text is presented in the framework of the project "The
stories that history tells us: Afro-Créole literature from 19th Century
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.
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
and pride are but fleeting fancies;
Children of the same God, all mortals are bothers.