We at CreoleGen are once again very proud to feature a post by Mr. James Guidry, an avid reader and guest author. Our readers may recall that in the recent past, Mr. Guidry published his reflections on his home parish of Holy Ghost Church in Opelousas. The following article covers his thoughtful and heartfelt feelings on “country life” in St. Landry as it relates to family, race, community, and celebration.
The city students said I was from the country when I attended college in New Orleans. I was shocked by this in the beginning since I had never ever considered Opelousas to be country. Sunset, Bunkie, Port Barre, Grand Coteau and Plaisance were definitely country, but not Opelousas. After all, the large department store, Abdalla’s, had a mechanical Santa Claus in a display window every Christmas. Folks would come from all over St. Landry Parish to see the Santa spin his head 90 degrees from dead center, in both directions!
Upon deeper reflection, however, I had to admit that my hometown was as country as the smaller surrounding towns. For one thing, there is a significant equestrian culture in St Landry Parish. It was not uncommon to see a shirtless and shoeless teenager riding a horse bare back through the dirt streets of my neighborhood. I heard stories about Sunday afternoon match races between horses representing various farms with heavy cash laid down. My farm residing classmates talked about weekend trail rides with their family and friends. The trail ride tradition continues.
On a recent Opelousas trip I had to pause as policemen directed traffic to let a trail ride proceed in safety. If anything, the tradition has grown. They are now scheduled events in Louisiana and Texas with hundreds of people attending. These trail rides include a zydeco DJ in a tractor pulled wagon. They usually end in a clearing with a pavilion built for dancing and partying. Our parents wore western wear to hear and dance to “la la” music in a friend’s living room or in a dance hall like the legendary Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki. Some of the men wore belt buckles as large as a “cochon de lait”. This was reflected in the clothing style of zydeco musicians like Boozoo Chavis and currently by Geno Delafose.
For another thing, the economy of St. Landry Parish was and is heavily dependent upon agriculture. The important crops include cotton, sugar cane, soybeans, corn and sweet potatoes. In fact , St. Landry Parish is the self proclaimed sweet potato capitol of the US. The Louisiana sweet potato is marketed as a yam. Sweet potatoes and yams are similar but not related. The Louisiana yam is actually a sweet potato variety and has led to the confusion between yams and sweet potatoes in the US. A sweet potato processor and shipper, Felix Dezauche, built a canning plant in Opelousas in the 1950’s. The plant was along my route to school. On cold days I would warm my hands with the hot air, produced by the plant, coming through the grates in the sidewalk. Felix Dezauche was also a major force in the creation of the annual Opelousas Yambilee festival. The festival began in 1946 and occurred during the second week of October.
Sweet Potato Processing Plant
My memories of the old days are not completely romantic and idyllic. There was always the current of racism and segregation running through all of these experiences. The country mouse and the city mouse both lived in constant danger. Our musicians entertained in venues that they would be killed for patronizing. We provided the back breaking labor for harvesting the crops of St Landry Parish.
The rules of segregation were filled with irony. My father worked as a yard man in the afternoons after his 7 to 4 job ended. I would help him sometimes. It would unnerve me to see this most dignified of men saying yes sir and yes ma’am to white people many years younger and possessing none of his dignity and grace. He was related to many of them sharing at minimum a great grandfather and perhaps at maximum, the same father. This was common knowledge in the black community.
My father’s nickname was “White Folks”. On rainy days some of his yard clients would drive him home. If the driver was a woman he might be the lone passenger in the car and definitely sitting in the back seat. The driver could have been a cousin or even a half sister. But the thing, is I can not condemn all of them out of hand. They respected my father and did him many favors. The greatest favor was that one of them paid tuition for my seven siblings and me to attend parochial school. This continued for many years, through grade and high school. Every month I would present a check signed by this white woman to the school office.
I was more of an observer than a participant in the so called “country” culture of the parish. We did not own horses and my mother kept us on a short leash that she had no problem yanking when in her judgement it was necessary to do so. A slight build and delicate health did not allow me to do summer farm labor like many of my friends to earn money for school expenses. I did help to harvest kind of a unique crop.
The long driveway of a wealthy Opelousas family was lined with pecan trees. My brothers and I would help my father harvest the pecans during the month of October. We would split the pecan sales 50-50 with this family. My adventuresome Uncle Frank would climb the trees with a long cane pole to facilitate harvesting. He would climb out to precarious positions on various branches and “thrash” the tree with the pole. Thrashing was a technique borrowed from Native Americans. Pecans would rain down on the tarps that we placed underneath. We picked the pecans and put them in gunny sacks. Our share would easily result in several hundred dollars, a lot of money in those days.
Pecan harvesting had another benefit for me. It got me out of marching in the annual Yambilee parade. There were two parades . The colored parade was in the morning and the white parade in the afternoon. Each parade honored a citizen as Mr. Yam. The white Mr. Yam and the black Mr. Yam would ride in convertibles with big sweet potato heads waving to the crowd and scaring little kids. The colored Mr Yam looked covered with brown sugar and appeared tastier than his white counterpart. I inherited the sense of dignity from my father that would not allow me to march behind a human yam, no matter how flavorful. It was a school holiday, save for the parade. I would tell the principal, Sister Virginia, that I had to help my dad with the pecans on that particular day. I still cannot eat either pecans or sweet potatoes.