Armand Lanusse

by Jennifer Gipson

This text is presented in the framework of the project "The stories that history tells us:  Afro-Créole literature from 19th Century Louisiana". 

When Armand Lanusse was born in New Orleans in 1812, Louisiana’s free persons of color had evolved into a socially and politically diverse group—ranging from staunch abolitionists to slave owners. Though Lanusse could likely have passed for white elsewhere due to his fair complexion, he chose to remain in New Orleans and embraced the tribulations—and the triumphs—of his people. A teacher, a writer, and a social crusader, this Louisiana francophone was best know during his life time for his work at the L'Institution Catholique des Orphelins Indigents (also known as L’Institution Couvent) where he served as teacher, a role model, and, according to R.L. Desdunes, a friend for New Orleans' black orphans and other children. In 1845, he edited a collection of eight-five poems written by free African-Americans entitled Les Cenelles. Lanusse also wrote for L'Union and La Tribune de la Nouvelle Orléans, newspapers established in the 1860s to serve the interests of New Orleans’ black Creole population.

His writings, though from the pen of a free, well-educated man, manifest an intimate sensitivity to the struggle against oppression in all levels of society. The short story below, entitled “Un Mariage de Conscience” in the original French, first appeared in L'Album Littéraire, an 1843 French-language literary journal published by New Orleans’ free African-American population.  The practice of conscientious marriages developed because of stringent legal prohibitions against official weddings between black and whites. Women of mixed race, considered black in the eyes of the law, were also often forced by their families to be the mistresses of white men. This practice, know as plaçage, was the subject of Lanusse’s poem Epigramme, published in Les Cenelles.  The poem succinctly conveys Lanusse’s piercing commentary on plaçage and speaks volumes about the deplorable and selfish motivations that resulted in the “placement” of a young woman.

Whether black women were “placed” in these relationships willfully or not, they often found themselves abandoned with no legal protection—a dismal fate that Lanusse so vividly depicts. Unlike many modern readers, Lanusse's audience would have been acutely sensitive to the extraordinarily subtle social implications skillfully woven into the plot of the story. Lanusse had no reason to directly specify the clearly implied racial difference of his protagonist and antagonist—it was neither necessary for his readers nor acceptable in antebellum society. The absence of overt discussions of slavery or oppression within the L’Album Littéraire and other black publications is easily explained: an 1830 law provided severe penalties, even death, for anyone convicted of inciting rebellion among the slave population or fostering discontent among free African-Americans.

In spite of these social and legal constraints, Lanusse’s writing clearly conveys his passion for social justice and sensitivity to the plight of the oppressed.  Indeed, Armand Lanusse’s life and work exemplified his powerful poetic declaration:

Wealth and pride are but fleeting fancies;
Children of the same God, all mortals are bothers.

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