Growing Up Creole (in Los Angeles)
One evening after dinner when I was about ten years old my family was sitting around the table as we usually did catching up on the events of the day, listening to my father’s corny jokes, at least the ones my mother would allow him tell us, when my brother announced that from now on he was going to tell everyone that he was creole. Without missing a beat my mother looked him in the eyes with that all-knowing mother wit expression that all mothers have and said “Hey, you’d better soft pedal that creole stuff!”
Seizing the opportunity my father said, “Oh, so you want to be a creole, huh? Well, let me tell you what you’re in for.” He told us a true story of my grandfather walking home from work in New Orleans where he and my parents and his parents and their parents were all born and raised. He was coming down Rampart Street after just crossing Canal Street on the way back home from Uptown to the Seventh Ward. It was dark and late and he was walking with his tool box on his shoulder because his truck broke down on him near Lee Circle on St. Charles Street.
Two policemen pulled up along side of him and asked him where he was going and if he needed a ride, seeing him straining under the weight of a heavy box full of trowels and chisels, or maybe they thought he had just stolen the box from somewhere in the Quarter and my grandfather knew that. He declined their offer, knowing better than to get in the back seat of a patrol car, which was often the last conscious act a colored man made on this earth.
At that point suspicious the policeman got out and shined his flashlight in my grandfather’s face. He asked him, “Hey, are you a nigga?” Now, like me, my grandfather was about five and a half feet tall with his shoes on but he was, as my father said before my mother had a chance to chastise him, “one, cocky, tough son of a bitch”. He looked that policeman in the eye and said something that went right through me, something that I never forgot, something that changed my whole perspective on who I was and what I was and where I came from. He said “Beans is beans, and hash is hash, but I’d rather be a nigga than poor white trash.”
The next morning my father got a call from my grandfather from jail. He told him to bring him a clean shirt and a pair of shoes and twenty dollars which was a whole lot of money back in 1943. So my father, all of about fifteen years old, went down to the police station to bail my grandfather out of jail. His head was cracked open, his shirt and pants stained with blood, no shoes, no socks, no belt. He never got his tools back either. They walked to the truck, got it started and drove home.
“So, you be careful”, he told my brother, “runnin’ around tellin’ people your creole. There’s two things the white man don’t like, they don’t like to be fooled and they don’t like uppity. And there’s one thing black people don’t like and that’s creoles.”
Growing up creole meant I could tell from the corner what my mother was cooking for dinner. Growing up creole meant having red beans and rice on Monday. Growing up creole meant going to Big Loaf bakery on Sunday after Mass. Growing up creole meant all the girls who came to the Autocrats West picnic every year were fine but you couldn’t get to first base with any of them because you were related to all of them. Growing up creole meant your parents were born, and I mean literally born, in the house where they were raised in the Seventh Ward. Growing up creole meant that you and practically every one else you knew had a French last name.
Growing up creole meant all your parents’ friends spoke with that lazy, flat, New Orleans accent. Growing up creole in Los Angeles meant hearing stories from New Orleans about the Circle Market, Anybody’s Place, Corpus Cristi, Xavier (either the Prep or the University), Patsy Vadalia, Canal Street, Maison Blanche and Gus Mayer, sandwiches at Lavada’s, how many streetcars your parents rode to get here and there and how they had to climb the stairs to sit in the ‘crows nest’ at the Sanger Theater.
Growing up creole meant hearing my parents tell us about only being allowed to go to Lake Ponchatrain on certain days and certain times and how they had to sit in the back of the streetcar behind the screen and in the back of church in the ‘Colored Only’ section at Mass on Sunday where the white people received communion first.
Being creole meant being despised, too It meant that every day of my young life I was a target because of the way that I looked. Four feet ten inches tall in the eighth grade, light, bright and damn near white and with a wavy mop of “that good hair”, I was the recipient of all manner of race aggression from both black and white. I remember one day walking home from Transfiguration Elementary School down Santa Barbara Avenue, which was later to be renamed for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and as I passed a group of girls one of them grabbed me around the neck and lifted me off my feet.
They laughed at me as I flailed away with my hands and feet trying not to suffocate. One of them pulled a steak knife out of her purse and as she came toward me I thought for sure she was going to stab me. But instead she grabbed a handful of my hair and said “Give me some of that good hair!” As she hacked off a handful of my hair another girl yelled out laughing “Get some for me, too”. As she went in for another piece a car pulled up along side of us and a man jumped out and yelled at them and they ran off. He was a truant officer from Audubon High School which was just across the street. He took me home and I remember being dumbfounded as I stood in the mirror trying to comb my hair back in place and cover up the huge spot on top that had been lost. Later that day my father came home and took me to the barber.
Growing up creole meant to have a heritage that I was proud of but could rarely discuss with anyone outside of my immediate family. Growing up creole meant being part of a wonderful community of friends and family who loved to get together and socialize on the weekends in each other’s homes or at Ashton’s Shatto on Slauson for any one of a number of social events. Growing up creole meant fish on Fridays in Lent, ham and potato salad, roast chicken and macaroni and cheese, not out of a box, but the real thing.
Growing up creole meant learning a trade, handling tools and working with some of the finest carpenters and plasterers and painters around. Men like Curtiss Gueringer and Bobby Dupre and Ruby Felton and Larry Gordon
. Some people knew creoles to be an interesting slice of Americana responsible for exotic cuisine. Others knew creoles to be either tomatoes or horses or cigars. For them, creole meant to be an American combination of a little of the old world and a little of the new. A creole tomato was the hybrid fruit of an old world plant brought to this country and cross-pollinated with one found in the Americas. Hence a unique size, color texture and flavor is created. All along the highways of Louisiana during Spring and late Summer you can see roadside stands selling gigantic creole tomatoes.
In Los Angeles we got them along with other products imported from New Orleans at the Louisiana Seafood Market on Vernon and Arlington. At the racetrack, a letter ‘c’ next to a horses name designated it a creole which was, again, an animal bred from both old and new world stock. My mother’s mother, a petite, strong-willed and independent spirit, rolled cigars for thirty years at L. Trellis Cigar Factory in New Orleans. Thirty years, as that was the only work available to “Colored” women at the time. Thirty years! Certainly my grandmother and several of her sisters could have passed for white and found better employment and opportunities on the other side but she never considered that as an option.
To pass would have meant abandoning members of her own family, many of whom were darker than she was, including her own mother. Ostracizing herself from them was too high a price to pay and so she, like so many others who some considered “high yellow”, took their places with dignity and self-respect in the “Colored Only” sections of the Deep South. Not all light skinned black people are the “tragic mulattoes” of Hollywood lore. It was during one of her many visits to Los Angeles sitting at the kitchen table using napkins to demonstrate that she told us about the creole cigar that was again a combination of tobacco from different growing regions rolled in to this hybrid that was a unique and highly sought after smoke.
Growing up creole meant often being the target of black anger and violence. After every encounter I walked away confused and hurt, sometimes bleeding, often with my property stolen and occasionally lucky enough to get away with my life. Once I was on the Crenshaw bus coming home from high school and a bunch of dudes got on at Adams. One of the brothas came down the aisle, Crip coat hanging off his shoulders, blue nylon undershirt, croaker sacks on his feet. He took one look at me, stopped and put a revolver in my face.
I could see the bullets in the chamber, four hollow point staring right at me. “What set you from ese?”, he asked. “Ese” is a slang term Latinos use for each other the way we use “brotha” or “homey”. I guess he thought I was a Mexican. Fortunately the night before we took my dad out to dinner for his birthday at El Torito in Westchester, where, coincidentally, several years ago a cross was burned on the lawn of a couple who were errantly assumed to be mixed race but were actually a dark skin man married to a light skinned black woman. My father ordered a dish called ‘arroz con pollo’ which is rice with chicken.
My sister and I made up a cute little song about it in the car on the way home and so I remembered that as what was probably the only Spanish I knew at the time except for the numbers one through ten and taco and burrito. So, I looked the young thug in the eye and said as calmly and coolly and with as much of an accent as I could muster “Arroz con pollo, cuz”. “Right on”, he said with a nod, put the gun back in his pocket and walked on down the aisle and sat in the back. I got off at the next stop and walked home wondering if he would have shot me right then and there on a public bus had I answered incorrectly. Mexican chicken and rice saved my ass.
Another time as I was growing up creole I was shooting hoops at the local high school playground. After the game we were sitting around cracking jokes and talking about each other’s mama and stuff like that. Naturally the “n” word was bantered about casually and with great frequency as it always is among young black men. But, when I laughed and said “Man, you niggas are crazy”, one of the cats jumped off the bench and wanted to kick my ass. “Naw, man! Broyard’s cool, he’s just light-skinnded”, said one of my friends, saving me from a sure test of manhood. I learned a valuable lesson from that one. No matter the size of my afro, or my rolled up Levi’s, or my shell top Adidas or the range and accuracy of my jump shot, I just wasn’t one of the fellas.Growing up creole meant not belonging.
Growing up creole was to have a white boy in high school ask me, “Hey Broyard, how come you hang out with the black guys? I mean, you’re not all the way black are you?” Growing up creole was to have a black guy in high school ask me why I had a black girl friend. “Broyard likes that dark meat” he said as he and several others laughed at me. Growing up creole meant having your choices made for you.
Growing up creole was to have an elderly African-American woman came up to me in a grocery store with tears in her eyes and ask me “Why don’t you let ‘em go?” Now, I had run into the store to get a bag of disposable diapers for the baby and I wasn’t about to let those go so I asked her “Let who go, ma’m?” “The hostages”, she said. “I don’t have any hostages, dear. Who are you talking about?”, I asked. She swore up and down I was from Iran and had something to do with the hostages that had been taken.
My lighter than a bag skin color was just brown enough and my hair texture was just coarse enough to identify me as an Iranian. As conflict continues in the Middle East I know I must be careful. Having often been mistaken for a North African I am especially leery when I travel especially by plane. In fact, several years ago a couple of intoxicated rednecks sitting behind me on a plane kept making disparaging comments about Islam, the Taliban etc., all the while kicking my seat and obviously directing their comments at me.
It wasn’t until I turned around, showed them my driver’s license and several other documents with my photo and proof of citizenship that they cooled off and the rest of the flight went off without any more problems. Apparently my overall appearance makes some people nervous in this age of terror. Growing up creole continues for me, even as a grown man and it often continues to be a liability.
Growing up creole connected me to something truly unique in American culture. Something that I’ve always been proud of and interested in. I can’t begin to explain the feeling I get when I go to New Orleans. The minute I walk out of the terminal at Louis Armstrong Airport the thick, pungent air washes over me. Walking the broken, brick and cobblestone streets of the French Quarter and the Marigny, the Treme and the Seventh Ward fills me with something indescribable. The sights and sounds of the streets, the wind in the trees, the smell of the city after a hard rain connects me to home.
It’s familiar and I revel in it every chance I get. To walk the same streets that my father and mother walked, to see the neighborhoods where their parents lived and worked. This is the environment that gave birth to creole culture. Yet, everyone seems to have such bizarre and offensive notions of who and what creole is. I was asked by a young lady at UCLA during a question and answer session after a seminar on race and culture in America whether or not it was true that creole fathers “sleep with their daughters in order to insure that the skin color and hair texture remains consistent”.
I walked off ther stage without answering. Recently I was told by the mother of a good friend of mine that creoles are “ignorant”. Recently I was asked to contribute an article for an anthology of contemporary African-American voices. I was asked to write on creole holidays. I didn’t know there were any. At a lecture on the history of slavery in the Americas I was pointed out as the product of the defilement of Black womanhood by the white man. Look at this poor brother”, the lecturer said as he pointed to me, “Obviously his great-grandmother was raped by a slave master”.
My great-grandmothers were Augustine Poree Broyard and Bertha Leal Montegut, neither of whom were slaves, neither of whom were raped, both of whom lived as Colored in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans. Growing up creole was to be constantly misunderstood, misrepresented and maligned.
My parents raised my brother and sister and I to know who we were, what we were and that we were the descendents of people of color. My father, who was a building contractor and a former president of the Minority Contractors Association of Los Angeles never denied the fact that he was either Colored, a Negro or an African-American. In fact, up until only recently when a relative did a genealogy of the Broyard family and traced our roots to New Rochelle, France, my father was under the impression the our ancestors came from what at the time was known as French Morocco in Northern Africa.
This is what his father and his father’s father told him about his ancestry. In fact, even though it would be hard for most African-Americans to admit, we are all creolized, in the broadest sense of the word, in that we’re all mixed with something. My mother never passed for white a day in her life, in spite of rumors and lies circulated by a ‘friend’ of hers. She grew up in the Lafitte Project in New Orleans, attended Xavier University and dedicated her life to educating black children in the inner-city neighborhood where we lived. My mother saw herself as a black woman every day of her life and I’m proud to say raised her three children so that we weren’t under any illusions that we were anything other than the same.
The majority of the racism, anger and violence that I’ve been subjected to has come from those I always thought of as my own people. This has neither confused me or made me bitter. I still look in the mirror every day of my life and see an African-American man- a black man with a heritage just as unique as any other. What I’ve come to understand is that as a race, we often see ourselves as victims of racism only.
Yet, as African-Americans, we perpetrate quite a bit of racist activity ourselves, and what’s really sad is that we often turn it against our own kind. Is it that the scars of racism are so deeply internalized that we turn them on ourselves? Or are we just normal human beings who, like so many others, look for someone to put down to make ourselves feel better about who we are? Look at the Hutus and the Tutsis. They practically look the same and yet slaughtered thousands of each other because of tribal affiliations.
Growing up creole is to be connected to something worth cherishing.
Growing up creole is to be proud of my family and what they achieved.
Growing up creole is to live in the margins and to celebrate that every day of my life.