“12 Years a Slave” Makes Central Louisiana Focus of International Attention

After a few miles, the Cheneyville, Louisiana fire truck I was following pulled over to the side of the road. It was a desolate expanse of dead cotton. The driver of the truck, a distant cousin of mine whose last name, coincidentally, is also White (we’re actually related through my paternal grandmother’s family), ambled out.

“Here it is,” he said, pointing to the right, while Mack trucks shook by on the two-lane highway. “This is William Prince Ford’s plantation, or what’s left of it.”

I had been contacted a few weeks prior by the BBC, and they were in our caravan, tailing behind us in rented, late model American sedans. I helped arrange the whole thing. I took two of them, Charlie and Rajini, out for crawfish at Tunk’s the night before. LSUA was hosting a symposium on “12 Years a Slave,” and I was there to present my essay, “Why ’12 Years a Slave’ Will Always Matter to Louisiana.” When I discovered the BBC was planning on being there, I invited them – or, perhaps more precisely, I invited myself to tag along.

My distant cousin, Rodney, squinted and pointed to a dilapidated building across the highway. “A slave building,” he called it, one that happened to border the very land Solomon Northup had lived in when he was held captive.

“Can we get any closer?” Rajini asked.

“They need to get a good shot of a slave quarter,” I said, and Rodney agreed. He and Charlie, the BBC radio producer, toppled into his truck and barreled down a mile to ask the property owner for permission to film.

“Do you think my charming British accent will make any difference?”

It did.

Our caravan pulled through the narrow gravel road and then settled into an expansive panorama. While the BBC and my cousin Rodney walked toward the dilapidated slave quarters, I stayed behind, waiting for my friend Zack to arrive. There was a cluttered heap of junk nearby, sitting underneath an old oak tree- some farm equipment, scrap metal, and a discarded jet ski, all piled together, all looking as if they had been sitting there for the better part of a decade.

I snapped a few photos of the old slave quarters. Rodney told me that there were once three on this land, but that my Great Aunt Betty moved two of them to her plantation, Walnut Grove. Once Walnut Grove was sold, one of them was transported to a museum in the New Orleans area.

After I stepped back, I noticed something terrifying: An old noose hanging purposely from the oak tree next to the heap of trash. The noose looked like it had been there for at least a decade. I took a couple of pictures of it and posted one on Facebook, geolocating it to the exact place it hangs outside of rural Cheneyville. One of the BBC reporters asked me, earnestly, if the noose had been there since slavery.

“No,” I said, “the tree itself is not even that old.”

“We’re going to take a picture of this, but on the way out,” the reporter told me.

“Good idea,” I said.

_73296515_noose

Here we are, a ragtag caravan chasing down a story about my great Aunt Sue and the legacy of Solomon Northup and, instead, we find neglect, disintegration, and the weaponry of lynchings all right there, preserved in its perfect dystopia, shielded by its isolation.

Afterward, the BBC took me to visit my Aunt Sue’s headstone outside of Cheneyville, on the banks of Bayou Bouef. I may have not admitted it then, but her headstone moved me. “Myrtle Sue Lyles Eakin,” it read, “She loved this land and its people.”

Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 11.39.23 PM

Six months ago, before the reviews came in, before the red carpet rolled out, before the Oscars and the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild award ceremonies, I, along with several other people, tried my best to get the movie “12 Years a Slave” premiered in Central Louisiana.

To be clear, it wasn’t my idea, and I don’t have any connection or relationship with Fox Searchlight, the film’s distributor. But I was asked to help with logistics, as best as I could, and was advised that the Fox crew was receptive to the screening. Of course, I was more than willing to volunteer because I thought it was a fantastic idea. After all, Solomon Northup spent ten of his twelve years in captivity on the shores of Bayou Boeuf, and if it weren’t for the life’s work of Sue Eakin, a professor of history at Louisiana State University at Alexandria (and as readers know, my great aunt), it is likely that the film would have never been made.

Central Louisiana deserved to have a “12 Years a Slave” premiere.

But it didn’t happen.

Ordinarily, it’d be easy and convenient to blame elected officials for dropping the ball or for playing a game of attrition, but that’s absolutely not the case here. In fact, every elected official I spoke with was enthusiastically supportive. That said, cities don’t host movie premieres without a detailed contract negotiation; believe it or not, we have laws in Louisiana that prohibit the government from providing gratuitous donations to private businesses. It didn’t seem feasible. Regardless, we could get a group of non-profits and community groups to promote the film, which could have screened downtown at the Coughlin-Saunders Performing Arts Center. But there was a big problem: Coughlin-Saunders is too big, and somehow, someone would need to rent and install high tech audio and visual equipment from Baton Rouge, a critical last minute contingency that seemed far too risky for an event this important. There was the possibility of screening the film at the local metroplex, which would have been perfect.

In my opinion, this should have been a no-brainer. The tickets were going to be handed out for free.

That said, it is not necessarily important to reveal who dropped the ball, but it is instructive, I think, to know why the ball was dropped.

During the last several months, I’ve written often about how the American South still struggles with the legacy and the inheritance of slavery. At times, it’s placed me in an awkward position. I strive to be an ambassador of goodwill for my hometown, my state, and my region, and I think it is absolutely critical to dispel stereotypes and challenge conventional wisdom about Louisiana and the South. I strongly and earnestly believe that we’re not as conservative as our politicians suggest that we are, that the future of the State of Louisiana and the American South (and indeed the entire country) will be written by progressive millennials who champion in support of tolerance, inclusiveness, shared sacrifice, and equality.

I believe in a Louisiana renaissance, largely because, over the last decade, I’ve gotten to know dedicated, young, fiercely intelligent, public servants all across the State; I know what is gestating in Louisiana, and I know that, ten years from now, people like Bobby Jindal and David Vitter and John Fleming will seem like ancient memories. I don’t think I’m being overly optimistic. It may take a couple of cycles; it’s always darkest before the dawn. But this, I’m telling you, is inevitable.

I belong to a generation of Louisianians whose faith in our State was actually reinforced by the spirit of resilience and community after Hurricane Katrina, a generation who fell in love with a place they had been running away from, a generation that believes in taking ownership of all of it- our culture, our food, our music, our politics, and our history. And perhaps most importantly, we are not naive; we are weatherworn and battle-tested.

Central Louisiana couldn’t get its act together to host a premiere of this year’s winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, a film that was actually set in Central Louisiana, because a few, unelected white conservative men, sitting on some sort of ad hoc advisory board (of an organization that I will politely refrain from identifying), were worried that an event focusing on “12 Years a Slave” would force an uncomfortable conversation on history and race. Again, it’s not necessary to name names (I’ll do that a little later), and it had absolutely nothing to do with the City of Alexandria; some of you will likely put the pieces together.

Again, as I have been saying for months, we desperately need to have those uncomfortable conversations. If we continue to ignore them, as the adage goes, we’re doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

A few years ago, more than 40,000 protestors converged into Central Louisiana to protest the prosecution of the so-called “Jena Six,” six African-American boys who faced up to 27 years each in prison for allegedly beating up a white student after a series of racist provocations and taunts, some of which seemed to be tacitly ignored by school officials. Jena is nearly forty minutes away from Alexandria, but Alexandria has the airport and, so, as a result, Alexandria was also the staging ground for some of the protests. At the time, Bobby Jindal, then a candidate for Governor, disparagingly called the protestors “outside agitators,” perhaps mistakingly channeling the segregationist Governor George Wallace and other segregationists who believed there was somehow political cache in the term “outside agitator.” But because of those protestors, because of the international attention they focused on this tiny little town in the middle of Nowhere, Louisiana, six black schoolchildren, some of whom were only passive observers to the fight (though it could be argued their passivity may have represented willful negligence), were spared the injustice of a second degree attempted murder trial, the paralyzing fear that they may have had to spend the majority of the adult lives behind bars because of a schoolyard fight with a white boy who, along with his friends and the complacency and poor enforcement their school, helped to create a climate of racial intolerance by brandishing nooses on public school property, essentially in an effort to create a line of demarcation and threaten and terrorize African-Americans.

After the Jena Six protests finally died down and the charges were significantly reduced and either pled out or reassigned, there seems to be little recognition the protestors were hugely important, that they worked, that as unpopular as Reverend Jesse Jackson and Reverend Al Sharpton may be to some in Central Louisiana, they showed up to make a difference, and for them, mission accomplished, that the stages in Alexandria shouldn’t be remembered for what was said about racism but what was accomplished about justice and reconciliation and equal treatment under the law. We need to change the way we think about things: Alexandria hosted a peaceful rally that eventually set into motion the end of the unfair persecution of six African-American teenagers. This is not to suggest that these teenagers were all completely innocent, because they weren’t: It was about ensuring that the punishment fit the crime. And here’s a story you may have never heard, but when a white boy from Grant Parish tied a noose to the trailer hitch of his truck in an attempt to intimidate African-American protestors, Alexandria Mayor Roy, a white man, showed up in his pajamas, late that night, to oversee the kid’s arrest and to assure the crowd that they were welcome to express themselves in our public square.

We are not and should not be scared of our neighbors. We should treat these events as opportunities for discussion, not division.

I mention Jena Six because it’s the most contemporary example of Central Louisiana’s fear and reluctance when it comes to the politics of race.

We have been hiding and ducking and covering from the most important and most difficult conversations, many of which have remained ignored for more than 160 years.

*****

A week ago, when I trailed the BBC down the small highways and byways and dirt roads that link the landscape experienced not only by Solomon Northup but also by members of my family, we stopped outside a church across from Bayou Bouef in Cheneyville.Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 2.32.05 AM

This picture doesn’t do it justice, but on the left is the Trinity Episcopal Church of Cheneyville, flanked on both sides by cemeteries for its white members. Further on the right (if you zoom in), you may notice the remnants of three large columns. It is all that is left of William Prince Ford’s church. Ford, as readers and viewers of “12 Years a Slave” will know, was Solomon’s first slave master in Louisiana. The grounds of his church are now, for the most part, an African-American cemetery, which seems eerily and perhaps ironically appropriate. The black church is on the other side of the bayou, and as I learned last week, when one of their members dies, their body is brought over Bayou Bouef before it is placed into its final resting place.

It struck me as a meaningful and powerful funereal ritual, albeit troubling in its subtext.

The story is never easy to tell. Sometimes, it seems like it’s nothing but nuance and uncertainty: Is it really empowering for those bodies to pass over the bayou, or does the demarcation- the threshold- have more to do with finally being able to bridge over race and class?

****

When Charlie Bell of the BBC first approached me about the possibility of taking a film and radio crew down to Central Louisiana to record a series of interviews that would air in front of millions of people across the pond on the day before the Academy Awards, I was reluctant. Ostensibly, they were interested in producing a story on Sue Eakin, but I knew there was another story, equally as compelling, that they could not avoid. I had read previous stories in the British tabloids about Central Louisiana’s role in Solomon’s story and the region’s modern-day reaction to a film that most had never even seen, and as tabloids are known to do, they were sensationalistic. There was this recent gem from The Daily Mail:

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 3.18.03 AM

This, of course, is absurd. William Prince Ford was a slave owner and master who purchased another human being that he knew or should have known to be free and allowed this man to be tortured, brutalized, and nearly murdered by one of his own employees. I don’t know why his descendants are apparently outraged by a film that depicts Ford as he was in the book. Suffice it to say, though, he wasn’t “the very model of morality;” he was, at best, a deeply conflicted man who never reconciled his active participation in the largest criminal conspiracy and genocide in American history. Also quoted in The Daily Mail was a man named Charles Neal, who claims to be an assistant director at the local history museum. Bold mine:

It was evil white folks beating on poor black folks and it’s not what  Solomon Northup intended when he wrote his book,’ he said.

He thought Ford was a really good master. He was treated right and he was treated like family.

Treated like family? Seriously? He was a slave.

I should also point out that, although I am not a direct descendant of William Prince Ford, his wife Martha Providence Tanner (Mistress Ford in the book) is my fifth great grand aunt.

I don’t know and can’t explain what compels anyone, even someone descended from a slave owner, to defend the institution of slavery, as if people lived in some sort of moral vacuum back then. The truth is that there were many people, even in Central Louisiana, who vehemently opposed the institution of slavery. To me, William Prince Ford was an awful man precisely because he held himself up as a man of God and used scripture to justify his involvement in human trafficking and genocide.

****

I was also reluctant because I’d seen the report aired by another British news outlet, ITV, which had also asked for my assistance in putting together their story. On balance, it was a much better report than the one printed by The Daily Mirror, but as I mentioned at the time, I was disturbed by ITV’s inclusion of State Senator Elbert Guillory. Guillory, an African-American, also suffers from a form of historical denialism, and frankly, I find his whole political persona to be toxic, cheap, anti-intellectual, and narcissistic.

But the BBC isn’t ITV, and it certainly isn’t The Daily Mirror. I knew the BBC wasn’t interested in only chasing down the extremes. They weren’t looking for a black man to tell them that African-Americans use slavery to justify their own personal failures in life, and they weren’t looking for a white man to explain how moral and righteous his slave-owning ancestors were.

And because they weren’t attempting to get that story, the BBC actually managed to get the real story.

To be sure, I am not referring to the short piece that aired on television; that, for the most part, was an interview with me. I am referring to their long-form radio piece, which aired across the globe and here in America on NPR.

Ed Larvadain Jr
Ed Larvadain Jr

The piece begins with local Alexandria attorney Edward Larvadain, Jr. reading from the closing passage of “12 Years a Slave.” Mr. Larvadain, an African-American attorney, has a record of relying on racially bombastic rhetoric, and in his interview, he reveals a paranoiac and bigoted assessment of white people in Central Louisiana. He tells the BBC, incredulously, that he has been dealing “with the same type of white folks” that Solomon encountered more than 170 years ago. Then, he suggests that white people in Central Louisiana would vote today to reinstate slavery, so long as they didn’t have to admit how they voted (which, by the way, is how elections already function in the United States). Quoting:

“Black folks wanted our fair share of the pie. And as of this day we have not gotten our fair share of the pie,” says Edward Larvadain Jr, a lawyer and veteran civil rights activist.

Larvadain says he believes white people in the area would vote to bring back slavery if they didn’t have to show their hands in public.

“Solomon Northup’s story happened here in Rapides Parish and I’ve had to deal with those type of white folks for 47 years,” he says.

“It hasn’t been good.”

When I first heard Mr. Larvadain’s words, I was angry. After all, this man is an attorney who, decades ago, fought on the front lines of the civil rights movement. But the more I think about it and as his interview revealed, he comes across as a man who is deeply and permanently wounded. I can’t possibly imagine what he had to endure in his life, but he cheapens his service to our country and his life’s work to ensure civil rights by engaging in the same sort of racially-driven antipathy and bigoted generalizations that he once fought against. His is, in many ways, a sad story, a man who fought against hatred for so long that it became all he could see.

To be sure, Central Louisiana is home to its fair share of white racists, and I imagine there are a small handful of poor, uneducated white racists who would, if they could, vote to reinstate slavery. But suggesting to an international news outlet that the majority of your neighbors would reinstate slavery isn’t just bombastic and stupid and absurd, it is sad because comments like Mr. Larvadain’s ridicule and marginalize the sacrifices that so many Americans, both white and black, have made in the advancement of civil rights.

Tony Ward
Tony Ward

Immediately after the BBC’s interview with Mr. Larvadain, they turn to a white man named Tony Ward. I’ve met Tony before, and I found him to be a pleasant and nice guy. But what he told the BBC was crazy, and, it’s worth noting, a perfect juxtaposition to Mr. Larvadain’s comments. Tony, no lie, runs a plantation, Loyd’s Hall. According to Tony, slaves in Central Louisiana didn’t have it so bad because, quoting statistics he apparently found floating in thin air, 90% of slaves stayed in the region after they were emancipated. Even if Tony’s stats were correct, they prove absolutely nothing: First and foremost, emancipated slaves stayed because this was also their home; it’s where the raised their families; it’s where they worshipped; it’s where their friends lived, and it’s where their dead are buried. And there’s another obvious point that needs to be made: Emancipated slaves didn’t win the lottery. Even if they wanted to leave, it was almost impossible. They were former slaves. They didn’t have a formal education. They didn’t have savings accounts.

Tony concludes by attempting, rather weakly, to suggest that white men were the true victims of the legacy of slavery, because white men receive 1% less than African-Americans in social services and welfare programs. (He didn’t say that it was only 1% less. I looked up the actual numbers).

Tony’s comment about former slaves not staging a mass exodus reminds me of the Louisiana History Museum spokesman suggesting that Solomon was “treated like family.”

****

As the story demonstrates so aptly, we still carry long-expired cultural baggage. And if we are to learn anything from the gift we have received from the book and the film, it is that history is only a two minute drive away.

We need to, once and for all, grow up and stop being reluctant. We need true, substantive, and meaningful work. Three weeks ago, while I was a panelist at a Social Media conference, a young woman asked me how she could better that State through rhetoric.

It’s simple: Believe in Louisiana, for real.

“Own it,”  I said. This is our story to tell.