My husband and I went to the Shaw Center last night to see the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence given out. The award was given to a woman named Attica Locke, for her book The Cutting Season. The book is about an African American woman who becomes the manager of a plantation that is used for wedding and parties, after growing up on that plantation when her mom worked there as a cook, and leaving it the first chance she got.
The author said* she got the idea for the book when she went to the wedding of a black woman and white man at Oak Alley. She herself is married to a white man. At any rate, she didn't realize that Oak Alley was a real plantation until she got there, and then she became extremely angry at the juxtaposition of the pretty setting with the history of slavery there. She also found it bizarre that no one at the wedding acknowledged the history. The bride's father is a preacher, Ms. Locke said, and “I’ve never met a black preacher who couldn't find a microphone at a wedding", but he didn't say anything.
"They didn't even jump a broom, nothing". She and her husband said a prayer (quietly, not out loud, I think.)
Locke later went back and stayed at Oak Alley overnight and gathered ideas for her novel. She noticed that these days, the gardeners on the plantation are all Mexicans and the workers in the cane fields behind it are migrant workers, "and I don't know how anyone stays there without getting a headache". I really liked her, and bought a copy of the book and had it autographed.
I have heard many authors speak, between the Gaines Award events and the Historical Foundation monthly meetings, and usually don’t find myself thinking that I like the author. I don’t generally think I dislike the author, either, I just focus on the work and whether I want to buy the book and read it.
Ms. Locke had begun by saying, “I’m going to be real”, and in my mind, that’s a signal that no, I’m not. I say that not because I think the people who use that phrase are lying, but because simply using the phrase reflects an awareness that we present ourselves in different ways in different situations. That being the case, the speaker has to pull up “real” from the pool of potential personas, and how real is that, when you think about it?
Yet when she began to speak, about the wedding and her husband, and black preachers and her subsequent trip to Oak Alley, I did believe I was hearing the real woman sharing her reactions and confusions with the audience because she trusted that we, too, would either see what she saw, or else at least have our own minds boggled by her description of what she called “plantation Disneyland”.
I should add at this point that Saint Anonymous’ UMW is planning a trip to Oak Alley in April, and that my best friend D, the one I walk with every week and share birthday outings with, is coming with me. What I probably haven’t mentioned before is that my friend D is African American. I shared with her by email earlier today Ms. Locke’s take on the wedding experience, and got the response, “Gee, how interesting. Yes, a good read before visiting Oak Alley.”
We should say a prayer.
*all quotations are as best as I can remember.