Monday, May 29, 2006

Going Fishing

There used to be a tradition in our family of going out and camping for the week-end. The two I can remember were over the course of a July 4th week-end. There were at least two of my uncles, my aunt Lela and family, my aunt Elsie, Mama, Bubba and me. Lela's group consisted of husband Albert, sons Clebert, Donald Ray, Darrell and Buddy, daughter June and her husband, Bobby and which ever one she was married to at the time, and Sue Baby. That was a lot of people, but the women seemed to know instinctively how to set up a fish camp.

Getting down to the creek was as big a part of the adventure as was camping out itself. There would be a caravan of old cars, pick-ups, a station-wagon thrown in for good measure, each filled with chatting women, hollering kids, with the occasional threat by some adult that "you kids better settle down back there." At a point which seemed as random as the occasional cloud, the caravan left the road and headed down to the creek through miles of pine forest.

Once the caravan was unloaded of people and materiel, the men and boys went off to fish for supper while the women set up their camp kitchens. Catching enough fish for supper was no problem with a dozen hooks in the water. The young kids were set up between the watchfull eyes of the older ones, while the men sought out favored spots remembered from previous years.

In the South before air conditioning, there were a limited number of things one could do in the high heat of the day. Napping on a hamock in the shade with a glass of tea or a cold beer is one of them, fishing is another. Dusk and calls from the women brought us back to camp from that first day's fishing. The men had finished earlier than the youngsters and had returned to camp to drink beer and clean fish. The first task at hand was for one of the uncles to come and compliment the young fishermen and discern which ones were keepers and which ones were not.

The first night's feast was a testimony to fried foods. Besides friend fish, hush puppies were fried and finally potatoes -- to clean the fish flavor out of the grease. The only condiments I can ever remember are ketchup and Cyrstal Hot Sauce. We also had the treat of soft drinks. In those days, we were lucky to get a coke on Sunday night after church. At the fish camp we could drink as many as we wanted which better not be too many. Somehow the adults just seemed to know when you'd had your share for the day.

Dessert was a banana pudding made by my grandmother. She had a large, yellow crockware bowl and she used for two things, making biscuits and banana pudding. The banana pudding would be layers of bananas, pudding and vanilla wafers, topped with a meringue which was then browned in the oven.

As evening settled on the fish camp, several campfires would glow, but the light was more likely to come from glass lanterns which burned kerosene. They wouldn't give off as much heat, so they were the light of choice. We didn't have tents, but we did have mosquito netting. Our sleeping bags consisted of a old blanket or quilt spread across the ground. It's amazing how many swamp Irish you can crowd under one 6'X 8' mosquito bar. Cheek to jowl, we settled to sleep by midnight, the last sound being an adult voice warning you to settle down or face the consequences.

Morning seem to happen fully born. By the time I awoke, the air was filled with the smell of coffee and pine burr burning. We kids didn't generally get coffee, but if there was any left over after the adults had had a couple of cups, we got to get a cup of black mud to which we added twice as much canned cream and a good tablespoon of sugar. Breakfast would be left over fried fish and fried bread.
The main project of the first morning was preparing a barbeque pit which required the actual digging of a pit into which a hot fire is built for the purpose of slow barbequeing brisket of beef, chickens and sausages. While the men were seeing to that, everyone was given chores. Gathering wood for the pit was generally under the direction of a seasoned adult who knew the kind of hardwoods desired for pit barbeque. Hickory was the wood of choice. When the pit was ready and a fire built, we had a lunch of hot dogs, although I know we didn't call it lunch. Again, the condiment of choice was ketchup, but pickle relish was also very popular, with some of us choosing both, and neither of those choices excluded mustard or mayonaise.

We energy of the camp was dispersed for the afternoon. It was again time for the kids to get away from the adults who preferred napping and reading to the constant buzz of excited kids. They never worried about us getting lost. Country kids are raised with a lot of common sense. If you go DOWN the creek for a couple of hours, chances are you need to come back UP the creek for about the same amount of time. They knew we'd come back about the time we were hungry, and that would probably be just about right.

I like to remember this fish camp as a tradition, but I think it probably happened twice. The first time it was a huge success. It answered the need of my aunts and uncles to get together with their siblings and for all of the kids to get to know each other. Family bonding wasn't taken for granted. It was taught. Not consciously like a sermon, but by giving everybody time with each other. The second time, we were rained out by a thunderstorm of such ferocity that we lost gear. And on the way out from the creek through the forest, lightening struck a tree immediately next to out car, leaving my face red and warm from the flash. Scared the pee out of me and I've glowed in the dark ever since.

And that's the truth.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Speaking in Tongues

I hear in my head every story I was ever told. Most of the time it's a lot of mumble jumble. Sometimes it's in one of the "tongues of the spirit." My grandmother was a pentecostal. They spoke in tongues. She spoke in tongues. Sometimes I remember exactly what they said. Sometimes, I'm sure I understand what it was they were saying.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Redbone Clans and Homeland

For the most part, we Bearhead folk have been slow to embrace the notion of Redbones as a separate people. Our history is one of opposition to that idea. We were never taught that we had kinship to other similarly situated mixed-race people. To us it's always been about kinship. If I'm not kin to you then there's no connection.

While we never thought of ourselves as Redbones or Indians, we always recognized surnames. That is a clan system. Intellectually, I've come to expand my understanding and acceptance of the idea of Redbones. Emotionally I'm still back on the creek. You Redbones of the diaspora
have grown up with a longing for a sense of place. We have it. We didn't wonder who we were, we knew. How can you not know when you live in the midst of hundreds of cousins? Somebody once asked me what did we call Redbones when I was growing up, and I immediately answered "cousins." We didn't need another word.

By naming herself Redbone, Bearhead Clan, Kim has at once told you her genealogy and her homeland. Lee Murrah could start saying Redbone, East Texas Clan. I know immediately from whom he descends. LV Hayes might say Starks Clan. Starks is a funny place in that there are many Bearhead Clan living in Starks, but not all Redbones in Starks are Bearhead Clan. We know the differences immediately. Most of you folk don't.

You've asked us to share with you our experience of growing up in that uniqueness. We're looking for words.

Here's how my cousin, Brenda Bass, described that uniqueness.

I guess, Linda, Kim, Terry, Ray, and I would know what the term "Bearhead Clan"
means. A person can move a million miles away, but they will always have that
spot in their spirit that belongs to Bearhead. You can only define "Bearhead
Clan" through your heart. It's an emotional family connection between a group of
clannish people that lived up and down Bearhead Creek (South Beaurgard and
Northwest Calcasieu Parishes). We were related in many different ways, but
hardly ever saw each other. If one family needed help, then these families from
up and down Bearhead Creek would suddenly appear out of no where. It was
almost like a sense, that some family member needed you and you would get to
them no matter what. We never called each other Redbones (maybe only in
picking), that's what someone called us if they didn't like us. I love my
Bearhead families, I guess that's why I'm moving back there.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Happy Mother's Day

My mother, Dorothy Ruth Droddy, at 79.
Still going strong with style and grace. We went to a dinner dance two weeks ago and danced the night away. She still rocks and rolls. We went to Paris back in '97 where she proceeded to jitterbug on the stage at the Folies Bergere. Since dumping her last husband back in '87, she's been to Europe a dozen times, toured China with a friendship group, and has plans to go to Russia. She also continues to work full time as a tax preparer for H. & R. Block. I'm very proud of my mother.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Searching for my Mythical Indian Grandmother

I read somewhere once that a majority of Southerners have a family myth of a great-to-some-power, grandmother who was American Indian. We certainly had a myth of an Indian grandmother in our family. In fact, I lived with her.

I asked my grandmother point blank once if she was Indian. She said she wasn't but that her grandmother was. She knew her genealogy at least. I now assume she meant Melissa Drake. Melissa married the hired hand that worked for her father, John Drake Jr. Melissa only had one child, my grandmother's mother.

In my family, my grandmother existed on a semi-immortal plain. As I look back on her life and the amazing things she accomplished, I stand in absolute awe of her strength, her wisdom, her perseverance, of her stoicism.

We Redbones universally hold our grandmothers in very high esteem. That is certainly the most significant "tie that binds." In the last century, grandmothers were the focal point in all of my families. Elizabeth "Ma Bet" Miller in Lunita, Lonie Ashworth in Singer, Minnie Droddy in Vidor, to name the ones in my family. There were a lot more because my grandmother would go visit them all over East Texas and Western Louisiana. They were the center of the circle. They taught us the values upon which we would build our lives. They told us stories about our interconnectedness. They gave us the myth upon which we create our identity as Redbones.

Many American familes have an Indian grandmother myth, but in Redbone families, there really was one. Our Indian grandmothers did not know her tribe. That memory was lost generations before. All that remained was the dark skin, the long black hair, the Indian features. No, there was more than just the physical features of the American Indian, there was also a quiet spirituality.

I did not grow up hearing stories about Keziah Ashworth. I learned to venerate her as I studied her children and grandchildren. She may have been a mousy little nobody, but my imagination refuses to see her as anyone other than the grandmothers I knew while growing up in East Texas and Western Louisiana. As I imagine her children and grandchildren and the kinds of situations that inevitably arise from life on an often hostile frontier, I think I know her well.

Anna Bunch is another grandmother who has captured my imagination. She was widowed with five children. She moved back to Louisiana after Moses died. Her children all grew up and gave her dozens of grandchildren. I also imagine that my own great-great-grandfather was her favorite, being the baby and all, and I imagine that she lived out her final years with Thompson Lorraine and his wife Sarah, and that when she died in the mid-1850s, she was buried at Good Hope.

OT, but On Track

Redbone women have always felt themselves equal to men in terms of rights. Elizabeth Hill sued her children to compel them to support her in her old age. Rachel Drake put her property in trust to protect her children's inheritance. Mary Simmons divorced two husbands before 1900 because they didn't take their commitments to being a husband and father seriously enough to satisfy her. Keziah's granddaughter, Polly divorced Elisha Thomas in 1840.

Our mythological Indian grandmother remains vivid in our Redbone cultural memories. She taught us our sense of family. She sustained us in times of want and tribulation. As a native American, she would have been considered a savage by the first of our grandfathers to encounter her. It was the other way around, however. Our grandfathers that landed on these shores were a violent breed of man. It was our grandmothers who civilized our grandfathers. We know that by observing the nature of how the sexes interact from puberty, through courtship and into mature relationships.

Something to think about anyway. This is a piece in progress. Feel free to comment, argue, contradict, just do so nicely.
Well, There Goes the Neighborhood

I was going to say "homeland" but there was a discussion in the Redbone Yahoo group between Gabe and Joyce about the true nature of homeland which I found persuasive. LV also took issue with it from a classic LV way of eviscerating something with pure facts. Did you know that James Ashworth didn't even make it to the Neutral Zone until after it was no longer the Neutral Zone? I didn't either. Anyways, "homeland" is a state of mind.

From my point of view all of Louisiana not on a major river was inaccessible and for people trying to stay away from others, it must have been very inviting. The point made by Gabe and Joyce was that "Homeland" is that place within our hearts and souls where our character is shaped and our memories are born. Point taken. If you even remotely consider yourself a Redbone, probably you do have a homeland. Mine was shaped along a creek that meanders through southwest Louisiana.

Which brings me the point of my heading. I got another letter from Bearhead yesterday. My homeland is for sale in small chunks. Terry said one developer was talking about buying some of those FEMA trailers and opening a trailer park for New Orleanian refugees who have been flung as widely across the Gulf Coast as the Acadians were in 1755. I know my Cajun cousins do not care for that analogy, but it's pretty spot on in my opinion.

One of the most romantic aspects to the land around Bearhead is that it has been owned my major lumber companies since the late 1890s and they have been content to use the land to grow trees. Tree gardens don't need fences, and Redbone cattle grazed freely over thousands and thousands of acres, just like it must have in nineteenth century Texas. When we played or rode horses, we had thousands of acres of manicured forest in which to play. You can understand why it's so easy for me to romanticize it.

But I digress. Cousins! The homeland is being sold out from under us to, god forbid, DEVELOPERS! I know progress isn't bad necessarily. I mean, if it were my farm and WalMart wanted it for a store, I'd sell and move farther back into the woods, but what are we going to do when we run out of woods?

Maybe we should all try to buy a piece of it. I'd lead the charge myself, but... Thomas Wolfe, the great American writer, said you can't go home again. Afterall, I just wrote that home is a more of a mystical place where we are shaped. You can't go back there. It ain't there no more. Besides, I've been living in the city now for 40 years. I don't think my back could take having to keep up an acre, much less 20 or 40. That pioneering stuff is for younger men and women.

Just thinking about Good Hope Cemetery sitting between a trailer park filled with urban poor from New Orleans and a strip mall conjures up images that makes me want to cry. I'm glad Gabe and Joyce convinced me to remember that a homeland is more of a state of mind, because Bearhead as I knew it is about to become a memory.

My "state of mind" is getting a headache.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006


I've used this term several times to describe the Bearhead Creek area between Singer and Starks, Louisiana, and have been politely corrected a couple of times for it. LV took me to task saying that neither Starks nor Singer were there until late 19th century. I should have included the entire Neutral Zone which came into being after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase when the American and Spanish generals decided not to start a war over the differing claims of Spain and the United States as to the western border of Louisiana. The Americans claimed to the west bank of the Sabine River. The Spanish thought it was the Calcasieu River. As a result of their decision, the area between those two rivers became a haven of outlaws, slave smugglers, and Redbones who seemed to prefer the ambiguity of the Neutral Zone to the racial codes in the rest of Louisiana and the South.

After Moses Ashworth was killed in the early 1830s, his widow, Anna, took her kids and went back to there, probably to be closer to her parents, Drury and Rhoda Bunch. When the Texans went after us in Jefferson County, Texas in 1856, those family members who were forced from their homes came back as well.

Maybe the Neutral Zone isn't the homeland for some of our extended families's memories. If home is where you're always welcome, then for my several branches of Redbone Families, the Neutral Zone has been our home for almost two hundred years. That's about as close as we're going to get to having a homeland. Texas has never been a haven for Redbones. Home to many Redbones, yes indeed, but not a welcoming place nor a place of refuge. That distinction goes to Louisiana.

This is also where our families began to have a group identity. There is disagreement about whether we were an identifiable group in South Carolina that decided to migrate together or whether the families came independently as family groups, several at a time. It seems certain that by the late 1800s, whether or not our families saw each other as related in any way other than family ties, the dominant White culture did see us as an identifiable group and was calling us Redbones. Judging from the reaction of my great-grandfather, Amos, and his brothers Austin and Dempsey, and Old Josh Perkins, the word was considered offensive. Was it the word they found offensive, or was it being lumped into a group with whom they felt no identity or kinship? I'm betting it was the word. There is evidence that the dominant White culture did not necessarily consider it an offensive word though. In Don Marler's book about Redbones, there is a lettter from a newspaper editor in Lake Charles to Dr. Furman in South Carolina who was studying the South Carolina Redbones and was attempting to link the two people. In the letter, he used the term Redbone in a descriptive way and not derogatorily.

For the past couple of years I have tried to refrain from using it based on my family history and experience. I never heard my grandmother use it. I never heard any of my aunts or uncles use it. My mother dislikes the word, but I believe she is more uncomfortable with being considered a Redbone than she is by the word itself. A younger generation of family members proudly think of themselves as Redbones. Being outnumbered and outvoted, I'm capitulating. Even though my mother isn't a Redbone, I am and I will use the word in my stories again. I'd like to thank those of you who have taken the time to give me your opinions. I've learned a lot from your stories.