Ogechi Ibeanusi

Faulkner Bookstore

The Faulkner Bookstore is a bookstore for septuagenarians. I mean it. The Faulkner Bookstore is like the heavyweight champion of all bookstores. Almost every classical book of literature is heavy, bounded with hard-cover leather, and sheathed with elaborate golden pages. The store is wedged in a back alleyway behind the St. Louis Cathedral. When you first come across the Faulkner bookstore, you can find the lovely pedantic baby blue entrance doors and the modest emblem of the Faulkner logo. The doors looked magical and evoked a calm, inviting gesture leading into a fancy display of Southern Gothic literature, American classics, and my favorite works of contemporary nonfiction.

Inside the bookstore, wooden bookshelves contain large, colorful volumes of contemporary reads and rare books. The first thing I noticed about the selection of books on the shelves was the careful balance between classical literature, works of art, and contemporary fiction/nonfiction for mature readers. Unfortunately, most book prices spann anywhere between $15-$60 per book, which added to the bourgeois atmosphere of the bookstore. Everything in the store was simply so expensive, but incredibly enticing.

Whenever I feel bad, I go to the library and read controversial periodicals. Though I do not know whether I am a liberal or a conservative, I am nevertheless enlivened by the hatred which one bears the other. In fact, this hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world.
— Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

Reflecting on Walker Percy's novel, The Moviegoer, I do resonate with John "Binx" Bolling's retreat into the world of books and quiet introspection. Although most of my peers disliked The Moviegoer and Bolling's self-absorbed quest to resign into mundane life, I believe this novel carries a very powerful message about the interior of the American psyche and way of life.  Binx's prides himself on being a model citizen from the Southern genteel class. He enjoys watching and re-watching movies, hooking up with girls, pushing boundaries, and contributing very little to society. In doing so, he alienates himself from his friends and family and silently rejects his Aunt Emily's prodding to be more ambitious. In many ways, Binx's lifestyle demonstrates that atomized American way of life that lacks a spiritual foundation, moral fiber, and provincialism that cannot self-reflect in an transcendent manner.

Binx struggles to establish his sense of self and add spiritual definition to his life. He doesn't want simply live up to the standards of his Southern genteel heritage. This is why I think there's a bit of the moviegoer in all of us. Despite Binx's childishness, he redeems himself by burying his head in literature that challenges him to search for meaning outside of what's already familiar to him in daily life. Even though I don't believe literature is the universal solvent for remedying the effects of emptiness, spiritual deadness, or alienation, I do believe there's an immense wisdom to be gained from reading books written by authors who were able to look at society from an outsider's perspective and forage meaning from it. So on, I pressed forward to William Faulkner's book collection and poetry bookshelves in the corner room to extrapolate meaning for myself. Just being around Faulkner's books gave me an unduly sense of stability and rootedness in the present. 

Walker Percy and his friend Shelby Foote, the famous Civil War historian, traveled to Oxford, Mississippi to speak with Faulkner after Percy graduated from college. Percy was stunned by Faulkner's genius to the extent that he said very little during their meetings. Many famous Southern writers such as Percy's friend, Shelby Foote, Robert Kennedy Toole, and Robert Penn Warren were all inspired by Faulkner's Southern gothic style and inclusion of the supernatural. The bookstore possessed some treasured rare editions of Faulkner's works that include: The Town, The Hamlet, Doctor Martino, The Sound and the Fury, These 13, Absalom, Absalom, Intruder in the Dust, and The Mansion.  

The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.
— William Faulkner

I don't know why I love this quote from William Faulkner so much "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past." I guess my encounter with this letter from T.S. Eliot provides an eerie reminder of this living past.  It makes me recall a seminar from one of my history professors wherein she brought up the subject of defining history usually debated in graduate school. It's a common inquiry that many historians question- that is, when does history start ? Does history begin a decade, five years, a month, five seconds from the present time? Although I don't have any answers to this question, I decided to test the livable past and write a letter to T.S. Eliot in response to the letter he wrote to one of his colleagues. 

Dear T.S. Eliot, 

I want to meet with you this evening in the middle of Cafe Du Monte for coffee and beignets! I'd love to indulge you the details and exploits of my summer  Bookpacking trip to Louisiana. I've explored the vibrant city of New Orleans, the state capitol of Baton Rouge, beautiful Grand Isle, and the modest city of Lafayette with my classmates from USC. Your poem, "The Waste Land" struck me and resonated with the protagonist Binx's existential crisis and search for identity in our assigned reading of Walker Percy's book, The Moviegoer. So far, I'm enjoying my time in New Orleans and hope to convene with you soon!



The Whitney Plantation Tour

When I told my friends about my summer plans, they couldn't help but express their happiness and jealousy over the fact that I was traveling to New Orleans, one of the most hype cities for young people in America. They told me about the legendary Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras, and the festive spirit of the city. So I held high expectations for the Maymester course and knew the city would offer good cuisine, leisure activities, and exposure to Creole/Cajun culture. You could only imagine my anticipation to finally see the city.

The first thing that struck me about the city of New Orleans was the interplay between the past and the present. In contrast to many cities in California, New Orleans contains a vast history that stretches back to the arrival of the French and Spanish in the New World. The beautiful authentic European architecture definitely popped out at me. In fact, entire sections of the city look completely slathered with pastel colors and have street artists and performers at almost every major cross street. The city itself is thoroughly spread out, walkable, open, welcomes tourists, and is a melting pot for diverse peoples in the South. I can understand why half a century ago Tennessee Williams said, “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” In some ways, the city of New Orleans resembles my home city of San Francisco in that it offers a wider degree of individualism, liberalism, diversity, licentiousness, artistic expression, and civic responsibility that are not widely available in other American mid-sized cities.

Beneath the grandeur of the city, New Orleans contains a rich and dark history steeped in slavery and French colonialism. Although many people make the argument that New Orleans today blends different socio-economic and racial groups together, New Orleans was formerly known for its heavy involvement in the Atlantic slave trade to the extent that the Southern region of Louisiana was coined the "Gold Coast." The buying and selling of African peoples peaked in 1807 when the international slave trade was banned in the United States. Subsequently, the movement of slaves from the North to the South accelerated due to what historians deem today, "the Second Middle Passage." As a result, the institution of slavery became the main economic engine driving the economy within the South whereas the North began to industrialize its workforce and modes of production instead.

Our trip to the Whitney Plantation exposed the dark and brutal history of slavery and its impact on Louisiana's social, political, and economic development. After our morning seminar, we took individual portraits and then waited for an hour in the plantation's expensive bookstore that sold fashionable African-American literature, books, cds, African clothes, and trinkets. Our wonderful tour guide Ali took us outside and immediately, we went to the church adjacent to the bookstore. I couldn't help but admire Ali for his eloquence and sophistication. Ali ensured that every single person in the group understood the full weight of slavery on the African body, the universality of slavery throughout human history, and the function of slavery in the Southern economy.

With his booming charismatic voice and impromptu style, Ali delivered a powerful presentation on the architecture of slavery and the importance of educating youth especially black youth on their history today. He delineated the brutal and psychological mechanisms put in place to control slaves and the profit motive influencing the Southern genteel class to maintain slavery. Ali also discussed how slavery in the United States was different from any other type of slavery in human history in that for the first time in history, race and religion were used to justify the perpetual enslavement of another group of people. The details concerning the first colonial attempts to enslave Native Americans and Pope Nicholas V's "Dum Diversas" sanction in 1452 that authorized the enslavement of pagan peoples were also very gripping and highlight the complex interplay between major European institutions (the church, the marketplace, European shipping industries, the aristocrasy) in the conception of this new form of slavery in the United States.

The Black Baptist Church

The plantation originally didn't possess a church. The church was eventually acquired from demolished pieces of a black Baptist church miles away from the plantation. During slavery, slaves could enter the church, but were not allowed to preach, read the Bible, and were only told specific scriptures regarding humility, obedience, and the rewards of Heaven in sermons that justified slavery. If a slave was caught reading, they were given 10-20 lashes as punishment. To paraphrase Ali's words, "It was deadlier for a slave to learn how to read and write, than it was for a slave to attempt to run a way." Soonafter, the church was restored and descendents of black slaves today assume ownership of the church.

Wall of Honor

The Wall of Memory commemorates the names of 350+ slaves who lived, labored, and died on the plantation.  Academics from neighboring universities such as the University of New Orleans and LSU received grants to document the names of slaves that were found in the papers discovered in the Big House roughly twenty years ago. The average life expectancy of African slaves was twenty years and the death toll totaled -12 percent or 112 out of 100 people. Slaves were also sexually exploited to breed mixed race children. Since these children were the property of their slave masters, slave masters usually gave their children French names. 

The Field of Angels 

The Field of Angels is a memorial dedicated to the 2,200 slave infants who were born in the St. John the Baptist parish between 1823 and 1863. Since infant mortality rates and diseases in motherhood were exceedingly high, most children died before their second birthday. Most children did not receive a proper Catholic burial and were often buried in large earthen holes on the plantation.


The Slave Quarters

There existed roughly twenty houses on the plantation and were carved out of cypress trees. Slaves prepared meals, gardened their vegetables, weaved cloth, and slept here. On average, slaves worked roughly 12-18 hours a day and utilized deadly tools to cut down sugarcane and tobacco plants.  In accordance to the French noir codes, children began work in the fields at the age of 10 and elder slaves stripped the leaves of indigo plants because they were poisonous and in old age.  High-skilled slaves such as carpenters and blacksmiths often were the first to buy their freedom and purchase their slave family's freedom. 


The Big House

Ambroise Heidel was the founding father of the plantation. In 1721, he emigrated to the United States with his family. He started out as a modest farmer and then bought the original land tract of the plantation in 1752. He became a wealthy land owner of indigo, tobacco, and sugarcane. Eventually Heidel passed the property off to his son Jean Haydel Sr.  who expanded the farm and acquired more acres of land in 1803. Soonafter, Haydel Sr. bequeathed the property to his son Marcellin. After his death, his widow Marie Azelie Haydel bought the plantation and produced more sugarcane, an astounding 407,000 pounds of sugar during one grind season due to advanced technology in agriculture. 

The Removal of the Robert E. Lee Statue

After a long night of restaurant hopping and millennial excursions, my fellow bookpackers and I landed ourselves in the middle of the spectacle that was the Confederate protest against the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. The night was ripe with heated political exchanges and the energy emanating from the small Southern crowd around the square made everyone nervous and giddy for movement. We had just arrived two hours before midnight when the statue was scheduled for removal. Despite the fear that a race riot would erupt, the crowd was anticipating the statue's removal because for the first time in 166 years, New Orleans was doing something about its somnubulent Southern past by tearing down a Confederate relic of white supremacy.

As a sojourner to the South and native Californian, I was afraid that the situation would escallate into violence and belligerent racist protestors. Nonetheless, we slowly dawdled our way toward the crowd. I grew more comfortable by the relative composure of the crowd in relation to the few beer guzzling, racist hollering protestors who made a ruckus in the front area near the statue. Inside Lee's circle, we saw various New Orleanian residents, people from other Southern states, newsreporters, and folks from all over the country discussing whether the city should retain the statue in the circle. The Confederate flag was mounted in the front by protestors who came from Mississippi and Alabama. Clearly, these protestors were staunch in their belief that they new what was best for the city of New Orleans by declaring that the city should maintain the statue in order to retain their Confederate image.

The scene was hot with intensive discussions, political banters, and an unsettling sense of progress for the city of New Orleans. Afterall, New Orleans is known for its rich history and regarded as the Southern melting pot wherein whites, blacks, Native Americans, and people of color in general coexist more smoothly compared to other cities in the United States. While the rest of the group explored different parts of the square, I approached these three black women from the Bay Area (my region of California) named Fatima, Selma, and Sonya and two other white women who include Charlotte and Annette from another neighboring Southern state. The women were having a conversation about Southern history. With their consent, they allowed me to interview them and record their earnest perspectives on Southern history and the Lee statue.

Lee Statue Interview

Ogechi: What's your perspective on the demolition of the Lee Statue?

Fatima: I don't believe in destroying history under any circumstances, but I do believe that the statue needs to be taken down.

Selma: So we're sisters and our mom is an archivist. She supports the preservation of history and as she says, "The statue should be put into a museum and put into context so people can understand that this is apart of history and a bad part of history."

Fatima & Selma: But the statue shouldn't be placed up here as a symbol for the Confederacy and white supremacy.

Ogechi: What do you know about the statue's history here in New Orleans?

Sonya: Robert E. Lee was a general who fought to preserve the status quo of the African slave so the South can profit off of slavery. He lost the war and he was a traitor. This is a statue that symbolizes a false sense of superiority for Europeans, which they don't want to know. If whites looked at their history, they would be aghast and they've been taught this false narrative for so long. Robert E. Lee was not a hero.

Ogechi: What will be the impact of the statue's removal on the city?

Fatima: There won't be any impact. Most of the people who are here are from out of state. There won't be any negative ramifications for them.

Charlotte: Personally, I'm from out of state and I came here tonight because it does impact me. I came out here because I wanted to witness and learn more about my history. Now that I'm hearing your perspectives, I want the statue to come down because I don't want this symbol to stand up here for people to see. I wouldn't even want to see this symbol while driving to work.

Fatima: The visceral reaction that's caused by the Confederate flag and the statue as a symbol of the Confederacy is bad. I went to high school in the city and I took the streetcar that runs through this square and had to see this monument every day at my underfunded public school. It was just an extension of the oppression people are facing. I think it would be nice to have little black kids in New Orleans today not have to see these symbols.

Sonya: If you grew up in this system and were told each day that black is bad, you can't go to this restaurant, and all you have are all of these reminders of what happened to you, then it causes a lot of post traumatic stress. As a 57 year old person, my peers still have the memory of segregation. Even now as we look at history books, all they tell me about my people is that we were slaves. Now I teach history and I give back with that subject so that kids can grow up with a sense of self and pride knowing the real history.

Ogechi: What would you say to the supporters of the Confederacy who still hold onto the nostalgic dream of the Southern past?

Charlotte: I do wear things with the Confederate flag on it, but it doesn't have anything to do that. I don't care about what color you are and I treat everyone the way I want to be treated. I just wear it because its a part of my Southern heritage.

Sonya: Do you know what you inherited? You inherited a history steeped in rape, murder, and every degredated and oppressive type of crime that can possibly be bestowed upon a person. This isn't to say that there hasn't been slavery in other parts of the world because every culture and country has conducted slavery. What is it inside a person that can treat a human that way?

Charlotte: My family personally never owned slaves or endorsed anything that supported slavery.

Sonya: Yet, you guys are still benefiting from what happened to us. What I would say to the older generation is put yourselves in our shoes.

Charlotte: I do try to understand. I come from a predominately black community so I am a minority in my own right and I'm fine with it. I have enjoyed getting to know the people I've gone to school with the past 18 years.

Sonya: Knowing that I know everything that happened to my ancestors, I know that I shouldn't be where I am because I have a doctorate in sports management. Some people wonder how'd I get here. What's interesting is if you had told me you had the same degree, I would have said well of course you do. There would be no reason to envy any European that has money or had the same level of education. Of course you do. You have not been processed through this system the way African-Americans have. When I see people like Colin Powell or people like myself, the African-American women who is the most educated group of educators in North America. How did that happen with the beginning that we had? Yet, still we have to preserve in order to become what we are.

You can here more of Sonya and Charlotte's conversation in the audio provided below:

 Mayor Landrieu's Address the Following Morning

The next day New Orleans Mayor, Mitch Landrieu gave a historic speech at Gallier Hall on Friday May 19, 2017 on the removal of four Confederate monuments in the city that was ordered in 2015. He delivered a really powerful speech in which he acknowledged New Orleans's role as a melting pot for different nations and cultures in the South and the searing truths that haunt the city's history. The city was at one period of history, America's largest slave market. Despite the liberalized French treatment of African slaves through the Noir code system, New Orleans's slave owners was still complicit in the enslavement, labor exploitation, and rape of African slaves. Furthermore, the city played a central role in the Plessy v. Ferguson case that established the federal "seperate but equal" clause and enacted de jure segregation in America. The mayor went on to assert that the four Confederate statues in the city were never intended to honor New Orleans's history, but rather were originally placed in the city to deify Confederate generals and legitimize the lost Confederate cause.

I'm thankful to have witnessed history in the city of New Orleans this month during the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. Mayor Landrieu's address reflect the immediacy and serious dedication his administration and the city of New Orleans has on this lingering issue. This speech appeared on my facebook feed the following day and was very impactful for my friends who reposted it and the nation, as a whole. Watching the speech, I was struck by the quote he used from a speech George W. Bush gave at the dedication ceremony for the National Museum of African American History & Culture in 2016, "A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them." I couldn't help but agree that we have an obligation as a nation that was built on the hard labor of slaves to make acknowledgements and correctives to our history. I'm glad that New Orleans is chosing to confront from its historical amnesia and face the truth about its past. New Orleans is confidently embracing change and moving forward with its history by remembering its past riddled with slavery and white supremacy.

Grand Isle, LA

The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.
— Kate Chopin, The Awakening

"On the Shore"

I feel tingling soft sand
on my toes while wading
in salty water
cooled by the thick moist air
that fills my nostrils.

Playing in the largess
of the ocean shore,
we feel the weight of love
in soothing shades of light. 
"This land is lonely,
but we find love in the quietest of places."

My English tongue quivers
at the breathe of the New World
far away from the routine of City.
I struggle to behold the beauty
of this place for a quiet moment.
Still a patient wind invites
me into an ancient ebb and flow
drawing my attention away from
my own inward stroll to the
narrowing of a cosmic river.