flag may be a symbol of heritage, but it's one with an unfortunate past.  

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Avoiding...Everything

I've thought about writing this post for a long time now, maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months. Every time I pull up my blog to write, I somehow distract myself, on purpose. Instead of pouring out my heart, I end up scouring the Internet, reading news articles, and just procrastinating in any capacity that I can. It's hard to concentrate at work, and I spend hours surfing the Internet instead of writing descriptions of manuscripts. "It'd be too difficult to finish within two hours, no need to start so late in the day," I tell myself. Maybe that's true or maybe I'm just delaying the inevitable.

To describe how I feel is probably one of the most difficult tasks to accomplish. To act is even more difficult. Frequently, I end up so exhausted that I end up laying down to watch TV because, quite frankly, going to sleep is what I'd really like to do. But my thoughts would race around my head, and it'd be impossible to fall asleep. My brain is exhausted, but my body is not.

Logically speaking, I know I'm not a bad person, and I have evidence to back up that statement. Still, my conscience likes to throw all the negativity at me that it can, "You're a dumbass. You're a bad person. You're stupid. No one wants to be your friend." No reason to do anything anyway. I'd mess it up somehow.

Blog posts lay unwritten. Commitments have fallen through the cracks. Dishes lay unwashed. Books are half-read. And all I want is to feel okay. I'm no longer seeking happiness, just an okay feeling. To have my brain not tell me I'm horrible and to actually get stuff done would be nice. Having happiness may not be something that I deserve, but I at least don't deserve this.

It's gotten to the point where nothing that my friends say brings comfort. Their only response is "Go see a therapist," which I've started. I've had two appointments so far, and I'm not sure that's helping. I'm starting to be convinced that I'll be stuck this way forever, and there's no hope for me. Maybe medication will help, or maybe the side effects will be so bad that I'll just give up.

I don't know. All I know is that I cannot stay here, attempting to shut down everything that I feel. I can't keep withdrawing and avoiding, holding out until this nonsense goes away. It's not going away. It's getting worse.

I keep waiting for that one thing that's going to take it all away, but I'm not sure that thing exists. Exercising 30 minutes a day doesn't help, volunteering to walk dogs doesn't help, reading self-help books and practice the activities doesn't help, and watching TV only helps for a short period of time. Is there such a thing as getting better? Perhaps the one thing that I need is time.




Thursday, April 9, 2015

Cajun F - Fais-do-do

At the end of major festivals, Cajuns tend to host a "fais-do-do" pronounced "Fay-doh-doh," like the dodo bird. The fais-do-do is basically square dancing for Cajuns. Live bands are invited to play French folk music, which I've heard has a 3/4 pattern, like a waltz. Some bands sing in English, but most that I know sing in French since they're typically older men who play acoustic guitars, accordions, washboards, and drums. Young people and old people come together for fais-do-dos with older people demonstrating how to do traditional dances. Some steps are rather easy, but other steps require the male to spin his partner around and then they step backwards for a while. Amazingly, the old people don't trip, and they sure know how to dance.

I've only been taught to dance one traditional style, which was a very boring "one-two-three" step with your hands on your partner's shoulder. I wish I would've learned the exciting backwards dance, not the slow one.

As a young kid, we sort of invented our own "traditional" dance. You link hands, step to the left, step to the right, and then spin! I always enjoyed dancing that way, but I'm pretty sure it exhausted my cousin.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Cajun E - Etouffee

As soon as I moved away from Cajun Country, I noticed a huge difference in the kinds of food that people served. Even as close as Baton Rouge, people don't know what a real gumbo is. Northern food tends to be lighter, less fatty, and kind of bland. It lacks the cayenne kick or the roux luster that Cajun food has.

Unfortunately, I don't know how to cook Cajun food. I never really learned because when my mom made some, it took hours. Not so much labor intensive, but the food required a lot of shimmering and stewing.

Here are some common Cajun foods:

Etouffee: a creamy sauce/white stew with seafood, usually shellfish like shrimp or crawfish, served over rice. My mom always made this with the leftover crawfish we had, so I typically avoided it because I'm allergic to crawfish.

Gumbo: a thick, dark colored hot "soup." Its consistency is between a stew and a soup, but it's not thin at all. Usually, people just throw in whatever they want, such as okra, seafood, chicken, andouille sausage, celery, onion, and such. The base is a roux, which is made from heating and constantly mixing flour and oil until it turns the color you desire. (Creole gumbo around New Orleans is more tomato-based.) This dish is usually served with rice and potato salad.

Rice dressing (dirty rice): When I talked to my New Orleans classsmates, they really didn't know what this was. They called it a Cajun thing. It's essentially seasonings mixed with green onions, ground liver, and rice. The liver is the best part since the texture is soft and chewy. I always thought it was ground beef when I was young. Even though I know it's liver now, I still eat it. It's honestly one of my favorite things to eat when my family gets together.

Boudin: Essentially, Cajun sausage. It's a mix of rice, meat, and other stuff in a synthetic casing. This is probably my sister's favorite thing. Fun fact: the casing is synthetic because it used to be made with intestines. You can eat the casing, but it's very chewy and not pleasant. Fun fact: Whenever I do eat intestines, it reminds me of boudin. It might sound gross, but it's delicious.

Po' boys: This is basically a sandwich that has fried seafood and other sandwich dressings, such as lettuce, tomatoes, and such. New Orleans tends to have very fancy po' boys that don't look like po' boys to me. What makes this different from other sandwiches is the bread. It's kind of like a soft french bread. Po' boy stands for "poor boy," and these sandwiches are usually cheap and not fancy. They were for poor working men who needed something to eat, but now pretty much everyone eats them.

Cracklin: This is basically pork rinds (fried pork skin with a little bit of fat attached).

Pecan pralines: A sticky, sweet candy bar like dessert. A lot of people like this during pecan season, though I don't care much for it. It'll break your teeth if you're not careful.
 
*Jambalaya (pronounced Jumbolaya): This is more of a Creole thing, not a Cajun thing. It's made with sausage, rice, chicken, and sometimes vegetables. It's more of a tomato-based rice mix. I only ever had this at school and not at home.

I think that covers the major foods. Most Cajun foods are made with seafood and rice. The "holy trinity" of Cajun cooking, which is almost in every dish, is made up of celery, garlic, and bell peppers. Cajun food really isn't spicy at all. There's just enough to taste the flavor, but it's probably considerably more than what northern Americans are used to.

My family never really used Tabasco sauce even though the factory where it's made is close by to my hometown. We owned a few bottles, but never really used them. Other people do use it though, and you can find bottles in pretty much every restaurant if you need an extra kick in your food.




Saturday, April 4, 2015

Cajun D - Derouen

There are typically few ways to tell who is Cajun on sight. Though I've only been told I look Cajun by one person (who I thought didn't know what he was talking about), in fact, most of us just look white (many have dark brown eyes and brown hair though). However, if you tell someone your last name, then they can most likely identify you as Cajun. For example, one man asked me what my last name and replied, "Oh, so you're Cajun. What's your momma's maiden name?" After he knew both my last and my mom's maiden name, he said, "Ooh, you got crazy on both sides of the family," which is funny, 'cause the man himself had a Cajun accent. He apparently had crazy in his family, too. For kicks and giggles, here's a list of names that usually gives someone's Cajun heritage away.

As a side note, I should mention you typically can't tell if someone is Cajun by their accent. Older people and those who live in the country do have some sort of accent, but most younger people (those 50 and younger) don't have accents. For some reason, my northern colleagues can't wrap their heads around this idea. The Cajun language and accent is typically dying off, but that's another post for another day.

Common Cajun last names:

Derouen - pronounced DUR-waunh (I'm not sure how to write the n sound. It's like an uhn sound in the back of your throat and not an n nasal sound)

Hebert - pronounced - A - bear (The A is the name of the letter, where as AH is in the back of your throat, like a Korean agreeing with someone saying auhn. I'm not sure this sound exists in English. Sorry. It's similar to pawn, but a little different, stopping short of pronouncing the n.)

Landry - pronounced LAN-dree, but with a Cajun French accent, it's like LAUN-dry

Bonin - BOH-Nehn

Fotenet -fauh-EHN-noe (I'm not sure about this English spelling to be honest)

Bertrand - BUR-trand

Broussard - BRU-ssahrd

Trahan - TRAU-hauhn

Leblanc - LE-blauhn

Guidry - GIH - dree (it's a short i not a long i, so the i sound that's at the top of your mouth, not the ee sound in the back of your mouth)

Richard - REE- shard

Terriot - tear-RI-oh

Savoie - SAH-vuwah

Pellerin - PEL-ler-rehuhn (I'm not sure how to write the rin sound. It's like you start saying ran, but end up with ehn. raehn, maybe?)

Melancon - Meh-LAUHN-sauhn

Dugas - DOO-gah

Foret - FOUR-ey

Prejean - PREY- jauhn

Guilbeaux - GIHLL-bow

Comeaux - CO-moe

Doucet - DOO-set

Cormier - cor-ME-a

Leger - LAY-jay

Dupuis - DOO-pree

Champagne - SHAH-pine

Barras - BAH-rah

Boudreaux - BOO-droe

Thibodeaux - Tih (short i)-BEH-doe

Gautreaux - GO-troe

Breaux - BRO

Babineaux - Baa-BIN-noe

There are others, but these are the most common ones I can think of. Have fun trying to pronounce them!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Cajun C - Cajun Country

I like to think that most people associate Cajuns with Louisiana, but unfortunately, most people also associate Cajuns with New Orleans. Here's a map (though I admit outdated) showing the percentages of Cajuns in each parish (fun fact: Louisiana has parishes instead of counties due to its French influence, and the Louisiana constitution is also based on Napoleonic codes instead of British stuff).


New Orleans is towards the right, underneath the middle of that concave empty space. It's highlighted with 4-12% of that population within the parish claiming to be Cajun in 1990. Here's a map from 2000, with the population percentages based on the whole US population. So, we can see that the number of Cajuns in New Orleans is very small. Repeat, "New Orleans is not Cajun." Very good, my minions. You are learning well.

Here's yet another map color-coating the different regions in Louisiana:


I will make you a believer yet! Source
Cajun Country is in south Louisiana, near the Gulf of Mexico. The "heart" of Cajun Country is Lafayette, Louisiana, which is in that tiny parish right above the r and y in "Country." Being the biggest city in that area and a hog that tries to steal everyone's land, Lafayette has a ginormous ego and likes to think it's everything Cajun. They even hold a festival celebrating both Cajuns and Creoles, which makes sense since the two groups have influenced each other. It's called Festivals Acadiens et Creoles. However, smaller towns around Lafayette also host festivals, but on a much smaller scale. If you really want to experience Cajun culture, I highly encourage you to go to a small town, such as Mamou (pronounced Mah-moo) or Breaux (pronounced Broh) Bridge.

So, as you can see, New Orleans is not Cajun. In fact, New Orleans is a mix of a lot of things, and you can spend years discussing New Orleans' colorful history, everything from their first education system run by Jesuits to rebuilding after fires and floods. New Orleans really is fascinating in its own right. However, New Orleans was essentially populated by Creoles, people whose parents came from the Old World and were born in the New World. First, Creoles were typically from Europe, Spain and France mostly. However, because their mate options were limited, they began to marry Native Americans and free Africans. New Orleans actually had a color hierarchy, in which the more white blood you had, the more power and money you typically had, but their system wasn't white vs. black. It was white, quadroon (1/4 African/Aboriginal blood), octaroon (1/8 African/Aboriginal blood), and so on. More info at Wikipedia. People who considered themselves Creoles thought they were high and mighty over poor Cajuns until more people with African blood considered themselves Creoles, and creole became a dirty, insulting word. It's really unfortunate and a dark part of New Orleans' history, but it's a necessary discussion about racism in my opinion.

Regardless, Cajuns were typically not welcome in New Orleans because they were poor and not Creole. Cajuns were basically to Creoles as the Irish were to the Puritans. Hence, they weren't wanted in New Orleans and eventually over time moved to the area or were pushed out to the area we now call Cajun Country.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Cajun B - Bayou




Our most common body of water down south in Louisiana is the bayou. Quite frankly, perhaps I'm wrong, but I haven't heard of a bayou anywhere else but maybe besides in Texas and Mississippi, our neighboring states. A quick search in the Oxford English Dictionary explains that a bayou is a "marshy off-shoot and overflowing of lakes and rivers" (Source). In fact, that dictionary has it labeled as American French and says it comes from the Choctaw word bayuk. You'll find a lot of words like that in Cajun, including the word gumbo. We adopt words from groups of people that we've interacted in. Hence, if you listen to some Cajun French speakers, it sounds like they're just taking English words and throwing a French accent on them (no joke).

Bayous are like smaller-sized rivers. They're brown, muddy, and mucky, and only crazy people swim in the bayous. Legitimately. If there's one thing Northerners don't understand when they come down to Louisiana is why no one swims in the water. Because brain-eating ameobas, anybody? On top of that, the water is filled with bacteria, mud, fertilizers from the north, and alligators. After you, my friend, you can be the one to test drive the water. While I've heard of people swimming in Lake Pontchartrain around New Orleans and then dying from it, I don't think we Cajuns are that crazy that we'd swim in Louisiana's waters, at least definitely not the bayous.

Instead, we like to have alligator races. In my hometown, they used to host an annual alligator race (I don't know if they have it anymore. I can't find anything after 2012). It was called the Great Gator Race and raised money for the community. They'd take plastic alligators and float them down the Bayou Teche.

Those green things are small plastic alligators. Source



It was a very peculiar thing to see, while driving over the bridge and spotting a ton of toy alligators floating underneath it. I miss seeing bayous and rivers. Up here in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania, we're landlocked by mountains. I haven't been over a bridge in almost a year. It's definitely a very odd experience to go from living in a town with multiple bridges to living in a town with no bridge whatsoever. In fact, when I leave this town and go to towns with bridges, I get giddy inside. Bridges are a reminder of home.

Bayous are a part of Cajun life. A good bit of our living down south is made from fishing for seafood and hunting alligators. The swamp shows you see are an exaggeration of accents and life down south that are very cringe worthy in my opinion. I don't know how Pennsylvania people live up here without decent seafood. Here it's about $8 for 0.8 oz of catfish. On top of that, the catfish is farm-raised. Its flavor is very different from the dirty-water flavor you get when you buy catfish freshly caught for about $20 for 2-3lbs. I prefer the catfish from home in the bayous. They're larger, cheaper, and have a characteristic flavor with more tender meat.