Racial Identity and Social Stigma in Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery

By Weston Harty

The conflicts in John Gregory Brown’s Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery arise from generations of racial misunderstanding resulting from the marriage of a white man, Lowell Eagen, to a woman of mixed racial ancestry, Mollie. Compounding this was the marriage of their son, Thomas Eagen, and a white woman, Catherine, in the racially conservative environment of southern Louisiana. Complicating the situation is the status of Lowell, Mollie, and Catherine, who are outsiders to the greater New Orleans area and are, consequently, unfamiliar with the social damning that such unions could induce. This combines with the uncertainties within Mollie and Thomas about how their mixed racial ancestry affects their identity thus disrupting their lives. Mollie and Thomas are soon compelled to leave their seemingly loving marriages, and while all of the reasons are not explicitly stated within the novel, race most certainly played a significant role. If Mollie and Thomas were given a narrative voice in the novel, their motivations for leaving would be less shrouded, but the narratives of the Lowell’s African American friend and employee, Murphy, Catherine, and Thomas’s daughter Meredith, clearly indicate that race was at least one of the prime motivators.

Given the dates and ages of the characters in Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, it can be inferred that Thomas was born in the late 1920’s, meaning that Mollie and Lowell had to have settled in Mandeville, Louisiana, from the North around this time as well. The complications of an interracial marriage in 1920’s Louisiana can be extrapolated from the laws against such a union. In 1908, the Louisiana State Legislature passed Act 87, which made a felony the “concubinage between a person of the Caucasian or white race and a person of the negro or black race” and continued: “the living together or cohabitation of persons of the Caucasian and of the negro races shall be proof of the violation” (Dominguez 29). The problem was that negro or black was interpreted to mean a variety of things; a Negro could be defined as a person 100% African American or 25% African American. This is because, colloquially, to be classified as white would be to propose a pure Caucasian heritage, while any amount of non-white ancestry meant that an individual was something else: colored, Negro, black, etc., and there was no definition for what group of people each of these racial classifications identified. In an attempt to clear up this ambiguity, the Louisiana government passed Act 206 in 1910, which “substituted the phrase ‘person of colored or black race’ for the phrase ‘person of negro or black race’” in the 1908, making it more explicit that any relation between a white man and a person of non-pure white ancestry was illegal (Dominguez 31). Further definition of “colored” occurred 1938, when the Louisiana Supreme Court’s ruling on Sunseri v. Cassagne “proclaimed traceability of African ancestry to be the only requirement for the definition of colored,” (Dominguez, 36). If an individual’s African ancestry could be proved, no matter how many generations back, then that person was legally considered colored, and subject to the second-class status of non-white citizens in the segregation era.

Although these three laws are not mentioned in the novel, they reflect the ideology of Louisiana at this time, especially among the white population, who nearly all of the public offices. Thomas and Mollie are able to move peacefully into Mandeville because Mollie does not bring up her racial ancestry, and, because she is light-skinned, the community sees her as white. Mollie does recognize that her neighbors might not approve of her racial ancestry and subsequent marriage to a pure white man, saying to the African American Murphy, who was also Lowell’s closest friend “you think it’s wrong for a Negro woman to be married to a white man… I’m happy to pass for a white woman… I’m happy to be known as a Negro, too. That’s fine with me” (Brown 93-4). Clearly, at some point she was made aware of the fact that interracial marriage was far from accepted in Louisiana, even from the African American point of view. For her part, she does not appear to care how she is seen by her peers, either white or black, but her fault lies in that she miscalculated the extent to which her peers would act out in an attempt to show their disapproval; she has no control over how her neighbors might react to her ancestry but seems confident to not let it affect her. However, once the white residents became aware of her ancestry, the nonchalance of Mollie withered away as the number of burning crosses and people unwillingness to interact with her and her husband increased. Brown offers only one perspective of Mollie, Murphy’s, who explains: “sometimes I think she grew tired of all the airs she had to put on, constantly making sure everyone understood she was no worse a woman than any other, wearing the proper clothes, making proper conversation, holding her knife and fork and shoulders and feet in the proper manner, the whole time proper just another word for white” (Brown 99). The strain of passing for white, it would seem, weighed on Mollie more and more. While it is impossible to know why Lowell decided to move Mollie to Louisiana, it is painfully obvious that he was unable to help alleviate the burden that race placed upon Mollie, which is why Murphy feels she allowed herself to have an affair with him. As an African American, he would at least be able to understand the hate and prejudice she was dealing with. Ultimately, she is impregnated by Murphy, leading to her decision to abandon her domestic life with Lowell, Thomas, and Murphy.

Thomas, as a result, is left at the age of five not only without a mother, but without any link to his African heritage, forcing him to have to grapple with the implications of his racial identity alone. Again, the reader only receives secondhand information about the early life of Thomas, from what Murphy observes and from what Catherine has told Meredith. But what is obvious is that, like in Lowell’s relationship with Mollie, Lowell is unable to help Thomas understand his identity beyond the fact that he has African ancestry through his mother. Thomas moves through his life as a result trying to reconcile his apparent whiteness with his own past; he frequents African American jazz clubs, where he even sings and forgoes a lucrative career as a white collar orthopedist in order to cater to the poorer African American community in New Orleans. That Thomas refuses to discuss his own racial identity with his own children, even after Meredith becomes aware of her African ancestry, just further illustrates his identity crisis. His silence could also stem from his desire to protect his children, as like Thomas himself, Meredith and Lowell Jr. could pass for white. The traceability precedent described above could very well have played a role in Thomas’s silence, since allowing his children to feel they were pure white would protect them from any prejudice played upon people of color. Although the traceability act was altered in 1970, by Act 46, to: “a person having one thirty-second or less of negro blood shall not be deemed, described, or designated by any public official in the state of Louisiana as ‘colored, mulatto, black negro, griffe, African American, quadroon mestizo, colored person, or person of color,” (Dominguez 46) the Eagen children would very much have been at risk of second class citizenry had their past been investigated. But, up to his death in the 1990s, Thomas was silent about his and his children’s racial identity, regardless of how much his children happened to have found out. His inability to discuss matters of race even with his own children, who were affected in the same fashion, demonstrates without question that he was unable to fully understand who he was

More telling than his silence, however, is one of the stories Catherine relates to Meredith. When Catherine begins to suspect that Thomas is cheating on her, she tells him “you’re just half a nigger, which is worse than being a whole one. At least a whole nigger knows what to be proud of, and you sure don’t. At least a whole nigger knows what he’s seeing when he spies himself in the mirror,” (Brown 160). While Catherine claimed repeatedly in her letters to Meredith that she had no prejudice against Thomas as a result of his mother’s race, the fact that she, in a moment of rage, resorted to identifying her husband as worse than a nigger only confirmed Thomas’s uncertainties regarding his identity. Though he was able to pass for white in New Orleans, Thomas sees from his own wife the kind of subconscious prejudice white people might have toward racially mixed individuals. Having already failed to reconcile his race with his appearance, Thomas is then exposed to the worst possible interpretation of his heritage by his very own wife. This outburst from Catherine only serves to anger, confuse, and frustrate Thomas more, leading him to pack up his children and leave Catherine, eventually settling into the rooms above his office in a blue collar, and predominantly African American, neighborhood on Magazine Street.

Meredith, like her father, is then left at a young age without a mother, or even a mother-figure. Her father’s silence, combined with the seeming oblivious attitude toward their racial ancestry of her brother Lowell, leaves her, like her father, without anyone to help her understand her racial identity. By the 1990s legal resolutions against interracial marriage been overturned, but the New Orleans, and later, Mandeville, that Meredith was living during her twenties and thirties was not far removed from the New Orleans and Mandeville that Thomas grew up in. Many of Meredith’s peers would have been raised in the same environment where racial identity and subsequent discrimination were enforced by the state of Louisiana. A product of the society in which she was raised, Meredith is doomed to repeat the folly of her father, as she relates that should she have a family, she does not “mean to give [her husband] this story [of her heritage], though it is meant for that man and for that child. I will want both to know, though I feel somehow that despite my efforts, this is the final regret I will bear: that I will not tell them, that I will not be able to,” (Brown, 230). The tragedy that befalls the Eagen family, then, arises, from the failure of the people of mixed race, Mollie, Thomas, and Meredith, to come to terms with their white appearance and African American heritage. Their collective ability to successfully pass for white in Louisiana further complicates their plight. Mollie becomes the subject of scorn from the community and Thomas is subjected to a vicious verbal assault from his own wife solely because of their race, while Meredith lives in fear of a similar fate.

Illustration

Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, original print cover, http://www.flickr.com/photos/cdrummbks/4977740854/

Works Cited

Brown, John Gregory. Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery. New York: Avon, 1995. Print.

Dominguez, Virginia R. White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana. New Brunswick: Rutgers University, 1986. Print.

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