Bouki Fait Gombo

April 5th, 2018

There’s a French Creole proverb depicting the master/slave relationship in the sugar cane plantations of Louisiana, its origins in Senegalese folktales where so many slaves came from:

“Bouki fait gombo, lapin mangé li.” (He-goat makes the gombo, but rabbit eats it.)

As published in The Memphis Daily News, April 6, 2018, and in The Memphis News, April 7-13, 2018



From 1936 to 1938, as part of the WPA and the Federal Writers’ Project, more than 2,000 interviews were conducted with former slaves resulting in the Slave Narratives: A Folk History in the United States. Those former slaves were very old by then, but their memories of dark childhoods were clear.

Most of us have never heard of those narratives.

I recently saw some of those memories engraved in stone, and stood where they were made, surrounded by a reality I had not truly acknowledged before, finding the past alive in the present like nowhere I have been before.

On the wall in front of me, I saw the words of Julia Woodrich, born a slave in Louisiana in 1851, talking about her mother: “My ma had fifteen children and none of them had the same pa. You see, every time she was sold she had to take another man. Her had fifteen children after she was sold de last time.”

Julia’s mother was profitable property, and Julia would have some memories of her as a child – if her mother was sold she would been in the bargain – but at age ten she would have been considered an adult slave, put to work accordingly, and worth $25,000-plus in today’s money.

On a sugar cane plantation, she would have had a life expectancy of ten adult years.

I was visiting one of the plantations along the Mississippi on the River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge – a stretch of 50 miles or so of antebellum ascension fronted by massive columns at the end of ancient live oak alleys – a stretch said to have produced more wealth from its sugar than all of the plantations north pulled from their cotton.

But this plantation – Whitney Plantation – is different. This is the only one anywhere dedicated to the history of slaves and telling the story from their point of view. Here you see where they came from – some of the culture stolen from them that somehow survived in bits and pieces of our language, food and religion – some of the brutal business of human beings as property measured in profit and productivity – some of the horror of grinding cane into sugar and people into the swamp surrounding that cane.

Here are the two-room cabins they lived in, eight to ten to a side in the growing season, double that in the grinding season – October through December, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Here is the hell on earth that owners upriver evoked to make their slaves work harder by threatening to “sell them down the river.”

This tour ends at the master’s house instead of beginning there, and leaves you with a fuller understanding of how it was built and how life was lived in and around it.

This 50th assassination anniversary, we must still ask how are we building it now and at whose expense.

I’m a Memphian, and how far we’ve come still depends on who holds the rule.



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