ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
A comparison between the white interpretation of slavery as appeared in Gumbo Ya-Ya and
the black interpretation as presented in The History of the Negro in Louisiana indicates how
the two groups of writers differed in their interpretations of the slave experience.
Books by Marcus Bruce Christian
Song of the Black Valiants: Marching Tempo / High Ground: A Collection of Poems / Negro soldiers in the Battle of New Orleans
I am New Orleans: A Poem / Negro Ironworkers of Louisiana, 17181900 / The Liberty Monument
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The Federal Writers Project For Blacks in Louisiana
By Ronnie W. Clayton
Division of Social Science / Meridian Junior College / Meridian, Mississippi
During the Great Depression of the 1930s numerous work programs evolved to assist the unemployed. The largest and perhaps best remembered of these programs is the Works Progress Administration.1 One phase of the WPA was the Federal Writers Project.2 Developers of this program decided to employ attorneys, teachers, newspapermen, photographers, librarians, archivists, typists, cartographers, and others with training in research, writing, and editing to prepare travel guidebooks to the states and to some of their larger cities.3
The national director of the Federal Writers Project, Henry Alsberg, selected directors for the various state writers projects and therefore appointed the dean of Louisiana writers, Lyle Saxon of New Orleans, to head the Louisiana Writers Project.4 Accepting his appointment in late 1935,5 Saxon selected his staff to work on the three main publications of the Louisiana Writers Project, Louisiana: A Guide to the State, the New Orleans City Guide, and Gumbo Ya-Ya.6 Unlike the two guides, the latter work embraces Louisiana folklore.
As soon as the writers program began in Louisiana, Saxon received applications from black writers. To provide work for them Saxon developed a federal writers project for blacks in Louisiana. The project was called the Dillard Writers Project because of its location, Dillard University.
The person partially responsible for generating momentum for the Dillard Writers Project was James B. LaFourche. Despite his training and experience as a journalist, WPA officials assigned LaFourche to a manual labor job when he applied for work on the Writers Project. He resented digging and ditching, and brought his complaint to the attention of the Executive Secretary of the Joint Committee on National Recovery, John Davis of New York. Impressed with LaFourches credentials as well as with the validity of his complaint, Davis contacted Henry Alsberg and other national WPA officials. They suggested that he contact Saxon about assigning LaFourche to the Louisiana Writers Project.7
Davis wrote Saxon that common justice required the proportionate employment of Negroes on writers projects. Only blacks, contended Davis, could accurately portray the record of Negro life in Louisiana. Saxon should avoid this excuse, Davis wrote, that a lack of funds precluded hiring negro writers every bit as capable and doubly as needy as white writers.8
Saxon informed Davis that he hired persons strictly on the basis of their ability as writers and on the sequence of their applications. Race, he insisted, did not enter into the picture. His problem, Saxon protested, was truly a lack of funds to hire needy writers on relief rolls, both black and white.9
Saxon indicated that LaFourche was only one of several blacks seeking work on the Louisiana Writers Project, and suggested that their best chance for employment was on a segregated writers project he hoped to create. To do so, however, he needed additional funds from Alsberg, and Saxon asked Davis to encourage the national director to release funds for the Negro project.10
Saxon then contacted Alsberg about the possibility of a black writers project in Louisiana. The plight of the educated Negro in the South, he told the national director, was most unfortunate, and that a partial remedy could be found in the establishment of a black writers project in New Orleans. The black writers would routinely gather material for inclusion in the state guide and the city guide, but, in addition, Saxon proposed that they would also prepare a history of their race from time of their arrival in Louisiana until the 1930s. Saxon agreed to edit the work and find a publisher for the volume. The black writers project, he concluded, would be the best solution to the delicate . . . situation in which he found himself, despite his efforts to avoid being influenced in any way by local politics.11
While Alsberg mulled Saxons request for a Negro project in Louisiana, the idea gained new thrust when Edgar B. Stern, president of the Board of Trustees at Dillard University, notified Alsberg of his desire to cooperate to the fullest extent, in developing a writers project for Negroes in Louisiana. Stern assured Alsberg that Dillard had an excellent faculty to supervise the work undertaken by some of the institutions needy students. He felt certain Alsberg was aware of the traditional difficulty in the lower South of mixed Projects and could understand his desire for getting the granting of funds for an all-Negro project.12
Enthusiasm for the Dillard Writers Project was also forthcoming from Lawrence D. Reddick, a member of the Department of History at Dillard. Alsberg should, wrote Reddick, immediately allocate funds for the project. Materials were available for a study of the Negro in Louisiana, competent unemployed blacks to compile the history were registered for relief, and the need for such a history was overwhelming.13
Alsberg concluded that the Dillard Project had merit, and in January, 1936, he authorized Saxon to employ ten additional writers, five of whom could be blacks to begin work on the Dillard Project. Thus, approximately four months after the Louisiana Writers Project began, the Dillard Project got underway, but immediately encountered several difficulties.14
A continuing problem for the Dillard writers was their limited access to public records. The writers were not received well in the public libraries and on occasion were denied entry. Some librarians told Saxon the blacks were not welcome and they were not to return. When admitted the writers were segregated from the white patrons and a few librarians refused to provide the materials sought by the workers. One Dillard worker claimed it was necessary to know the complete holdings of the libraries because librarians would provide only the material specifically requested.15
The Dillard Project workers also encountered difficulty gathering information from some Negro cult leaders. These leaders, suspicious of Dillard workers because of their education, knew the black writers could not be tricked like their uneducated customers. Nevertheless, blacks, in general, were more expressive to the Dillard writers than they were to the white writers of the Louisiana Writers Project.16
Despite these and other, more personal, obstacles to information, the Dillard writers gathered information about their people for inclusion in the publications of the Louisiana Writers Project and the Dillard Writers Project. How each group used this common material is instructive, for whites saw the black experience in Louisiana differently than did the blacks. This contrast is best illustrated by comparing Gumbo Ya-Ya with the outline and prospectus of the intended black history written by the Dillard workers.
Gumbo Ya-Ya is the most creative work done by the Louisiana Writers Project. The folklore book was ideally suited for Saxon, an authority of the history of Louisiana and especially on the folklore of the state. He edited the manuscript and saw it through to publication, and of the three main publications of the Louisiana Writers Project, Gumbo Ya-Ya was Saxons favorite. In a letter to Paul Brooks of Houghton Mifflin, Saxon stated that he had put a good deal of [him]self into this book and that was his pet. He considered it more important, in its way, than the Guide Books.17 He wrote Lee Barker, also of Houghton Mifflin, that he would certainly like to get the Folklore book out before closing the LWP. Personally, concluded Saxon, I think it is our masterpiece.18
According to Gumbo Ya-Ya, the antebellum period was the golden age for Louisianians. The best of all possible worlds existed in the South and it was destroyed, stated the text. If only a portion of this remembered grandeur once existed in reality, it said, Louisiana plantation life must have been almost paradisiacal.19
A comparison between the white interpretation of slavery as appeared in Gumbo Ya-Ya and the black interpretation as presented in The History of the Negro in Louisiana indicates how the two groups of writers differed in their interpretations of the slave experience. Gumbo Ya-Ya, for example, did not consider the institution of slavery during the antebellum period as heinous. Blacks as well as whites owned slaves and the Negro master of other Negroes is reputed to have been the sternest of all slave owners. Whites generally treated their slaves well, for they were valuable property. Owners of large plantations provided hospitals for their slaves and small plantation owners personally cared for their sick subjects. Slave owners also provided excellent child care so that the mothers of the youngsters might work in the fields. Expectant slave mothers in most cases received careful attention because each child increased the planters wealth.20
During the antebellum period race relations, observed Gumbo Ya-Ya, were excellent. Harmony between whites and blacks began at birth. The plantation owner assigned to his newborn child a slave for life. A daughter received a mammy and a son a valet who became one of the beloved Uncles. Slaves loved these assignments. They were proud of the honor and boasted of raising the chillum. Some slaves received emancipation like confused and lost children and exhibited strange reaction to emancipation. A few tried to pretend their status had never changed. These worked without wages and without wanting them. They evidenced affection for the white folk who had kept them all these years and could not be pried loose from their owners.21
Despite this utopia allegedly existing during the antebellum period, some slaves sought to leave their masters and others tried to rebel against them. Gumbo Ya-Ya noted, however, the slave rebellions were surprisingly rare. Uprisings were not initiated by discontented slaves but by northern abolitionists. As early as 1839, abolitionists were fomenting discontent among the Negroes and actually promoting disorders.22
The Dillard writers planned to present the black experience in Louisiana from their viewpoint. This account differed from the one appearing in the guides and in Gumbo Ya-Ya. The black writers maintained that Negroes did make cultural contributions to the state, that slavery was not acceptable system of labor, that slaves longed for their freedom, and that blacks were not always duped by whites.
According to the outline of the intended Dillard history, slaves made numerous efforts in concert with white liberals to win their freedom. While their white counterparts claimed in Gumbo Ya-Ya that slave rebellions were surprisingly rare, the black-prepared outline maintained that there were so many insurrections and attempts at insurrections that it [was] hardly possible to name them all. Because whites held blacks in bondage, a pall of nameless fear hung over the entire Southland. Whites knew that some terrible day of retribution would come in which waves of human blood would be spilled to pay the debt that the American Commonwealth owed the slaves.23
Louisiana slaves capitalized upon the invasion of the Union army into the state. They rushed to arms to serve General Benjamin F. Butler in New Orleans. Through their enlistment, declared the prospectus, Louisiana blacks set the precedent by which Negro soldiers were later enlisted in the Union Armies. Blacks were also instrumental in obtaining suffrage for their race. . . . It was largely due to Mechanics Hall Riot of 1866 that universal suffrage was accorded to Negroes of the United States. . . .24
While Gumbo Ya-Ya tended to portray blacks in a stereotype role of buffoons, the Dillard writers intended to describe whites in a jocular fashion. In their history blacks outwitted whites, as illustrated in the story of a mulatto fleeing a Negro trader named Hall.*
The mulatto, according to the outline, fled his master in New Orleans, crossed the Mississippi River, and went into Algiers. Somehow the slave trader, Hall, learned of the escape and pretended the slave was the property of a North Carolina master. Hall followed the runaway to Algiers and asked other slaves for information. One slave mischievously pointed out a dark-complexioned Creole in a nearby barroom as the runaway slave.25
Hall approached the Creole and pretended to admire his shirt cuffs. The unsuspecting Creole proudly extended his arms so that his admirer might have a better view of the cuffs. The Negro trader quickly handcuffed the Creole and dragged him away for a trip to the slave market in New Orleans. The Creole, however, was a well-known citizen of Algiers. He began to scream that he was being kidnapped. Hall ignored the protestations and said for all to hear: I know you well; you belong to Colonel ______, in North Carolina. The Creole replied by shouting: Je ne suis pas un naigre! Je ne suis pas un naigre! While Hall did not know the Creole was shouting, I am not a negro! I am not a negro! his nearby friends did. They immediately released the Creole and placed Hall in jail.26
Although the account of Negro life in Louisiana differed significantly in the manuscripts of Gumbo Ya-Ya and in The History of the Negro in Louisiana, neither one was complete when the Federal Writers Project came to an end.27 Because of Americas involvement in World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt on December 4, 1942, ordered the liquidation of the Work Projects Administration. He granted the relief program two months in which to cease all operations.28 As head of the writers programs in Louisiana, Lyle Saxon had to make deposition of all project materials.
Because of his desire to finish the Dillard history and to have it published, Saxon made a different deposition of the Dillard materials than he did for the records of the Louisiana Writers Project. Saxon noted in his final report on project activities that the Dillard history manuscript was virtually complete when the project ended. The manuscript consisted of 1,128 pages which constituted forty-six chapters. A conclusion apparently was all that required to complete the work.29
Head of the Dillard Project, Marcus B. Christian, asked Saxon to leave the materials at Dillard where Christian might finish the manuscript. Saxon considered Christians request and wrote A. W. Dent, President of Dillard University. Based on Christians solicitations, wrote Saxon, Dillard was the logical place to leave the materials. He asked President Dent to keep him abreast of developments for he wished to edit the manuscript and to have it published. The Dillard President expressed pleasure at having the materials deposited at Dillard and remarked that he would make the records available to the public.30
Upon learning about the special arrangement Saxon made with Christian and Dent, Clarice H. Rougeou, State Director of the Service Division, questioned Saxon about the wisdom of leaving public records with a private institution.
Rougeou preferred to leave the Dillard records with the Louisiana Library Commission in Baton Rouge, a public agency, sponsor of the project, and the organization with whom Saxon left the records of the Louisiana Writers Project.31
Saxon decided to entrust Dillard University with the Dillard Writers material since the records were there and Christian and Dent promised completion of The History of the Negro in Louisiana. The work, however, was never published. Its fate as well as that of the records is something of a mystery. Several theories have been espoused as to their whereabouts.
According to one version, a storm damaged the records and the Dillard librarians destroyed them.32 Another view, however, contends that the records are extant and in the possession of a former Dillard writer33 who refuses to part with them or to discuss the project.34 If this is so, then the last chapter of the history of the black writers project, in Louisiana remains to be written. It and when it is, the true black experience in Louisiana will at last be revealed by those who knew it best.
[See also, Jerah Johnson, “Marcus B. Christian and the WPA History of Black People in Louisiana.”]
1 On July 1, 1939, the name was changed to Work Projects Administration.
2 The Federal Writers Project was part of Federal Project No. 1, also known as the Four Arts Projects.
3 Lyle Saxon, The Federal Writers Project in Louisiana, The Bulletin of the Louisiana Library Association, II (September, 1938), 2; Kathleen OConnor McKinzie, Writers on Relief: 19351942 (Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 1970), pp. 2627; News release (Record Group 69, National Archives). Unless specifically cited otherwise the documents cited herein are held in Record Group 69, National Archives: Records of the Works Projects Administration, Records of the Federal Writers Project, Records Relating to the WPA Writers Project in Louisiana, National Archives. Herein cited as FWP-La.
4 New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 10, 1946; New York Times, April 10, 1946, p. 28; Who Was Who in America, III (Chicago, 1960). Saxon contributed to Dial, New Republic, and Century Magazine. Several of his short stories were translated into German and Cane River won for him the O. Henry Memorial Prize for 1926. His most notable books were Father Mississippi (1927), Fabulous New Orleans (1928), Old Louisiana (1929), Lafitte the Pirate (1930), and Children of Strangers (1937).
5 Saxon was appointed State Director of the Louisiana Writers Project in October, 1935. He reported to work on October 15. Lyle Saxon to Henry Alsberg, October 17, 1935, FWP-La.
6 During its history from October, 1935, to January, 1943, the Louisiana Writers Project had but two major books published. These were the New Orleans City Guide in 1938 and Louisiana: A Guide to the State in 1938 and 1945, after the project closed. All three books generally were well received by the reading public and by the book critics.
7 James B. LaFourche to John Davis, November 30, 1935; Henry Alsberg to James LaFourche, December 30, 1935; Jacob Baker to John Davis, December 19, 1935; John Davis to Aubrey Williams, December 6, 1935. FWP-La.
8 John Davis to Lyle Saxon, December 12, 1935, ibid.
9 Lyle Saxon to John Davis, December 15, 1935, ibid.
11 Lyle Saxon to Henry Alsberg, December 16, 1935 (Louisiana Collection, Louisiana State Library, Baton Rouge, Louisiana). Hereinafter cited as LaCol-LSLBR.
12Edgar B. Stern to Henry Alsberg, January 3, 1936, FWP-La.
13 Lawrence D. Reddick to Henry Alsberg, January 8, 1936, ibid.
14 Henry Alsberg to Lyle Saxon, January 10, 1936 ibid.
15 Interview with a former Dillard Project worker who asked to remain anonymous, January 22, 1974.
16 Interview with Caroline Durieux, January 27, 1974.
17 Lyle Saxon to Paul Brooks, March 5, 1943, Lyle Saxon Collection (Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University, New Orleans, La.). Hereinafter cited as LSCol-HTML.
18 Lyle Saxon to Lee Barker, December 8, 1942, ibid.
19Lyle Saxon, Edward Dreyer, and Robert Tallant (comps.) Gumbo Ya-Ya: A Collection of Louisiana Folk Tales (Boston, 1945), pp. 21213.
20 Ibid., 22932. Gumbo Ya-Ya: A Collection of Louisiana Folk Tales deals with the folklore of all Louisianians, not just blacks. The author uses the chapters on slavery for comparative analysis.
21 Ibid., pp. 232, 256.
22 Ibid., pp. 25455.
* No first name cited.
23 Outline of The Negro in Louisiana, LSCol-HTML.
24 Prospectus of The Negro in Louisiana, ibid.
25 Outline of The Negro in Louisiana, ibid.
27 Although Saxon had most of the manuscript ready for publication when the project ended on January 1, 1943, it was not published until the fall of 1945. For a discussion of the reasons behind the delay see Ronnie W. Clayton, A History of the Federal Writers Project in Louisiana (Ph.D. Dissertation, Louisiana State University, 1974), 212229.
28 Francis T. Bourne (comp.), Preliminary Checklist of the Central Correspondence Files of WPA and its Predecessors, 19331944, (March, 1946), FWP-La.
29 Lyle Saxon, Final Report of Louisiana Writers Project, (January 26, 1943), ibid.
30 Lyle Saxon to A. W. Dent, December 31, 1942, LSCol-HTML. A. W. Dent to Lyle Saxon, December 31, 1942, ibid. As early as 1937, Horace M. Bond commented on the value of the Dillard records when he wrote Saxon that the researchers had obtained invaluable information. This, the raw material of history, will form a permanent collection of great value; and will provide a means by which the project itself can make numerous written contributions to the literature on many subjects. He concluded that by every test the Dillard Project has justified itself. Horace M. Bond to Lyle Saxon, June 9, 1937, ibid.
31 Clarice Rougeou to Lyle Saxon, February 16, 1943, ibid.
32 Interview with Geraldine Odester Amos, January 29, 1974.
33 Interview with Dr. John Blassingame, October 2, 1975.
34This former project writer refused to grant the author an interview or to answer his correspondence.
Source: Louisiana History Vol. 19 (1978)
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Bryan, Violet Harrington. The Myth of New Orleans in Literature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1993.
Clayton, Ronnie W. The Federal Writers Project for Blacks in Louisiana. Louisiana History 19(1978): 327-335.
Dent, Tom. Marcus B. Christian: A Reminiscence and an Appreciation. Black American Literature Forum, 1984, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp. 22-26.
Hessler, Marilyn S. Marcus Christian: The Man and His Collection. Louisiana History 1 (1987):37-55.
Johnson, Jerah. Marcus B. Christian and the WPA History of Black People in Louisiana. Louisiana History 20.1 (1979): 113-115.
Larson, Susan. Poems in the Key of Life. Times-Picayune (Book Section), July 4, 1999.
Lewis, Rudolph. Introduction. I Am New Orleans and Other Poems by Marcus Bruce Christian. Edited by Rudolph Lewis and Amin Sharif. New Orleans: Xavier Review Press, 1999. Reprinted in revised form in Dillard Today 2.3 (2000): 21-24.
Lewis, Rudolph. Magpies, Goddesses, & Black Male Identity in the Romantic Poetry of Marcus Bruce Christian. Paper presented at College Language Association, April 2000, Baltimore, MD.
Lewis, Rudolph. Marcus Bruce Christian and a Theory of a Black Aesthetic. Paper presented at the Zora Neale Hurston Society Conference held June 1999 at University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Published in ZNHS FORUM (Spring 2000).
Peterson, Betsy. Marcus Christian: Portrait of a Poet. Dixie 18 (January 1970).
Redding, Joan. The Dillard Project: The Black Unit of the Louisiana Writers Project. Louisiana History 32.1 (1991): 47-62
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By Tom Dent
A black youth reared in segregated New Orleans, Dent went to Mississippi for the civil rights movement, and that experience stuck with him. So in 1991, he decided to work his way south from Greensboro, N.C., to Mississippi, skirting both large cities and important officials, to talk to (mostly) black folk and to assess the movement’s legacy. At times, Dent’s meandering approach lacks depth and is unwieldy, but his personal connection to his inquiry informs his story with commitment. In Greensboro, the unresolved gap between blacks and whites, exemplified in an anniversary celebration of the city’s historic sit-ins, remind Dent “of the strained interracial meetings of the 1950s.”
In Orangeburg, S.C., a black academic tells him ruefully that many social-work students go into “criminal justice” lacking the broader awareness of the politics behind the new programs. In Albany, Ga., Dent discerns signs of material progress but deep divisions not only between the races but also within the black community. In Mississippi, where he sees black political victories as having had a relatively small payoff, he becomes convinced that a new black organization is needed to supplant the NAACP to address national political issues of special concern to blacks (education, unemployment) and to monitor cases of police and official abuse and discrimination. Though not quite a complete plan, it’s a constructive response to Dent’s conclusion that the civil rights movement opened up doors, but “once inside, well, there was hardly anything there.”Publishers Weekly
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By Melissa V. Harris-Perry
According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless Mammys behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own familys needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.
As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.
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By Ngugi wa Thiong’o
This is a powerful, moving story that details the effects of the infamous Mau Mau war, the African nationalist revolt against colonial oppression in Kenya, on the lives of ordinary men and women, and on one family in particular. Two brothers, Njoroge and Kamau, stand on a rubbish heap and look into their futures. Njoroge is excited; his family has decided that he will attend school, while Kamau will train to be a carpenter. Together they will serve their countrythe teacher and the craftsman. But this is Kenya and the times are against them. In the forests, the Mau Mau is waging war against the white government, and the two brothers and their family need to decide where their loyalties lie. For the practical Kamau the choice is simple, but for Njoroge the scholar, the dream of progress through learning is a hard one to give up.Penguin
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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posted 30 January 2011