Excerpted from Betrayal on the Bayou
Copyright©2020 by Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte
Oliver Charles turned five and it was time for him to go to school. He and Celeste had become inseparable as Celeste had begun and remained as his main caregiver. It was unthinkable to Margot that they would be separated into two different schools; Oliver Charles at Miss Tindal’s with the other Free children of Color, or with Celeste at the Tassin School with the White children. It was a major dilemma that neither Margot nor Emile had considered until it was time to choose a school. Margot had always assumed that Oliver Charles would join his half-sister at Tassin School because of his White skin and straight hair. Except for the shape of his face and his overall gentle manner, she saw little trace of herself in him and thought he would get by with just being known as Emile’s son.
To her hurtful surprise, Emile did not see it that way.
“Oliver Charles is half Black. He can’t go to the Tassin School,” Emile calmly explained.
“Oliver Charles must go to the Tassin School! He looks White enough! His father is White!” Margot yelled.
“It doesn’t matter what he looks like Margot. Everyone knows you are his mother.”
“Nothing matters except what he looks like, Emile. This entire town is built on what people look like.”
“Now you know that is not entirely true. If it were there are several who would not be in the positions they are in,” Emile laughed.
“Don’t make light of this Emile. It is a serious thing. You should be concerned about the quality of your son’s education.”
“He’s five, Margot! His education is hardly an issue at this point.”
“This is when it begins, Emile! This is his foray into the world! It must be right at the beginning or it never will be!”
“Oh, I am sure, Emile continued in his nonchalant tone, that his education will not make a difference in his life. He is good looking like his father. If he keeps his wits about him and figures things out as he goes along, he will do just fine. Tassin or Tindal won’t make a difference for him as a man.”
Margot was near tears as she screamed again at Emile, “It will make all the difference in the world for him Emile. There’s no need to try to explain it to you. Tassin or Tindal will make all the difference in the world to him and to Celeste.”
“How on earth does it affect Celeste?”
“Emile,” Margot shakily continued, “Up until now, not many would have said that Celeste has a Black brother. If he is sent to Tindal, that is what they will say. If you separate them that will be their proof.”
“Please, Margot. That is ridiculous. They think of you as her mother.”
“No. No they don’t. She does, but they don’t.”
Emile was growing more and more exasperated with this discussion. For him it was just a ridiculous complaint that never ended. He looked over at Margot with annoyance.
“Well what do they think of you as, Margot? What?”
“They think of me as the crazy, wild haired, Black lady who lives with the rich White man.
They think of me as the free Creole who lives in a house next to the same house of the rich White man’s wife.
They think of me as the colored woman who takes care of the rich White man and his children.”
“But you are wealthy in your own right!”
“Ah, many of them think of that as a mistake of the universe that can be corrected at any time.”
“You should think more of yourself, Margot.”
“I know my living truth, Emile. You not wanting to send Oliver Charles to Tassin School is my living truth.”
“Oh, Margot, you are overwrought about this!” Emile said, his voice slightly raised. “It is not that serious a thing! Oliver Charles can go to school anywhere!”
“But as a man of power in this town, if you don’t insist that he go to the Tassin School he won’t be able to go!”
“Well, I am flattered that you think I am a man of power in Tassin, but I am afraid my dear you have been terribly misled. While she rarely interferes with my life, for various reasons, it is Marie who holds the power here.”
Most of the time Emile was more than happy to have people think he was the town patriarch except on those occasions when he was confronted with a situation he found unpleasant or something he did not want to do. In either of those instances he would acquiesce to Marie and avoid all action or decision. Margot knew the conversation was over when he threw the power to Marie. She also knew that she could not give up. It was imperative that Oliver Charles go to the Tassin School. The rest of his life depended upon it.