February 22, 2008

Robert Johnson Has A Secret

Robert Johnson is the only black guy at Beaumonde Academy, through some sort of weird fluke. In a city like New Orleans, which is almost 3/4 black, the only possible reason that Beaumonde would have only one black student must be because of a clerical error, right?

Robert Johnson doesn’t like to think about any other explanation.

The Johnson family has been rich for generations, longer than any other Gangmembers’ family. Fitzwilliam Johannsen, the rich white owner of the Opelousas Plantation, freed his favorite slave and personal valet Eugene for the exceptional courage and honor he had shown protecting the plantation house during a fire in 1819.

Fitzwilliam Johannsen, it must be said, was a kind and progressive man by the standards of his time. However, he was also a product of his time, and the offer he made Eugene might strike our modern ears as being a bit of a raw deal.

In exchange for his freedom, Eugene would continue to work as Fitzwilliam’s valet, with free room and board, for no wage at all. The pay he was entitled to as a free man would instead go towards buying his wife and two sons from the Johannsen plantation.

Fitzwilliam Johannsen’s friends—other rich white plantation owners—considered this a foolhardy and potentially dangerous plan that would only come back to haunt him. They were afraid it might give their own slaves some uncomfortable notions of what they were entitled to.

Needless to say, Eugene had a different, but just as negative, opinion of the arrangement. However, the other plantation owners were right about one thing: freeing Eugene and allowing him to work for his family’s freedom did indeed come back to haunt Fitzwilliam Johannsen.

Now comes a point in this history where, for the sake of brevity, I have to gloss over an extremely complicated and frankly implausible series of events. Which is this: after earning their freedom, the former Johannsen slaves—now known as the Johnsons—almost immediately became more successful than anyone had any right to expect.

Within fifty years, Eugene Johnson’s sons owned a farm nearly twice the size of Fitzwilliam’s, and had also diversified their income with a textile mill and a prosperous business trading up and down the Mississippi. The end of the Civil War brought the family an abundance of former slaves who could be employed as cheap labor.

I write this as though it were a fairly easy thing to do. Of course it wasn’t, of course it wasn’t. This was the South, after all, and they were black, and former slaves at that. But they were able to prosper through a combination of back-breaking hard work, an unwavering desire for freedom, an unyielding faith in both God and their fellow man, and a canny appreciation of political corruption.

To go into more detail would require paragraphs of description: portraits of each important family member, the vital role each played in the early years, the fantastic triumphs, the crushing setbacks. In short, an attempt to render the Johnsons’ success plausible would fill a book. And in fact it has, many times. Curious readers are directed to This Is Our Land, This Is Our People: A History Of The Johnson Machine. Volume 1: The Early Years, 1819-1867, by Reynolds J. Dalton. (Tulane University Press, 1987.)

Historians pinpoint 1868 as a crucial year for the Johnson dynasty. This was ten years after Eugene’s death and the deed to the family farm was voided for complicated and ridiculous reasons—basically, it had been written before the War and was somehow therefore illegal—but the real reason was that the success of the Johnson family was cutting into the profits of white landowners.

Upon hearing this, Fitzwilliam Johannsen, now an ancient and decrepit old man, made the long and difficult trip to address the Louisiana State Assembly on behalf of the legitimacy of the Johnson farm. He didn’t have to do this—and in fact, the Johnsons were his main competitor—but he had always thought of the late Eugene Johnson and his family as close friends.

(Eugene Johnson hadn’t exactly agreed with this, to say the least, but after Fitzwilliam’s only child had married a rich landowner named Jessup Monroe and moved to Lafayette, he had checked in on the lonely Fitzwilliam periodically and took him for rides in his sleek new coach.)

Johannsen’s speech to the State Assembly was surprisingly fiery, especially coming from such a stooped and palsied old man. Again, Fitzwilliam was about as compassionate and generous as a 19th century Southern landowner could have been, and we’ll just gloss over the fact that his speech referred to the Johnsons as “a superior example of the inferior Negro race.” Yikes.

The speech helped sway the minds of the state senators, who decided to reinstate the deed to the Johnson farm for all sorts of backdoor political reasons that were just as complicated and ridiculous as the reasons the deed was voided in the first place. However, the explanation published in the New Orleans Picayune was that the farm was a shining example to all other Negroes what could be accomplished through hard work, discipline, and—let’s not forget—obedience.

The Johnson family wasn’t too crazy about this rationale, but they had their farm back and that was all that mattered to them. They never forgot the kindness that Fitzwilliam Johannsen had done them. Indeed, in the next two generations, there were three Fitzwilliam Johnsons, a Fritz Johnson, a Johanna Johnson, and two William Johnsons. And when the old man himself finally passed away twelve years later, the family found a way to repay their gratitude.

Over the next 130 years, the Johnson family only grew richer and more powerful in southern Louisiana. A significant contingent moved to New Orleans in the early 20th century, where they became successful real estate developers and political power-brokers. The Johnson Machine is a name that makes us giggle now, but for a long time the Johnson family and their allies—the so-called Machine—has helped determine the political atmosphere of the city, in ways both legal and otherwise.

The direct descendent of this legacy, the slave Eugene Johannsen’s great7-grandson, is seventeen-year-old Robert Johnson. Because he’s part of the generation that will lead his family into the 21st century, great things are expected of him.

However, at this point in his life, Robert’s a little less concerned with keeping up the Johnson family legacy than with other, more immediate concerns, like fitting in with the rest of the Gang, making sure that Michael doesn’t steal valedictorian away from him, and getting his girlfriend to put out a little more consistently.

Which isn’t to say that Robert’s not proud of being a member of the Johnson family. There are about five or six different families that truly run the city, and his is one of them. Sometimes it seems like half the public schools in New Orleans are named after his ancestors. His father is a well-respected City Councilman who, it’s rumored, is considering running for mayor.

No, Robert’s very proud of being a Johnson, and he’s proud to be black, too. His Uncle Tony is always giving him lectures about what it means to be a proud black man, and though Robert agrees, he doesn’t really see what the point is.

After all, he says to himself, this is long after the civil rights movement and all that, right? The only thing that matters these days is money and power, both of which his family has. Sure, he’s black and proud, but what does that mean when you barely even know any other black kids? What does it mean when you have a lot more in common with the rich white kids who are your best friends than with any other black people?

These aren’t the sorts of questions that keep Robert up at night. In his own way, he even admires his father’s cluelessness for unintentionally naming him after the most famous blues musician of all time. After all, it takes a special kind of black guy to live in New Orleans his entire life and not know who Robert Johnson is.

Sometimes, Robert thinks he’s actually more interested in being black in a epidermal sense than a cultural one. Often, a girl will tell him how nice his dark brown skin is, how she wishes hers were as smooth and flawless as his, and sometimes (if he’s lucky) she’ll even stroke his face or arm with her fingers.

In seventh grade, Lillian Budd was visiting the Johnsons with her parents and brother for a small New Year’s Eve dinner party. Robert has known the Budd twins since kindergarten; until very recently, both of their fathers were on City Council together.

At one point, Lillian and Robert were standing alone in the dining room, waiting for everyone else to come in. He told her about the guitar he’d wanted but didn’t get for Christmas, but Lillian seemed distracted. She wasn’t even looking at him as he spoke. Or, rather, she was, but she was looking at his reflection in the large ornate mirror on the opposite wall.

Finally, she took his hand and led him over to the mirror. Still looking at his reflection, she pressed herself to the side of his body, so that her right side was against his left. Lillian had grown the year before, and she was the exact same height as Robert.

“What are you...?” he whispered, but she just put her arm around his waist and pushed her face softly against the side of his own.

She smiled a little as she regarded their faces side-by-side in the mirror. Using her free hand, she silently pointed into the mirror at the similarities and contrasts between their faces. They both had perfect skin, his dark brown and hers almost without any pigment at all. Their faces were nearly the same shape, and they had the same eye color.

Robert couldn’t help but copy the slight smile on Lillian’s face. She brought her finger right up to the glass and traced the bottom of her full lip, then placed three fingertips over the reflection of his mouth. He looked into her eyes in the mirror and, self-consciously, kissed the air as though her fingers were really touching him.

Lillian smiled and stepped away from him. Turning towards him, she looked into his real eyes for the first time, then glanced at the floor. Her lower lip became even fuller, as she pulled a coy pout.

“I...” Robert said. He put a hand on her thin shoulder. “I better see what’s keeping the others.”

There was no need. The rest of the dinner party was already coming down the hall, and the remainder of the evening went as planned. Lillian sat beside Robert and chatted with him as though nothing happened. At midnight, she pecked her brother and Elizabeth Huynh on the cheek and didn’t even glance over at Robert.

And that was that. Over the next five years, Robert has wondered what that evening meant. Did Lillian want him to kiss her? And if he hadn’t chickened out, what would that have meant? Would she be dating him now instead of Michael? And what would her nude white skin look like pressed against his as they spooned in bed, her hand reaching back to caress his head as he kissed her exquisite neck and...?

Now these are the sorts of questions that keep Robert up at night.

Much like his friend David Sebastian, Robert is hopelessly in love with one of the Budd twins. And, like David, he can never quite admit to himself that probably nothing will ever come of it.

The fact that he’s black almost never comes up around The Gang, unless you count Alexander’s frequent racist jokes. (These would be appalling coming from anyone else, but Robert tells himself that this is just Alexander’s way.) Yet it seems like it’s always set him apart, in a way Robert can’t quite put his finger on, from his friends.

One difference between David and Robert is that David always suspects that he’s different from the rest of his friends. But Robert knows that, aside from his skin color, he’s pretty much exactly the same as everyone else, if only they could see it. In his heart of hearts, Robert knows that he’s not at all different the rest of The Gang.