Ebony & Ivory

After publishing novels more than thirty years, I’ve grown accustomed to all sorts of letters and emails from my readers. The most interesting and unusual one I ever received came last week from a 65-year-old woman living in the Midwest. It was in response to my latest novel, Creole Son, about French painter Edgar Degas’s 1872-3 visit to New Orleans and his encounter with an exotic caste classification based on degree of skin color. For those who didn’t read the book or are unfamiliar with the system, an octoroon is a person who is one eighth black and seven eighths white. Below is an old lithograph of a mulatto (left) and a quadroon, a person one quarter black, three quarters white.

Signare Mary de Saint Jean de Gorée

I was given permission to publish the following letter on the condition of anonymity for the writer: “There has always been talk in my family of the very real possibility of my mother having been an octoroon. I think her picture goes to support that theory. She was dark and luscious and an often angry person, perhaps due to resentment at being caught between two worlds. Her own mother’s family were slave owners in Kentucky before the Civil War, and when they moved to Missouri after Appomattox, one of the slave families, despite being freed, followed them. Certainly this suggests a very close relationship between the two groups. By the time my mother was a teenager, the families had parted due to deaths and changing fortunes requiring migration to different towns for employment, etc.”

The Letter Writer's Mother

The Letter Writer’s Mother

“The families were still together when my mother was born, and she had a black wet nurse.  My grandfather used to joke that Mother was dark because of all the chocolate milk she drank. Of course that sounds racist nowadays, but was nonetheless ‘of the time.’ Mother had the sort of skin that produced keloids, which are scars that get very dark and hard and are much more prevalent among African-Americans. My grandmother, who was somewhat darker, always had trouble with the fairness I inherited from my German father. In her words, I just didn’t “look like the rest of us.” She would get very upset when my mother worked on her summer tan. I suppose Grandma disliked being darker than necessary and obviously Mother had no trouble getting a deep tan.”

A 19th Century Family of Creoles of Color

“Among my mother’s many talents was a very real psychic ability. When I was a child, she was something of a local celebrity for helping the police identify and convict crooks from dreams she had on the night of a crime.  It was a trait she was uncomfortable having, and she somehow managed to consciously diminish it. By the time I was grown she had pretty much lost it. When I read about Marie Laveau, the famous voodoo queen in your book, I couldn’t help wondering if my mother’s family had a connection with that strange religion so deeply rooted in Africa. I remember Mother had an aunt who lived in New Orleans whom she visited off and on over the years. I know Mother truly loved that old city, which makes me suspect she had a deep spiritual and emotional connection to it. She and her aunt are now long gone, and how much I wish Creole Son had been around while she was still alive. If she had read it, I can only wonder what she might’ve thought about the unique world of the Creoles of color and most of all if it would have inspired her to tell me the truth about our family. Then again, perhaps she didn’t know herself.”

I’m most grateful to this reader for generously sharing her family’s history. I never know where my stories will take people and this is my favorite journey so far.

Part of a series about eccentricity, extravagance and ephemera in the antebellum South.





  1. Ciji Ware
    Sep 8, 2013

    This is an absolutely fascinating “sidebar” to all the research you must have done for Creole Son! So few Americans know that around 1840, nearly 40% of all African-Americans living in New Orleans were Free People of Color –a group that owned shops, went to the Opera, and sent some of their children to France to be educated. Some, as you pointed out in your book, even owned slaves themselves. How amazing to hear from a probable descendant of this complex culture that originated in the Crescent City…Loved this blog!

  2. Liz
    Sep 9, 2013

    How wonderful that Creole Son “opened a window” for your friend. I would imagine that might happen for other readers, too. Which is a fascinating if unintended consequence of telling a story well and touching at the Truth of Life. Non-fiction tells us the facts; fiction tells us the truth…

  3. aky13
    Nov 19, 2013

    I found Creole Son to be both fascinating and educational. Having grown up very sheltered in East Flatbush, I knew nothing about this history. Beyond the educational aspects of the book, I greatly appreciate Michael’s writing style and the research he invests into his subject matter. I BEGGED Michael to write a sequel to Creole Son, about a reunion between Degas and Cybéle. He has demurred.

    If other readers would also like to read a sequel, please write to Michael and let him know!

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