Reflections on Race: African American Challenges — Voices from the local Black community contemplate the primary challenges facing African Americans and how best to address them.
I am the son and grandson of sharecroppers. My people picked cotton and dug sweet potatoes on land they did not own.
They put babies under wagons to block the unmerciful, South Louisiana sun. At home, they covered bedroom mirrors when lightning flashed and nailed Palm Sunday fronds above the front door.
In this 21st century world of $1,200 cell phones, some might view their poverty and superstitions with shame. But these are my people. They made a way for me before I could make a way for myself.
A tribute to them, cotton bolls in an aluminum tub emblazoned with “Fuselier,” sits on my kitchen shelf.
These Black sharecroppers gave the world zydeco music, tasty cuisine and home remedies. Their calloused hands, tired backs and endless prayers allowed me to be my family’s first to graduate college. I can vote, travel and hold jobs that never entered their wildest dreams.
I think about the sharecropping Fuseliers, especially during Black History Month. Each February, we hear stories of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and other civil rights icons. We must also talk about trailblazers in our own families.
My father, whose first and last name I carry, never marched with Dr. King. He quit school in the sixth grade to help the family in the fields.
But as he picked cotton, he dreamed about the cars that passed on the dusty roads. One day, he’d be behind the wheel.
He grew into a man who drove taxis, then repaired cars at Fuselier Bros. Garage, his business for more than 40 years. His cotton field dreams came true with a new Cadillac every other year. He put on tailor-made suits he bought at Rubenstein Brothers on Canal Street in New Orleans any time he got ready.
He was also one of several businessmen in Opelousas who put up bail money for Blacks arrested for voter registration. White people harassed my father and his brother George simply because they owned cars. But they were mechanics, making money in their own shop. They needed no one’s permission.
My sister Sophia was there for it all. Sophia was technically a half-sister, a child my father had before he and Matteal, my mom, married for 54 years.
But the family never said “half” to describe Sophia. She was our sister. Period.
Sophia was there for the sharecropping days, raised by Mama Sophie, a grandmother I barely knew. Sophia told stories about Mama Sophie working in the fields and ruling the household with an iron hand.
She could be heard before sunrise every Sunday morning, “Get your black behind outta bed and get ready for church.” Except she didn’t say behind.
Sophia knew about the “la la,” the Creole house dances that became known as zydeco.
About Reflections on Race
Black history is unfortunately not always recognized as American history — even today as it was in 1915 when Dr. Carter G. Woodson, hailed as the Father of Black History, and others brought his “brainchild” to life.
If you ever wondered how Black History Month originated, you need go no further than the founding group’s website asalh.org. It stands for the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
In its own history, focusing on Dr. Carter, the association notes: “During the dawning decades of the twentieth century, it was commonly presumed that black people had little history besides the subjugation of slavery. Today, it is clear that blacks have significantly impacted the development of the social, political, and economic structures of the United States and the world.”
The association chose as this year’s Black History Month theme: The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity.
Our guest columns for Reflections of Race will help to secure the foundation of the Black family by identifying challenges and issues facing the African American race. We asked our guest columnists to comment from a local or national viewpoint, and offer solutions along the way. And they did just that.
— Ruth Foote, collection editor
Sophia eventually settled in Houston, where we’d visit often when I was a kid. I was more interested in Astroworld and Houston Wrestling.
But as I got older and our father died, I learned to appreciate my time with Sophia. She always had stories of Mama Sophie and our grandfather Celestine, better known as Daddy P.A.
Every year, I’d tell her I was coming to spend a weekend in the summer, so we could record all those old stories. I never did, thinking she’d always be around.
Sophie died last June. So many stories were buried with her.
Her death is a reminder to never wait to remember and share our history, in our own words. It can be as simple as pressing record on a cell phone app.
Sophia always ended every visit, every phone call, with “I love you.” Those were my last words at her eulogy.
Thanks for showing our family Dr. King and Rosa Parks were just on the other side of the dinner table.