Saturday, October 25, 2003

A Fusion of Cultures

Walking to work the other morning, a light went off in my head, suddenly. Oh. I can couch it it buddhist terms, christian terms, California-new-age-let's-all-feel-good terms, but in the language of my people, I figgered something out. I figured out how to let go of some of the struggle. A weight was lifted off of my shoulders. A close friend dismissed it by saying it was just my drugs kicking in, but that's not true. It is true that I had a third cup of coffee that morning, but it was more than that.

For the past few months, I've been less energetic than usual. OH, hell, I've been seriously depressed. Wasn't nothing wrong with me as far as I could tell. I was a year older and fatter, working at a dead-end job that I'm trying to milk out another half dozen years, have lost interest in any sort of sexual relationship, what could I possibly have to be depressed about? I felt like I was skiing down an expert slope and I'm only a beginner. Everything was going a little too fast and I felt that I was in the last turn instead of the next. There was this layer of anxiety. I didn't feel like I could pull it off. I was losing control.

Control is an illusion, anyway, right? I have no control over anything. Never had. I surrendered that illusion Tuesday morning while walking to work. With that surrender came the most peaceful feeling. I'm three days into it, and maybe it won't last out the week and I'll go back to that steep slope, but I don't think so. But even if I do, I won't be quite as afraid as I was two or three weeks ago.

Tomorrow I'm cooking gumbo for 16 people I don't know. I donated a gumbo supper/cooking demonstration to my girlfriend's choral group, the San Francisco Choral Society. Usually we sell 4 slots for about $50 each. It's a total win-win situation. I get to have nice people come over for a smart party where I get to entertain in my best Louisiana or Texas accent, show off my china and silver, regale them with tales of my life on the bayous "back home." The choral society gets a $200 cash gift, the people get a lesson in making gumbo, and we have one fun afternoon. I play cajun music, ply them wine, and real good food. This year, a couple who bought tickets, asked if they could invite their cooking club along, adding 10 to the count. That's $800 to the chorus and oh, my god, I've got a crowd coming over to eat.

I've noticed that when one is depressed that their house cleaning skills seem to be one of the first things to go. I looked around my house and thought, oh my god, I can't let people see this mess. Then I remembered Tuesday's epiphany and thought, people aren't necessarily looking at the things you're pointing to. Sometimes they're just looking at you point. You know, I think my place is charming, just as it is. Is it a mess? No, I prefer to think it has a "lived in" feeling to it. Those people are coming to taste my gumbo, not to judge my housekeeping. (I will clean the cabinets, floors and bathrooms and put out flowers, but that's it! The tub doesn't need to be scrubbed--no one's going to be taking a bath, ya' know?)

I'm cooking chicken and sausage gumbo. The reason it takes a cooking lesson to cook gumbo right, is because you can't start with a recipe and do a traditional gumbo unless someone has showed you how. Why? Because you wouldn't know if you got it right or not. It's not because it's hard to do.

My families started arriving in Louisiana in the late 1780's, about 20 years behind the Cajuns, following them into the back bayous of southwestern Louisiana. It didn't take ten years to begin seeing our names marrying theirs. We immediately became part of Louisiana's fusion of culture. I'm pretty sure my people, the Ashworths and Perkins and Clarks and Drakes and Bunches and a dozen others, reflected the Scots-Irish culture of backcountry South Carolina. Cooking was at best primitive. Meat would probably be stewed or fried. Bread would be corn pone. It is doubtful that they even had sourdough. Next to the Cajuns we were primitives. We were also Baptist and they were Catholic, but still there was intermarriage. Abner and William Ashworth, the sons of Keziah Dial and James Ashworth, married Cajun women: Abner to Rosalie Gallier, and William to Deliede Gallier. Thank god for it, too, because the cooking in our family got good, quickly.

Thursday, October 02, 2003


My maternal grandmother, Minnie Ashworth Droddy, did not tell stories as much as she "remembered." Living with her all of her life was her eldest daughter, Elsie, who was simple. I want to remember Elsie also, but that's for another story. My grandmother and Elsie could remember the most incredible details of their lives. Because mostly what they remembered occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s, I sometimes feel as though I have one foot in this century and the other foot in that one. Only now, I have a third century to factor into the analogy, and I'm out of feet, so I'm going to drop it for right now.

Mama and Elsie remembered life when it was simple. Poor, but simple. Between them they could recount the genealogy of individuals I considered total strangers at the time of meeting. They could remember the intricacies of kinship. They didn't always remember things in the same way, and they didn't always end the subsequent argument in agreement.

As a child, I sat through these regressions and discussions and arguments, sometimes paying attention, more often not. I cannot remember the details. I told my sister I was willing to be hypnotized so that someone could get me to channel either my grandmother or my aunt Elsie because you know in the recesses of my mind there are some delicious stories.

Even without channeling or hypnosis, I think the details of their remembering color my perception of life today, and do absolutely lend detail to my ability to imagine our stories. I don't remember as much as I tell stories, richly detailed with vague recollections of my grandmother and aunt fussing with each other about the specific details.

After the Civil War, the dominant White society lost its impetus to keep expanding the definition of Black. Since we had never identified ourselves with Blacks, we continued to identify ourselves as White. Another generation and the core was not quite as dark as the generation before it, and the edges were lighter still. By the time of the birth of my grandmother in 1888, the only place the core remained dark were in the tiny homelands: DeQuincy, Starks, Lunita, Singer, DeRidder; places like that. Those Ashworths and Perkins and Basses and Hoosiers and Clarks and Johnsons living on the perimeter, now thought of themselves as White without having to worry about fighting about it. By 1890 and 1900, they were no longer being listed as Mulatto on the census. When communities became wealthy enough to have schools, Redbones went to White schools. Race was no longer a legal issue. From now on, the game would be played by different rules.

The Civil War

Since almost all of my first 17 years of education were in the South, I was never taught anything that resembled reality regarding the Texas Revolution, the Mexican War of 1845, or the Civil War. Nothing. Nada. Zip. I was taught mythology as history. There was always a right and wrong side, and we were always right. There's something to be said for creating mythologies. Damn, sometimes I hate how reality has to devastate mythology. The way it happens is personal.

For me, I discovered that I probably wasn't descended from plantation folks, but rather from folks that the plantation folks would just as soon have turned into Black slaves. Damn, but that makes it personal.

Then once you start looking at the details, you notice other aberations. For instance, my great-grandfather (mother's father) and his brother were both charged with desertion from the Confederate forces. The ggguncle, was also charged with being a "copperhead." After becoming aware of that fact, I read where they were not alone in their reactions and behavior from the other "crackers" of central Louisiana.

Not all of the Ashworths that could serve in the war, did. Quite a few managed to avoid it. Quite a few others did serve. Whether they were drafted or volunteered is one of those details still hidden to history. In the mythology of Southern history, there isn't even a mention of a draft, except in reference to the North, where it was always coupled with a footnote remembering the fact that one could buy their way out. Well, let me tell you, friends and neighbors, just like the marines drafted boys from our families during Vietnam, the South drafted our boys to fight for slavery.

If I sound bitter about this, it's because I am. In the bloody South, if you owned, or your family owned, more than 100 slaves, you were exempt from service because it just wouldn't be prudent to leave all those women folk alone with all those slaves. Since my families, for the most part, never owned slaves, they had to go be cannon fodder for the rich kids. Sort of like George W. Bush, our beloved president, did in Vietnam. He stayed home out of harms way. Hasn't stopped him from sending other boys to harms way, has it.

But I digress. I can only imagine how the Ashworth cousins dealt with the Civil War. Don Marler, in his recently published book, The Louisiana Redbones, says that we are a violent culture. Violent rather than warlike. Individuals are violent, cultures are warlike. I believe that we were a group of outcasts as opposed to a culturally defined group, or as my grandpa mght have said, "just because we're all outlaws doesn't mean we belong to the same gang." Given another hundred years, we might have become a more distinct subculture, but since we never thought of ourselves as anything but White, we kept assimilating. Our core might have been dark, but our edges kept getting Whiter and Whiter.

To the extended Ashworth families, the darker core seemed to have avoided the war, and those along the edges were more likely to have participated.

I'm going to start refering to the different generations of Ashworths and their cousins simply using the word "cousins" instead of the Ashworths, their cousins, and their friends. There are some who would call this group of cousins and friends "Redbones." I prefer the word cousins because I'm not sure when people started calling us Redbones. And since even to this day it is considered an offense for someone not a Redbone or not your cousin to call you one. I'm pretty sure we just called ourselves White. There is no record of being racially limited while Texas was a Mexican state. They were accepted by their neighbors in Texas as equals. It was only after the Southerners formed a government of anglos did the racial issue arise, and then almost immediately. Cousins were not allowed to join the Texian militia. This was the beginning.
Sam Ashworth

In the summer of 1856, tensions between the Ashworths and those Whites who felt the Ashworths should be eliminated came to a head when an Ashworth was accused of stealing hogs by a White man. The young man's cousin, Sam Ashworth, when getting the young man out of jail, had an exchange of words with a White man. Family tradition says the man, by the name of Deputy, called Sam a "hog stealin' nigger." Sam called him out, probably promising to whip his sorry ass right there on the spot in front of God and neighbor. Deputy declined, but went to the justice of the peace and swore a warrant out for Sam for "talking sass to a White man." Sam had to appear in court on the charge. First it had to be proved that Sam was indeed a non-White. The evidence consisted of White people getting on the stand and saying they knew Sam to have some Black blood in him somewhere in his distant genealogy. That was it. Sam was found guilty and sentenced to be publicly whipped.

Sam was allowed to escape from jail by the sheriff who himself was allied more with the Ashworths than the White parties. Sam went off down the swamp and stayed with relatives. Well, story goes, a bunch of the boys, first cousins for the most part, got drunk and Sam decided he was going to have a little instant justice for himself. He and his first cousin, Jack Bunch, took their guns and put out in a pirogue on Cow Bayou looking for the man who started the whole ruckus, Deputy.

He came along soon enough and Sam and Jack intercepted him. I imagine Sam told the s.o.b. to get right with God, and then shot him. The other man in the boat escaped and went back to town with a story about being ambushed by Sam Ashworth and Jack Bunch. A mob formed demanding the sheriff arrest the two and bring them back to town for hanging. The sheriff dutifully went out looking for Sam and Jack, staying out several days before coming back in saying he couldn't find hide nor hair of them, and that they must of fled the state back over to the Neutral territory which was now a part of Louisiana, but still another jurisdiction.

The mob decided to go out on their own and look for Sam and Jack. They went to the homes of other Ashworths and their cousins and proceeded to burn their homes and barns. The Ashworths and their cousins formed their own posse and burned a few barns of their own. After a few weeks of this, the state sent in its authority whether by Rangers or militia is uncertain, but the State's authority came down against the Ashworths who were forced to flee Texas.

Jack and Sam had taken refuge, not in the Neutral Territory, but San Antonio where Jack was recognized and arrested. He was brought back to Beaumont where he was tried and hanged. Sam was never captured. He later died serving in the Army of the Confederacy at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. (I can't remember right now. I'll come back later and fill in the blanks.)

Colored Outside the Lines

When Texas was a part of Mexico, the Ashworths were no different from their American neighbors. They obtained land, managed herds of cattle and hogs, and lived in relative peace with their neighbors. Some of their neighbors may have considered them "Not White," but few mentioned it to their face. Racism as a state institution may have been coming into being, but its enforcement required one to be able to shoot and fight, and few challenged the manpower of the Ashworths and their allied families or their willingness to fight to protect what was theirs. My point being, no one called us "niggers" to our face.

But racism in the South was more than just personal animosity, it was enforced by the state. In the 25 years between independence from Mexico and the start of the Civil War, the Ashworths and their allied families fought the attempts by the state to marginalize them. When William Ashworth and Deliede Gallier were charged with cohabitating (their marriage not recognized by the state of Texas), they took their case all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, only to lose. There were 15 indictments returned against the Ashworth family for various offences involving their marriage to Whites. Often they just paid the fines and went on with their lives. More often, they looked to their cousins for spouses. I'm not sure where the line was with cousins, historically, but growing up in East Texas, marriage between first cousins and their offspring were off limits, and between second cousins it was discouraged. My aunt married a second cousin and she and her husband were shunned for the first several years. On the other hand, third cousins were fair game.

When wronged by neighbors, the Ashworths sued; and their neighbors sued them. They were in all respects like their neighbors, just darker. By the laws of the Republic of Texas and subsequently by the State of Texas, people considered non-White were not allowed to own property. The Ashworths owned property; owned slaves, too. We have no record of any of the Ashworths or their allied families voting or running for office. I'm not even sure they could read. They did form churches, White churches.

My point here is not to claim that we didn't have Black blood. Probably we did. Don't know for sure. My question to present day historians, is why do you paint us today with the same racist brush you used 150 years ago?

Here's a group of people, white identified, having few or none of the racial markers characteristic of Blacks, but marginalized by the dominant society with only the accusation of being mixed blood.

I saw you when you rolled your eyes. I say "genealogy" and you roll you eyes. Did you read where in Palo Alto, California, they're going to make it against the law (or at least against the rules) to roll eyes in response to someone speaking. Aren't liberals cute? You know the goodie-two-shoes making the proposal is a liberal, you just know it. I'm not endorsing conservatives, but you just know that is not one of the things they have on their legislative agenda. If I'm wrong on this one, someone send me an e-mail.

Back to the subject at hand. Genealogy. When I was growing up, back a million years ago, I lived for quite a few of my years with my maternal grandmother, Minnie Ashworth Droddy. From the time I was big enough to drive, probably 12 or 13, I began to drive my grandmother to funerals. She happened to be from one of the largest family groups in Louisiana, so we had plenty of funerals to attend.

Now to explain that, I have to go back to 1803, when my gggggrandfather, James Ashworth, and a group of friends, in-laws, and cousins, decided to forego South Carolina and migrate to Louisiana which was about to open up to American settlement as a result of the Louisiana Purchase. His wife, my gggggrandmother, Keziah Dial, had already birthed about 5 of her eventual 9 kids. Her parents and brothers were part of the group making the migration.

There were about 12 or 13 families in all. One of the leaders of this group was the Rev. Joseph Willis.. It's not my job to tell their whole story right now, just to give you a few pertinent details. Another one of my important Descended From families, the Perkins, were also part of the group. Near as we can tell, the only thing these families had in common was their rejection by the dominant culture in South Carolina for being mixed race, most likely, and if you believe our family's oral tradition, American Indian and White.

We know they got to Louisiana about 1804, because records indicate the first children of this group being born in Louisiana in 1804. They settled in a disputed area between Louisiana and Texas known as No Man's Land or the Neutral Territory. The area became home to outlaws, slave smugglers, and my grandmother's people, the Redbones. Looking at their history, it's not surprising that they chose to settle someplace outside the law. In South Carolina, they were reputed to be outlaws and had run ins with the vigilante force called the Regulators. Either my gggggrandfather, or his father, also James Ashworth, was branded with a "T" on his hand for breaking jail according to Richard Maxwell Brown in his book, The South Carolina Regulators, published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press in 1963. He must have reformed somewhat though, because he received a grant of land on the Little Pee Dee River in 1774. James never got a chance to develop his place on the Little Pee Dee, however. The region was soon caught up in the American Revolution. James and his family found themselves on the side of the Crown, and after the American victory, were forced to move. Family legend has it that for the years between the end of the Revolutionary War and the migration to Louisiana, the Ashworths lived in a Cherokee village in northwest South Carolina.

Where was I going with this? Oh, yeah. These dozen or so families lived marginally between Texas and Louisiana for over 100 years, having large families, cousins marrying cousins, so by the time I was taking my grandmother to funerals, there must have been thousands of them.

At the funerals to which I accompanied my grandmother, were groups of old women who sat together at the wakes and recounted the genealogy of the peson being buried, as well as that of any person who happened to come up in conversation, usually someone who was not present. This was also when the stories of who we were and how we came to this place were told. We know who we are.

Slowly, over time, as I have grown older, I find that I have less to say and find myself content to remember conversations from times past. This is a bit odd and unexpected because I sometimes can't remember what I'm doing, why I walked into a room, things like that, but I can remember with crystal clarity a conversation between old women at a funeral 40 years ago. How is that possible?

Be that as it may, woven into those stories are the genealogies of my family. To Southerners, genealogy is a memory tool. In telling of our kinship with one another and with the past, we remember their stories. I remember stories of those old women at the funerals. I can't account for the accuracy of my stories. Boundaries in the world of memory are more flux. Stories mix. Those things aren't as important as simply having a story. I want to thank my grandmother, Minnie Ashworth Droddy and her best friend, sister-in-law, and also first cousin once removed, Lonie Perkins Ashworth for the many stories they told. As I tell my stories, I can hear both of them laughing gently as they remember the struggles and adventures of their parents, their cousins, and their friends.

We're coming up on the 200th anniversary of the Redbone people in Louisiana. Our story is largely untold to outsiders. One of the purposes of this blog is to tell our story. It's a good tale worth telling.