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SHERYL J. BIZE-BOUTTE
Why is it important to hear Black voices today? For me, as a Black woman, this is a troubling question. It has always been important to hear Black voices in this world. We have always been here. It is only because our voices have been silenced, siloed, marginalized, eliminated, discarded, manipulated, used, appropriated, ignored, and punished, that America still knows or cares little about us and therefore, overlays its own narrative about who and what we are.
So, it is not just about today. It is about the fact that we have been dealing with the microaggressions and murders based on the color of our skins on a daily basis, not just today, but yesterday, and God help us, tomorrow.
As we have done since the beginning, we raise our voices as Black writers to change today and tomorrow. Knowledge about how we got to this place is crucial and that is why I wrote Betrayal on the Bayou and why the themes of colorism, racism and inequality permeate much of my writing.
Betrayal on the Bayou, takes place in 1854, in Louisiana’s fictional Tassin Valley and the bayou town of the same name, where the ruling Tassin family’s own peculiar version of code noir is strictly enforced, and the rich harvests are from soil thought to be magical. On the surface, the unique Tassin culture seems to promote a fairness acceptable for the times.
That is until a newly widowed young man from Paris arrives in town with his infant daughter, setting off a twenty-eight-year chain of events that reveal the brutal truths of inequality, colorism, and betrayal.
In this excerpt, Margot, a Creole woman, is having a discussion with her White male partner about the importance of where their son goes to school. The dialogue between them not only reveals glimpses into their personalities but more importantly, the issues around race and color in America that continue to plague us to this day.
BETRAYAL ON THE BAYOU
Oliver Charles turned five and it was time for him to go to school. He and Celeste had become inseparable as Celeste had begun and remained as his main caregiver. It was unthinkable to Margot that they would be separated into two different schools; Oliver Charles at Miss Tindal’s with the other Free children of Color, or with Celeste at the Tassin School with the White children. It was a major dilemma that neither Margot nor Emile had considered until it was time to choose a school. Margot had always assumed that Oliver Charles would join his half-sister at Tassin School because of his White skin and straight hair. Except for the shape of his face and his overall gentle manner, she saw little trace of herself in him and thought he would get by with just being known as Emile’s son.
To her hurtful surprise, Emile did not see it that way.
“Oliver Charles is half Black. He can’t go to the Tassin School,” Emile calmly explained.
“Oliver Charles must go to the Tassin School! He looks White enough! His father is White!” Margot yelled.
“It doesn’t matter what he looks like Margot. Everyone knows you are his mother.”
“Nothing matters except what he looks like, Emile. This entire town is built on what people look like.”
“Now you know that is not entirely true. If it were there are several who would not be in the positions they are in,” Emile laughed.
“Don’t make light of this Emile. It is a serious thing. You should be concerned about the quality of your son’s education.”
“He’s five, Margot! His education is hardly an issue at this point.”
“This is when it begins, Emile! This is his foray into the world! It must be right at the beginning or it never will be!”
“Oh, I am sure,” Emile continued in his nonchalant tone, “that his education will not make a difference in his life. He is good looking like his father. If he keeps his wits about him and figures things out as he goes along, he will do just fine. Tassin or Tindal won’t make a difference for him as a man.”
Margot was near tears as she screamed again at Emile, “It will make all the difference in the world for him, Emile. There’s no need to try to explain it to you. Tassin or Tindal will make all the difference in the world to him and to Celeste.”
“How on earth does it affect Celeste?”
“Emile,” Margot shakily continued, “Up until now, not many would have said that Celeste has a Black brother. If he is sent to Tindal, that is what they will say. If you separate them that will be their proof.”
“Please, Margot. That is ridiculous. They think of you as her mother.”
“No. No they don’t. She does, but they don’t.”
Emile was growing more and more exasperated with this discussion. For him it was just a ridiculous complaint that never ended. He looked over at Margot with annoyance.
“Well what do they think of you as, Margot? What?”
“They think of me as the crazy, wild haired, Black lady who lives with the rich White man. They think of me as the free Creole who lives in a house next to the same house of the rich White man’s wife. They think of me as the colored woman who takes care of the rich White man and his children.”
“But you are wealthy in your own right!”
“Ah, many of them think of that as a mistake of the universe that can be corrected at any time.”
“You should think more of yourself, Margot.”
“I know my living truth, Emile. You not wanting to send Oliver Charles to Tassin School is my living truth.”
“Oh, Margot, you are overwrought about this!” Emile said, his voice slightly raised. “It is not that serious a thing! Oliver Charles can go to school anywhere!”
“But as a man of power in this town, if you don’t insist that he go to the Tassin School he won’t be able to go!”
“Well, I am flattered that you think I am a man of power in Tassin, but I am afraid, my dear, you have been terribly misled. While she rarely interferes with my life, for various reasons, it is Marie who holds the power here.”
Most of the time Emile was more than happy to have people think he was the town patriarch except on those occasions when he was confronted with a situation he found unpleasant or something he did not want to do. In either of those instances he would acquiesce to Marie and avoid all action or decision. Margot knew the conversation was over when he threw the power to Marie. She also knew that she could not give up. It was imperative that Oliver Charles go to the Tassin School. The rest of his life depended upon it.
Excerpted from Betrayal on the Bayou
Copyright©2020 by Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte
Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte is a Pushcart Prize nominated author who has been described as a “Talented multidisciplinary writer whose works artfully succeed in getting across deeper meanings about life and the politics of race and economics without breaking out of the narrative.”
Based in Oakland, California, the diverse bayside city often serves as the backdrop for her always touching and frequently hilarious works. Reviewers praised her first book, A Dollar Five-Stories from A Baby Boomer’s Ongoing Journey calling it “rich in vivid imagery”, and “incredible.” Her second book, All That and More’s Wedding, a collection of fictional mystery/crime short stories, was applauded for its “imaginative, colorful and likable characters that draw you in to each story and leave you wanting more.” Running for the 2:10, a follow-on to A Dollar Five delved deeper into her coming of age in Oakland and the embedded issues of race and skin color and was reviewed as “A great contribution to literature.”
In Summer 2019, Medusa’s Laugh Press published her fictional story, Uncle Martin, in their “Fragile” anthology, and MoonShine Star Company (Bradford Productions) will publish two more of her short stories in 2020. She is a contributor to award-winning author Kate Farrell’s book Story Power, a how-to guide on the art of storytelling.
Betrayal on the Bayou, published June 2020, is her first novel.
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