What Is History Good For? (A Talk)
Anne Falgout of LEDA was gracious enough to invite me to speak before the 705 group last night. 705, as I understand it, a networking opportunity for young professionals, and as such it represents a group of self-motivated individuals who may very well prove to be our area’s next leaders.
The group has been considering various kinds of foundations within and for the community at large: economic, social, cultural. I was one of two speakers invited to address the cultural foundations for the Lafayette area. In particular, I was tasked to speak about the past leading to the present. The other speaker, Jennifer Guidry, was asked to speak about the present leading to the future.
As my the notes from my talk make clear, I sort of decided to go a different route. (The unorthodoxy of the notes is to be blamed entirely on Henry Glassie, who once showed me notes for a talk he was giving that looked much like this. It’s a marvelous way to compose a talk — and much of this talk was composed by hand in a notebook and later transcribed into OmniOutliner to make the notes more readable at the time of the talk.)
Without further ado, here are the notes from last night’s talk:
I want to begin with a thought experiment.
If you’re older than forty in this audience, picture your high
school yearbook photo.
If you’re younger than forty, then picture any photo from your
parents or grandparents wedding album or from the early years of
their marriage and childrearing (traditionally, by the way, where
photos are densest — as someone who has spent a lot of time
browsing other people’s photo albums).
How much are you like that person in the photo?
How much do you want to be like them?
And how much are you glad that either you have changed or
times have changed?
Photos are great reminders, markers, of the past.
But they are terrible indicators of the present.
This place we’re in now, Vermilionville, is one giant photo album,
capturing a moment in our potentially collective past.
But that’s all it is. A photo album.
And one not without its problems.
First, it’s not really our collective past, but only one
facet of it.
Vermilionville leaves out the two largest ethnic
immigrant groups in south Louisiana:
Second, the photos have been photoshopped, changed to fit
our imagination of what the past may have looked like,
which is not necessarily what it actually looked like.
This is rather like keeping the insert in the photo
frame you buy at Target and saying it’s your family
because, you know, you too have a spouse and two kids.
Why begin with this cautionary tale?
Because this tendency to sacralize the past, especially only one
version of the past is dangerous and keeps us, even those of us
who are really Cajuns and Creoles from seeing ourselves as we
and the value in who we are,
and the value in what we do.
What I want to leave you with today, if I leave you with
nothing else, is just how much you yourselves are part of
and that you and your friends and your family are part of
And you should treat yourselves and them with the
same seriousness that you treat history
And, because we are in south Louisiana where serious play
matters, that you should treat history as something to be
This isn’t how I imagined this talk, but I had an interesting
experience last weekend.
I was at the Wooden Boat Festival in St. Martinville.
I had spent the morning in the dappled light of the banks of
the Bayou Teche.
The christening of the wooden pirogue.
Official boat of Louisiana.
Pirogue is not French.
It’s from the Spanish piragua and they probably first
used it to describe dugout canoes they encountered in
To be honest, the dugout canoe exists around the
They aren’t special.
At the other end of the park from the newly-christened pirogue,
however, was a twenty-six foot, sleek, aluminum-hulled craft with U.
S. Coast Guard markings.
The thing was magnificent.
Two two-hundred horsepower engines hung off its stern.
The welds along the hull were beautiful.
They have to be, the boat maker, Jimmy Gravois, told me.
The Coast Guard is so finicky about the welds on its
board, he makes sure that each weld line is done by one
man, so that the welds are consistent. If there are two
parallel welds, he puts two men on the hull.
How many do you make? I asked Gravois.
I have to make one a week, he replied.
Wow, you must have a number of people in your shop.
Now, think about that for a minute.
Everyone there was gathered around a wooden pirogue.
Heck, there was a video crew there recording the
christening and there to film the parade of the putt
No one was paying much if any attention to Gravois.
But he pays 120 people full-time salaries to make
aluminum boats that are shipped all over, it
turns out, all over the world.
Now, let me ask you this:
How many of you own a wooden boat?
How many of you drove here today in a wooden car?
Anybody here wearing wooden shoes?
(By the way, the French name for those are sabots,
and if you want to protest your working conditions,
you throw into the mill gears, making things
literally grind to a halt. When you throw your sabots
like that, you have engaged in sabotage.)
You see where I am going with this?
Why is it we like to valorize useless old things when
we have so many powerful things in our present?
Powerful things that come from us.
That we make.
That we imagined?
Case in point: the crawfish boat.
Or, let me put that another way:
you wanna know what makes Louisiana special?
There is no other place on this planet — on this
planet! — where you can drive down a highway and find
yourself passing a boat, going down the same highway
The boat is not in a nearby canal
The boat is not on a trailer
The boat is on the damned road and
there’s a guy driving it.
And, if you’re patient, you can watch
him turn into a rice field and float.
That is crazy.
That is an example of the kind of wild imaginative thinking
Of problem solving
Of any other jargony word about creativity that
you can possibly imagine.
It’s a damn boat that goes on land and water.
It’s like something out of a fairy tale?
(And, in fact, it is.)
If you ask these guys how did they come up with this crazy-ass
they’ll look at you like you have lost your mind.
Ted Habetz and Maurice Benoit co-invented the hydraulic boat,
though they were preceded by a period of wild experimentation.
Gerard Olinger moved the drive unit to the back and added front
“Going down the road…”
Kurt Venable made it a business.
Please note that I am not suggesting that everyone here should give
up their professional lives and become farmers and fabricators.
Not at all.
But you can take your inspiration from them, draw from their
wisdom of this place.
It’s what poets do. Why not you?
To return us to the present moment, sitting here in Vermilionville:
Think about it this way.
The Village is maintained at a historical moment of something
But when you hear music played here, the earliest it’s
going to be from is the 1920s,
(when commercial recording began)
The music you here is a magical combination of French words
and melodies set to African rhythms and harmonies.
Indeed, there’s reason to believe that the pentatonic
scale that dominates American music is African in origin.
And the food you eat here, and perhaps in your own home, that
you call Cajun and Creole, is a wonderful mix of a lot of
Here along the Teche, most of us enjoy especially the
garlic-orientation given to us by the bayou’s Italian
But music and food are but two facets of our lives.
But let’s not forget that the French peasants who were first
taught to clear marshes by closing them up with levees were
in fact taught by Dutchmen, brought down for that very
And let’s not forget that the explosion in commercial
ricing agriculture came with the Palatinate Germans at
the end of the nineteenth century,
who were themselves escaping an essentializing of
what it culture,
of what it meant to be German.
Let’s not turn anyone away.
Let’s not turn ourselves away.
What do I mean by that?
I mean spend more time with your parents and grandparents.
I mean let your dad tell that damned favorite story of his
one more time.
I mean let your too large Aunt Betty give you one more too
I mean make up songs to sing with your kids and spend time
singing with them.
Or make up songs to sing with your partner or spouse.
How the heck do you think culture gets made?
Don’t come here looking for it.
And don’t come to my class hoping I’ll give you instructions on
how to be a proper Cajun.
I ain’t gonna do that.
I am going to tell you to start paying better attention to your
To draw inspiration from it.
To appreciate it for what it is.
To appreciate the people around you for who they are.