Black History Month is a time to remember the legacies that our Louisiana people have offered to the world. You may already know that The Southern Christian Leadership Conference began in New Orleans, with Martin Luther King Jr. as its president.
Our city was a natural starting place because of its history a century earlier. At that time, according to census data in the 1800s, 45% of New Orleans’ Black population was free when the national average was just 14%, including the northern states. A high percentage of self-purchase during the Spanish period, mixed-race households and “natural children,” rapes (although these children were rarely acknowledged) and more led to the large free Black population.
As a result, New Orleanians led in many areas of legal efforts for equal rights. Read Rudolph Desdunes’s “Our People and Our History” translated from the French by Sister Dorthea Olga McCants to get a first-person account. The French version is accessible for free on Gutenberg.org as “Nos Hommes et Notre Histoire.”
While you may not read French, know that this is a book written by someone who lived through that history and who describes major figures in the Creole community who worked in Reconstruction in New Orleans and the state and resisted white supremacy. (ps Creole does not mean light-skinned but born in the Louisiana territory and, in Desdunes book, free at the time of his writing. Some were born enslaved.)
A more recent book about the New Orleans activists is “We As Freemen: Plessy v Ferguson” by Keith Medley. He covers some of the same territory as Desdunes but you will recognize many familiar names from your neighborhoods, schools, and oral histories.
Another book that will describe New Orleans’s black history, especially with regard to the status and challenges of black women from Africa is Jessica Marie Johnson’s “Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World.” They were called “wicked” because they exercised their power at a time when black women were supposed to have none.
“Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market” by Walter Johnson reveals a New Orleans that you should not ignore. A book that addresses a more contemporary history is “Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans” by LaKisha Michelle Simmons. Put these books on your Black History Month reading list for insight into the foundations of the city many of us consider home.
I devoted the earlier part of this column to nonfiction history, so let me use the Embers section to tell you about contemporary literary news. The Blk Ink Book Festival (not to be confused with the Black Ink Book Festival in Charlotte) took place on Jan. 28 in City Park with 74 black authors displaying and selling their books.
Organizer Michelle Jackson estimated the crowd that flowed in and out of the Pavilion of the Two Sisters all day at about 500 people. Poet and Dillard professor Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy, romance writer Farrah Rochon, and fantasy author Alex Jennings were featured. Others were self-published aka “independent” writers, Jackson said. She aims to serve the huge market of Black readers and writers who are underserved by large publishing houses.
The Blk Ink Book Festival, which welcomed all writers and readers, grew from her private Facebook page, Black Writers Workspace, now with more than 13 thousand followers. (You must request to join.) Jackson is a transplant of seven years to New Orleans and plans to put on another festival next year in the city. Watch for it! I will.
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