The Southern Family Tree

mooney.jpgLast weekend, comedian Paul Mooney came to town to perform at Helium comedy club. Mooney portrayed Negrodamus on Chappelle’s Show. He also wrote many of Richard Pryor’s well known bits and also wrote for and performed in television shows and movies over the years. He performs racially charged material, offending many. It is a great show, and I would recommend for anyone to see it.

During one routine, Mooney talks about growing up in Louisiana and race relations in the South. In particular, he talks about how Southern white folks look upon their family trees with pride, the joke being that they only look. If they shake the tree, a person of mixed race will fall out, referring to the high incidence of the enslavers raping the enslaved; and, as Mooney puts it, post Civil War segregation being restricted to the daytime. Mooney’s words recalled a visit I took to a plantation outside New Orleans.

I visited four or five plantations during my time in Louisiana. For my Southern Literature class, we had to visit the Laura Plantation as a group. The eponymous Laura Locoul Gore was the last female owner from the original plantation family. The tour revolves around life as described in Laura’s memoirs. At one point, our tour stopped in a rooms so that the guide could answer questions. There was a large portrait of Laura hanging over the mantle. This was the first picture we had seen, and it seemed to clearly portray Laura as a person of mixed race. A fellow student decided to raise this point, asking if Laura had been a person of mixed race, shocking the tour guide. She began to answer the question, confabulating as she responded with a broken voice and averted eyes. She explained that the painting was older and not well maintained. Apparently as paintings age, white subjects have their features change to those of a mixed race person. We were all incredulous that she was trying to honestly tell us that the race of portrait subject changes over time. It was the highlight of our plantation tour and was more telling about racial issues in the area than any book I could have read.