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How many is too many black people?


Marksville, Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana. It has been nearly 3 weeks since I said goodybye to this little town nestled deep in the heart of Cajun country (or should I say Klan country?). I don't honestly know if I've ever been so relieved to leave a place in my entire life, a period spanning nearly thirty years now. I encountered there an anachronism that belonged more to my parents' youth than to mine: virulent racism of the Deliverance kind.


It was Sunday, September 25, 2005. (Keep that year in mind.) Rita had just done her worse. Having been confined to the evacuee shelter for days due to the storm, often without electricity, we were aching for a little recreation. In a town as small as Marksville, that meant a night playing pool at a small daiquiri shop on the main drag, Louisiana Highway 1. Although it's usually completely classless to mention this information, it's necessary here: "We" meant a group of African-Americans and myself.

My friend Deborah and I arrived early in the evening, desperate for a little stick action. We spent much of the evening teaching the local gentlemen what it means to get your ass kicked by a couple of crazy broads. No problems there. As time passed, more of our friends showed up and we had our own evacuee pool tournament going. People were drinking, playing pool and poker machines, and rockin' the juke box. All was well. A normal fun night out with the crowd.

That was until "too many black people" showed up. The bartender, a white woman, apparently became afraid at the appearance of so many black faces and called the owner. Within hearing distance of my friend Deborah, she informed him that there were "too many black people" in the establishment, she was afraid they were going to rob her, and she was calling the police. (Keep in mind that not a single hostile word or act precipitated this call.) The owner showed up moments before midnight and announced that the shop was closing in two minutes and we had to leave, despite the fact that the bartender had told me on the phone that they closed at 2 a.m. It took us only a few moments to settle our business and leave. By the time we made it to the door, there were three police cruisers in the parking lot. These would soon be joined by half a dozen more.

Fortunately, no one was arrested and no violence ensued. Although one African-American police officer told my friend that "You black people from New Orleans make me sick, coming all the way out here to bother people." And that's precisely what happened, you know. We were all sitting around NOLA one day, when we decided that it'd be a real kick to go live in a shelter in Klan country and aggravate the local hicks. A great plan, that.

If we'd only known that we were bringing "too many black people," we could have avoided all this trouble. I really must know: how many black people constitute "too many"? Precisely when did we reach the black person quota? Are six black people okay? How about ten? At what precise point do some black people become "too many black people"? Perhaps this is one of those timeless philosophical questions that has no real answer.

If only it had ended there. But there was oh so much more. It's easiest to just write a list; so here it is:

The Avoyelles Parish Ignorance Top Five List:

5. The local casino refused to serve alcohol to evacuees, although they were free to spend their money gambling.

4. They brought in the National Guard to protect Wal-Mart because there were "too many" evacuees in town. Read: too many black people.

3. A police officer working at the shelter was so virulently racist and so prone to barking at evacuees as if they were prisoners that the two highest ranking female officers quit the post in protest. Despite attempts by these two officers and the captain of the shift to have him removed, his "family connections" kept him there.

2. A young woman and her child were invited to stay with a local woman, until said local woman's neighbors began calling her with racist threats. Although this local woman refused to tell the young woman the precise nature of the threats, she explained: "Let's just say it's hunting season, so if they shoot you, they can say it was an accident."

1. A town just a short distance away from Marksville was scheduled for a FEMA trailer park. (Marksville had already refused to house one there.) The big topic of the town meeting: "Can we segregate it?"

And all this leads to the moment when the Red Cross announces the next Sunday that the shelter is closing the next day despite plans to keep it open until October 15. So, everyone had less than 24 hours to pack their things and make arrangements either to go with the Red Cross to a shelter in Alexandria, LA or to find another place to go. Some shelter residents had already gone through more than half a dozen of such moves. Personally, I was done with living in the past, so I moved to my mother's now habitable apartment in Picayune, MS until my move to DC (set for this coming Monday).

In the end, other than the friendships I made, there are two things that will stick with me from my time in Marksville: 1.) A deep and abiding shame for the color of my skin, a feeling that will not pass easily. 2.) The eternal question: Just how many are "too many black people?"

Melinda Barton is a freelance writer, until recently based out of New Orleans.


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