Thursday, December 8, 2011

What's in a name?

I suppose it is time to lay out my struggles with Jean Lafitte. Pirate or Patriot? boldly announces him our exhibits. We hand out a site bulletin (fancy name for brochure) that gives some basic information about the man. Well, the basic information that we know... which is very little. "So why was the park named after him??" I am getting to that.

We know he was a man. We know he was French. We know he was in charge of a group of guys on a boat (well, several boats). We know he stole slaves from Spanish ships and sold them (illegally in the United States at this point) dirt cheap in south Louisiana. We know he was well-known in New Orleans (so well known, in fact, that newspapers at the time do no bother to describe the wanted man, assuming everybody knew who he was). We know he was not a privateer (a "legal" pirate). We have evidence that he fought in the Battle of 1812 (TECHNICALLY the Mr. Lafitte involved could have been his brother, Pierre). We have evidence that he and his men knew the Barataria area so well that they chose it to smuggle their goods (slaves, included) and evade capture. We have evidence that he and his men got what they wanted: they marauded, they stole, they murdered. Murdered. Many stories of the time echo of people disappearing (usually free women of color), with brutal, bloody stories of recovered bodies. We know he was a criminal.

Oh, and the reason the slaves he sold were so popular was because regardless of price, he made a profit. Because he stole them. So he sold them at extremely low prices. That worked well for slave-owners in south Louisiana, because of the types of working conditions here at the turn of the ninteenth century. Slaves died young, in large part because of the types of labor required for the types of crops here (and living conditions were not all that great, either). The average slave died around the age of 30. Jean Lafitte was very popular. To some.

"Wait. You still haven't mentioned why the park is named after him." Well, the park was named in a time of the twentieth century when we as a nation did not pay much mind to these sorts of things. He supposedly fought at Chalmette. He had business in the French Quarter. And he did "business" through the Barataria Preserve (the three cultural sites were added after the original park was established).

Now, I love me some pirate lore (in case you could not tell). I am pretty sure I thought I was a pirate at the age of four (after I got over that whole the-pirates-on-The-Pirates-of-the-Carribean-ride-can't-actually-eat-me thing... a terrifying experience at the age of four). I love pirates in pop culture and in fact, have two pirate costumes- one for parties and one eighteenth century recreation (thanks, Mom!). Heck, I even got a pirate tattoo (ha ha, sike! Tricked ya, Dad!). But when one of my passions collides with one of my loves, it causes an internal storm strong enough to bash a ship against the shore (I couldn't help myself, sorry).

My passion is to inspire interest of history to a broader variety of people groups, especially youth. I also love to connect people to parks (especially kids!). But I do not believe glorifying a slave trader is the answer in this case, regardless of how "cool" pirates are perceived in our culture right now. But I know there is not an easy answer, either. So I will continue to navigate these challenges, gazing into the distant horizon, wondering where the winds will take The Pink Insanity (the name of my imaginary pirate ship... and I apologize about another cheesy metaphor...).

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