The Everyday Remains of American Slavery

By Travis M. Andrews

In New Orleans, my hometown, Mondays mean red beans. They’re consumed in homes, offered free of charge in bars, and served as specials in restaurants across the city. The reason is uncomfortable, if you spend a moment to consider it.

Long before electricity, Mondays were washdays. House slaves, also responsible for dinner prep, would spend Mondays doing laundry for the entire plantation, leaving no time to cook. Since red beans can simmer unattended (and often made use of Sunday’s ham or chicken bones), the dish became a Monday staple.

Lost to history is the irony that Haricots Rouges au Riz, colloquially known as red beans and rice, are thought to originally have been brought to New Orleans by creole Haitians. They were in the city after fleeing during the country’s slave revolt. The oral narrative of our Monday tradition often swaps “house slaves in the 1850s” for “housewives in the 1950s” because, as with so much uncomfortable inherited culture, the tales of its origin are more palatable when obscured.

Like red beans on washdays, much of New Orleans cuisine was born out of some sort of dire cultural imperative (even if that imperative was man-made). Po-boys lay easy claim to one of the city’s most famous dishes, but I wonder how many outside of the city know that they were originally—and, by some food historians, still—called “poor boys.”

They were invented in the 1920s, when Irish streetcar workers went on strike to fight against unfair working conditions and wages that could barely purchase a ride on said streetcar. Martin Brothers’ Coffestand and Restaurant, a local eatery, pledged to feed the workers for as long as the strike lasted. That meant feeding thousands. To do so, Bennie and Clovis Martin worked with John Gendusa, a local baker, to make utilitarian bread. Traditional French bread’s rounded edges meant bread was wasted, so Gendusa made loaves that were squared at the end. Then, they filled the sandwiches with whatever was left from the shop. A roast beef debris po-boy, still served today, is covered in what’s left after cooking roast beef.

That’s one of many dishes, but almost all of them—from gumbo to muffulettas to jambalaya—are born from some struggle.

But we don’t celebrate them quite the same way we do red beans, born from slavery. That’s not to say we shouldn’t eat red beans on Monday or even that we should think about slavery each time we do. I’m not sure what it means, but I know it begs questions, ones that only seem more important in a world where we still fight over hanging the Confederate battle flag, where the Charleston massacre happens, where the racial divide between whites and blacks feels more real than it ever has in my memory.

Is this tradition, ignorance, or something worse, something like hate? Where is the line of appropriation, of endorsing the abominable actions of our forefathers?

In a city where prominent statues of famous Confederate leaders didn’t raise eyebrows until 2015—and not without civil unrest, at that—those questions only get blurrier. Traditions born from slavery bleed into so much of our cultural tapestry.

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Flambeaux carriers light the parade routes during Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

One of the most applauded features of Mardi Gras parades are the flambeaux carriers—men, often black, marching and twirling enormous lit torches. In times past, slaves and free men of color carried flambeaux to light a path for night parades. Now, it’s part of the experience. Tradition dictated parade-goers offer coins and one-dollar bills to the paraders as compensation for lighting the way.

It still does.

Is this tradition, ignorance, or hate? Where is the line of appropriation, of endorsing the abominable actions of our forefathers?

When that history is used for profit, it’s more obvious.

I attended college in Baton Rouge, a city that’s 20 percent college students and has a confused heritage of Cajun culture from Acadia to its east and the Creole culture from New Orleans to its south. One day, sitting in a college bar with a purple-and-gold Confederate battle flag hanging in the corner—heartbreakingly normal décor before LSU banned the flag from home games during my Sophomore year—someone brought up the Myrtles Plantation in conversation.

I’d never truly considered it.

The Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana, posits itself as “one of America’s most haunted homes.” Its haunter: a “slave girl” named Chloe.

For the low price of $10, you can potentially see the apparitions of dead slaves. Some would say that mine is purposeful misreading (in terms of intention). Perhaps they’re right, but that doesn’t make it incorrect (in terms of what’s actually happening). Dead slaves, along with prostitutes and Native Americans, are a common feature of ghost tours. Just take one around the French Quarter or Washington D.C. or Chattanooga, Tenn.

Sometimes those questions are easy to answer.

Is this tradition, ignorance, or something worse, something like hate? Where is the line of appropriation, of endorsing the abominable actions of our forefathers?

None of this is new, but all of this is my heritage. It’s what I grew up with.

So too did I grow up with Lee Circle sitting at the end of St. Charles Avenue. I always took issue with the circle, but only for its traffic problems.

That is my failing—I should have considered it, should have been angered by it, just as I should have loathed my biking trail on Jefferson Davis Parkway or my grocery store’s address on Robert E. Lee Boulevard.

The statues will be taken down, but I can’t help but think of the parable David Foster Wallace famously employed about two young fish swimming when an older fish asks, “How’s the water?” and one turns to the other to ask “What the hell is water?”

That unconsciousness permeates our culture, until we aren’t asking the questions we should at least consider, ones we sometimes know the answers to and sometimes don’t.

I’m not the only one living unconsciously.

Weddings set on plantations are common in the South. Much of our popular music derives (at least partially) from slave hymns, as do our national traditions, such as eating pork and beans (Hoppin’ John, brought from Senegal to America on slave ships) on New Year’s Day. Ditto soul food (influential during the civil rights movement, now often stripped of its meaning) and modern dancing (see: Miley Cyrus twerking, a dance originally known as Mapouka and, like Hoppin’ John, brought from the Ivory Coast to America on slave ships).

How many people know what Kendrick Lamar is referencing in his hit single “King Kunta”?

How we, as a society, reckon with things like Confederate battle flags hanging in public spaces is a collective choice that weighs on our collective conscious. But how we reckon with our everyday cultural heritages remains a personal one.

The following questions, though, are both.

Is this tradition, ignorance, or something worse, something like hate? Where is the line of appropriation, of endorsing the abominable actions of our forefathers?

Travis M. Andrews is a co-founder of Or Something, an editor for Southern Living and a pop culture contributor for Mashable. Follow him on Twitter @travismandrews

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