These first four decades of the 19th century were magnetic years for this city, the time when people from around the globe came to New Orleans, a port second only to New York when ships were lined up six deep at the riverfront. New Orleans' free people of color and the enslaved were a significant part of the attraction -" as labor, skilled tradesmen and merchants -" and so a crucial component in the economy.
It was 1850 before the percentages of free people vis-Ã-vis of the general population diminished. Throughout this time, the free men were not the impotent, rakish fops that fiction then and now portrays. There were significant leaders such as FranÃ§ois Boisdore', an orator and second generation businessman who complained that moved educated men like him -" war veterans and landowners -" should be treated the same as whites, especially with regard to the vote. "When men come here from Ireland or Germany they are not treated like puppies. After they have been here a certain length of time, they are admitted to all the rights of freemen. Go to the registration office and see the crosses there of Irishmen and Germans who cannot write their names. There are no such men here," he told a packed house of colored men in Economy Hall in the 1860s.
FranÃ§ois Lacroix was "a millionaire traveling toward penniless poverty at the rate of fifty or a hundred thousand dollars per day - the old octoroon," according to the Daily Picayune in 1874. A former free man of color who had lost his son in a march for the vote, Francois Lacroix stopped paying taxes. Whether because of losing his mind or in protest, this "owner of innumerable properties in New Orleans and adjoining parishes; owner of dwellings and stores which some months ago were paying an aggregate rental of $3,800 per month; sitting on the steps of the rostrum smoking a cigar while the auctioneer knocks down his houses and lands for a mere song."
Andre Cailloux, whose funeral mass took place in the Saint Rose of Lima church on Bayou Road, was a hero of the Civil War. "Immense crowds of colored people had by this time gathered around the building and the streets leading there were rendered almost impassible.... Esplanade Street for more than a mile was lined with colored societies, both male and female, in rank order, waiting for the hearse to pass through," according to the New York Times.
These are the free people of color and former slaves that the play doesn't address -" possibly can't address given the drama's structural and time limits. But, as playgoers, readers and the storytellers of our community's history, we must have knowledge beyond the stereotypes.
Our Community Should Know
As written, Guare's main character was a slave owner. It is true that many free people of color were slave owners. We should know that because Carter Woodson wrote Free Negro Owners of Slaves in 1924. Also one trip to the New Orleans Notorial Archives or the Conveyance Office will prove our local participation in slavery.
In the play, the slave owner and his enslaved servant took turns at outwitting and scheming on each other. People in our community still play such tricks, and we are divided and conquered still.
Guare's main character was Jacques Cornet, a nobody as far as history goes. Other characters were Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Meriwether Lewis (of explorers Lewis and Clark.)We recognize them, but we know less of the people involved in our history. Rodolphe Desdunes wrote Our People and Our History in 1911, as part of a movement of intellectuals to set the record straight about people of African descent. This movement of writers included Martin Delany, William Wells Brown, and W.E.B. Dubois. We may know more about his book, The Philadelphia Negro, because Desdunes wrote in French and was published in Canada. The book didn't reach English readers until 1973.
There are also people whose names are even less easily found. But we should know them by their smooth plaster surfaces, the marks of their ironwork, their bricklaying that supports the beams of our cherished old homes. We carry their traditions if we can do the brickwork, construction, the sewing and beading that made our culture precious. If we appreciate that, then we better understand the allusions to costume and fashion in the Guare play. Jacques Cornet is wedded to his clothes because he is a peacock, but also because adornment, color and style carried New Orleanians' identities from the tignon to the Mardi Gras Indians.
So a grand, historical production like has much relevance for us, not just for white audiences who are discovering our history. It asks us too, what do we know about the past and how do we deal with its memories and mistakes. Like good theater, A Free Man of Color, makes us think. The gaudy, self-centered and comical Cornet fails. He disappears into anonymity. His prancing from bed to bed, frivolous spending and pompous immorality are seen finally, not simply as humorous, but wasteful.
Now that our Katrina drama is diminishing, perhaps it is time to consider what marks our community in the 21st century. Do we carry the flames of the past due to our knowledge and clear-mindedness, or do we reside in our gaiety and incompetence, living the stereotypes of ourselves?
A play such as A Free Man of Color, bringing the past of our community to the wider American stage suggests that we must continue to know who we are. And before time passes us by, we had better make sure that everyone knows our true worth.
FATIMA SHAIK is the author of four books and numerous articles set in New Orleans. A native of the 7th ward, she is completing a non-fiction account of the Socie'te' d' Economie (Economy Society) and its radical, political and multi-ethnic black community of men who stepped onto the world's stage, then disappeared. This article first appeared in the New Orleans Tribune. It also appears, along with other original articles you will not find anywhere else can be found at ThisCantBeHappening!, the new online alternative newspaper, at www.thiscantbehappening.net