I noticed one evening some years ago, while talking with my six-year and ten-year old sons, that they were saying somewhat prejudiced things about black people, whom they were calling jiggyboos, a name they had learned from my former wife. I loved her but I didn’t like the sentiments or the label. I told them,
“Boys, have I ever told you that my great-great-great-grandmother from New Orleans was black?”
“No,” they said, so I said,
“Perhaps you shouldn’t be saying unkind things about black people then....especially if you have her in your blood.”
They thought about that a while, and I never heard any more unkind things about black people.
I hadn’t told them the whole story, of course. To tell the truth, I had not worked it through completely myself. I decided that I really needed to do that. This is the story.
Mélisande Peau-de-Soie Noir was one of the most beautiful women in New Orleans in the early years of the Nineteenth Century. Her parents, Argent and Josephine, had come to New Orleans from Haiti toward the end of the short, violent reign of Pierre Toussaint L’Ouverture, though they would never say how. Nor would they say how they met. They would say only that Argent came first, followed a little while later by Josephine. Having very little, they survived on menial work, Argent on the docks and Josephine in the homes of wealthy merchants.
Mélisande was their only child, conceived when Argent brought his common-law wife to the near edge of the moon as he filled her with quiet rage at their circumstances transmuted into gentle love of unmatched physical power, followed by quiet adoration of his beloved woman. Having only first names themselves, they gave Mélisande no surname.
As Mélisande developed into a young woman, Josephine saw that her daughter would be very beautiful. Mélisande’s dark hair had curl, just some, and it was soft like cotton to the touch. The lines of the features of her face were all of almonds, all her features gently reflecting one another. The lines of her cheeks and nose matched the full almondine shape of her brow and eyes, which shone dark but glistened brightly. Her lips were very full and slightly pouty, free of any crease and placed perfectly between her slightly upturned nose and her chin. Her lips looked very soft and lustrous. Sometimes they parted very slightly, but her eyes suggested only innocence. Her white teeth were perfect.