29.7.10

My Invitation to New Orleans

29 July 2657

A couple of months ago I received an call from a fellow Temporal Anthropologist, Dr. Isaac Franklin from the University of New Orleans. He comes from a long line of musicians, so his special project is to find the roots of the blues, jazz and rock. He hasn’t been in the ‘field’ long, but he’s already gaining a sterling reputation.

Franklin’s image on the screen had a big grin. He has one of those baby faces that makes him look much younger than he is. “Hey, bro!”

“Bro?”

“You know, brother? Remember when Mom and Aunt Bessie adopted you into the family for saving my life?”

I had to chuckle at that. Last year Dr. Franklin had failed to return with his time machine from 1859 Missouri. The Enforcers tracked him down to a plantation in Mississippi. The poor chap had been kidnapped by and sold into slavery because of his dark complexion. Rather than break him out, the Enforcers enlisted Dr. Henry Darrel and I to first try a more subtle approach. Henry posed as a bounty hunter saying he had tracked Isaac down. I played the part of Isaac’s “owner” come to buy back his “property.”

“I hardly did anything heroic, Dr. Franklin,” I said..

“Call me Isaac. You had to pose as a slave owner. I know you didn‘t enjoy that.”

“No, I didn’t. I’m just glad you called me ‘bro’ instead of ‘massa.’”

“Hey, that’s right! You own me now. Bought me fair and square.”

“That’s not funny, Isaac.”

Franklin stopped grinning. “Ooh, it appears to me that is a touchy subject with you.”

“I’m afraid it is. When I decided to study my Victorian ancestors I hadn’t realized just how racist, sexist and elitist they really were. It’s a horrible disappointment.”

Isaac shrugged. “You can’t pick your relatives.”

“Apparently your family can if I’m now your brother.”

Isaac laughed at that. We chatted awhile about “our mother” and the rest of the family. I recalled how she had insisted Henry and I come down to New Orleans for dinner and would have destroyed our waistlines if not for modern medicine.

“What I’m calling about, Wendell, is I got a job for you.”

“Oh?”

“We need you to go to 1885 to the World Cotton Centennial in New Orleans.”

“You can’t go? I would think you would want to return to the land of your ancestors.”

“Done that plenty of times, and I’ll do it plenty more.”

“What is a World Cotton Centennial?”

“World’s Fair. If it’s okay with you, I’m going to suggest you to the University for the job instead of me. I’m going to pull the ‘colored card’, tell them it’s segregated.”

“It was a whites only affair? Not much of a World’s Fair if they did that.”

Franklin shrugged. “I don’t know if it was or not. That’s what I’m going to tell them.”

“Why?”

“Because I want you to see New Orleans.”

“I’ve seen it.”

“No, in the 19th century when it was still young.”

“I’ve seen that, too. I’ve popped back for a couple of jobs.”

“And popped right back out, right?”

I probably looked guilty. “I feel uncomfortable in 19th century southern America. If you think racism was bad in England then, you should see it in the South...Oh, yes, I guess you have...from the other side.”

“So can you.”

“I suppose I did get a little of that showing up at the American Centennial in 1776 Philadelphia with an English accent, but no one wanted to lynch me.”

“No, you’re a Franklin now. You’re Creole!”

“With an English accent? It won‘t work. Maybe you should get Dr. Darrel. At least he’s American.”

“No way, no how. You’ve studied lots of cultures in the 19th century, but you missed out on New Orleans culture.”

“I’ve seen plenty of the South.”

“No, New Orleans is in the South, but it’s a different culture all together. It’s unique! Why do you think New Orleans is still there? It’s got to be the worst location to build a city, but it could not have existed anywhere else. Slowly sinking into the swamp, constantly hit by floods and hurricanes. Yet we refuse to leave! We just built on stilts, put up taller and taller dykes, kept pumping out ground water--did what we had to so we could stay.”

“So New Orleans is unique because of your tenacity?”

“No, we are tenacious because New Orleans is unique. America was an English colony. New Orleans was French colony. Then Spain took over 1763 and owned it for forty years, putting their two cents into the culture, then gave it back. Napoleon then sold it too America for the cash.

“All this time the French stayed and kept their culture. The French let their slaves keep there culture, too, so African culture survived there much better than the rest of the South. And the French that took slave mistresses, freed their children instead of selling them, so you had a huge population of black freemen.

“And of course their was the local Native American influence--the Chitimacha, Natchez, Choctaw. Add to that the Acadian French brought down from Canada in 1755 to become Cajuns and the thousands of Haitian immigrants who came in the early 1800s. Sprinkle in German, Irish and Italian immigrants, along with both whites and blacks coming in from the rest of the South, stir it up and you got New Orleans. People leave, but they come back, because nowhere else is quite like New Orleans.”

It dawned on me that Franklin wanted to thank me, and the greatest gift he could think of to give me was his hometown. I thought I was proud of my Cambridge roots, but I could hardly compete with this sort of devotion. New Orleans wasn’t just a place to him. It was a living entity.

“I’m ashamed to say I had no idea New Orleans was so special,” I told him. “Now you have me intrigued.”

“Just tell people your parents went to England when you were a toddler, but you’ve come back to find your roots. If they’re white, tell them you are ‘French Creole.’ If they’re black, tell them you’re ‘Creole of Color.’”

“With my pale skin? They’ll never believe it, old boy.”

“This is the nineteenth century, Wendell. Just one drop of African blood makes you ‘negro’ according to the law. I’ve seen “colored folks” paler than you. They will assume your parents went to England so they could ‘cross-over.’”

“They died?”

“No, passed themselves off as white.”

“I know enough about the nineteenth century to see why one would want to do that. Hard to believe they actually believed in the myth of separate races back then. To be honest Franklin, I am amazed you would even want to visit that era.”

Franklin grinned at me. “The more ignored a people, the less they were recorded. Lots of musicians back there that were important and forgotten. And I can get into places you could never go.”

“You’re a bravery man than I am, old boy.”

“And you can get into places, I can’t. I want you to record those for the University of New Orleans.”

“I’ll have to return the favor. Show you your ‘English roots,’ ‘brother.’ I’ll teach you to punt on the Cam. We should probably stick with 27th century. It would be impolite to invite you somewhere where you might be snubbed.”

“Snubbed? Let me tell you about the time I visited 1962 London to study the pre-British invasion rock scene. When the fellas there found out I was a blues musician from New Orleans, they treated me like I was a god. Eric Clampton kept trying to get me to play so he could copy my licks. Had a hell of a time getting away from Mick Jagger.”

“My word! It sounds like you had a fan club. I doubt if I’m going to get that sort of reception in New Orleans.”

“You tell them you’re the returning prodigal son, Wendell, they’ll treat you like family.”

So I’m off to New Orleans to find my Creole “roots.” This might be fun.

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