Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “November, 2018”

Freeway Free down the Mississippi: Huey Long’s Long Shadow in Baton Rouge

20180517_173530docBaton Rouge is to New Orleans as Oakland is to San Francisco, forever in the shadow of its more glamorous sister city further south along the Mississippi. As the capital of the State of Louisiana Baton Rouge has its own history and its own character. Like Washington DC, it started out as a small town strategically located in the center of the state. Just as Washington grew into its role and was transformed by Pierre L’Enfant and his grand plan, Baton Rouge was also transformed by a man with a vision. That man was not an urbane French urban planner like L’Enfant.  Baton Rouge had  “the Kingfish” the great populist politician Huey Long.

When I was in high school I read the great novel All the King’s Men, which Robert Penn Warren transparently based on the life and death of Huey Long.  I had been equally enthralled by that other great Southern novel, Gone with the Wind. The contrast between the world’s of those two novels is neatly visible in Baton Rouge.

20180517_173652webBefore the Long Reign, Baton Rouge sported a perfectly ghastly Capitol building, a crenellated castle built in 1849 as if to withstand attacks by the protesting proletariat.  As a proud member of the proletariat, Huey Long naturally preferred a more modern design.  The new Capitol  is a miniature of the Empire State Building,  the tallest Capitol building in the country, and seventh tallest building in Louisiana.   A massive statue of Huey Long  marks the burial site of the Kingfish,  It stands facing the building rather than the city ” so he could keep an eye on the Legislature. ”

20180517_174737webThe Governor’s Mansion seen above, also built by Huey Long has a totally different vibe – it is said he had it built based on Thomas Jefferson’s original designs for the White House, so when he was elected President he would already know his way around.

Long’s mansion was replaced in 1963 by a new building which was modeled on ante-bellum mansions (specifically, Oak Alley in Vacherie, LA).  It could have been used as a site for the exteriors of Tara in Gone with the Wind.  Louisiana’s public face has come full circle.3284_New-Gov.-Mansion_9eff8afb-5056-b365-ab007987e9bb3f4b

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Freeway Free in Cajun Country – The Myth of Evangeline

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When I was in high school we studied the poetry of Henry Wadworth Longfellow, and particularly “Evangeline”. To this day, when I am walking in a redwood grove, the introductory line comes to me: “This is the forest primeval/the murmuring pines and the hemlocks.” (Although redwood trees don’t exactly murmur, or if they do, it is so high up I can’t hear them.)

So here we are in St. Martinsburg, site of the supposed reunion of lovers Evangeline and Gabriel in the classic poem. The “Evangeline Oak” is the largest of several very impressive trees in the Evangeline/Longfellow State Park but there is no actual connection to the poem, as Longfellow never visited Louisiana, nor does the poem mention an oak tree. The statue of Evangeline which formerly sat near the oak has since been moved across from the City Hall in St. Martinsburg. It is actually modeled on Dolores del Rio, who starred as Evangeline in the 1929 move, and it was donated to the town by the movie cast. It has been replaced by a bust of Longfellow on a plinth whose plaque includes the stanza from “Evangeline” which mentions St. Martinsville.20180517_151453web

Adjacent to the park with the oak tree is the Museum of the Acadian Memorial, a small but effective installation with a focus on tracing the emigration pathways of the displaced Acadians and also provides assistance with tracing Acadian genealogy. Co-located in the same building is the African American Museum, which traces a different diaspora from Africa through the slave trade to the various Southern slave markets. It’s an odd juxtaposition.

Before visiting St. Martinsburg we had stopped at Pat’s Fisherman’s Wharf, a well-known local Cajun restaurant and dance hall at the edge of the Atchafalaya Swamp. It was hard to reconcile the down-home flavors of Cajun food and music with the high-flown verses of Longfellow, but “Cajun” is undeniably a shortening of “Arcadian” which has been passed down for 200 years. History is a twisting river.

 

A Piece of my Mind: Homecoming Parade (Los Altos Town Crier, Nov. 7, 2018)

20181019_133643docHomecoming Parade – Now and Then

My spouse and I biked up to our downtown in mid-October to watch the High School Homecoming Parade. 

20181019_132743webMain Street had been blocked off between State Street and First Street.  Both sides of the street was lined with people, some who had brought chairs for better viewing.  Many of the spectators wore T-shirts with the “HOCO” Home coming Logo, overlying a large candy-swirl sucker honoring the Candyland parade theme. There was a lively mix of parents, grandparents, younger siblings, and fellow students of the marchers. Lots of hugs were being exchanged.

Here they came!  First a couple of motorcycle policemen, then one of the  Fire Department ‘s white trucks, lights flashing. Then the parade proper, led by the high school’s eagle mascot. with the 20 members of the Homecoming Court riding in sports cars or on the back seat of antique convertibles in mixed or same-sex couples. 

In between the members of the court marched delegations of the different Fall sports teams –football leading the way in  T-shirts and sweatshirts, followed by Field Hockey, Water Polo, Girls Volleyball, Tennis, Cross Country, Culinary Arts, Golf, Basketball, and FUTSAL (a kind of combination of football and soccer, a young bystander explained to me.)

 

Also marching were members of different clubs – the Latino Students Union dressed in ethnic garb and carrying pinatas on poles, the Black Students Union, Gender and Sexuality Awareness carrying rainbow banners, the Broken Box Theatre company,  Model United Nations, electronics club, Students for Haiti Solidarity, One Dollar for Life, and others I didn’t catch.

Each class had put together a float in honor of the parade theme – there was a candy house built of giant Necco wafers, a gingerbread house, a forest of lollipops surrounding a giant green M&M, and a giant gumball machine  (the gumballs were balloons.)

The band did not wear T-shirts and jeans or leggings. They were dressed in double-breasted  woolen uniforms despite the warm October weather, with military shakos and caps.  The spirit squad marched in blue skirts and white blouses, ready to sit together in the rooting section, where white shirts or blouses were required dress. 

I couldn’t help looking back to the  High School Homecoming Parade during my graduate year some decades ago.  At that time the Homecoming Court consisted of six girls nominated by the class, escorted by the young man of their choice.  There was no such thing as a Homecoming King. The Queen nominees were all Caucasian.  That was no wonder, as our high school at that time had zero African American Students, and almost no Asian or Latino students.

The band did not wear T-shirts and jeans or leggings. They were dressed in double-breasted  woolen uniforms despite the warm October weather, with military shakos and caps.  The spirit squad marched in blue skirts and white blouses, ready to sit together in the rooting section, where white shirts or blouses were required dress.

The football team rode in cars.  Because it was Game Day, they wore shirts, ties,  sports jackets, and dress shoes – not suitable for walking even the few blocks along Main Street.

I remember working on the spirit squad float – a giant cube covered with tissue paper flowers spelling out rally slogans in the school colors. 20181110_161512web

The 2018 version of Homecoming Parade was not the same as what I remembered.  There was a lot more diversity in the shapes and colors of the homecoming court.  Some of the sports and most of the clubs were new to me. There was a lot less formality in dress. But bystanders and participants were all smiling.  Despite the many changes  over the years, I feel that our community character has been preserved.  

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Freeway Free down the Mississippi: the Shadow of Slavery

 

Floating down the Mississippi on a multi-tiered cruise ship, I was inevitably sucked into the “Gone With the Wind” myth.  We docked up at a number of pillared plantation homes.  We saw a home where James Audubon was employed as a tutor to the children, and drew his marvelous bird protraits from taxidermy models he had made.  We walked down a oak-lined alley with a lovely double-decker veranda’d mansion at the end of it.  We saw portraits of blonde children in lace-trimmed dresses, and dainty embroideries done by the ladies of the house.  And always the dark shadow of the enslaved people who made it all possible lurked behind, only barely acknowledged.

I believe it started with climate.  In this hot, humid region, African laborers were prized over Europeans because they had better tolerance for the climate.  Once that advantage was established, economics took over.  If there is a demand, someone will supply it. 

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The restored mansions include lovely murals, swooping staircases, and even the apparent remains of a poker party – one can imagine Scarlett O’Hara lifting her skirts as she goes up the stairs, or Rhett Butler sweeping up the chips with a rakish grin.

But the musty flavor of slavery still permeates.  In the dining room where crystal cut-glass sparkles, a huge fan hangs over the table – it would have been pulled back and forth by a silent slave in the corner.

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