Photo of Claudette Jeffrey stands in front of her family’s chicken coop and WW II victory garden after her piano recital at Xavier University of Louisiana.
Claudette Jeffrey has just published “A Brown Paper Bag and A Fine Tooth Comb” an unflinching coming of age story of a Black Creole girl, Claire Sobluet, in 1950s New Orleans. It is an account of the experience of a young person who must cope with all of the worse that her community has to offer: sexism, racism, classism, religious hypocrisy, and lack of empathy. Stripped of its romanticism and mystique, 1950s New Orleans comes to life as a hard, cold, unforgiving jungle where only the strong and the lucky survive.
Jeffrey tells a tale of young black poor girls in the 1950s who faced a range obstacles from family abandonment, domestic and street racial-sexual violence, legal and social segregation to discrimination in the Catholic church. Claire emerges as a heroine who despite being confronted with loss of family members and with betrayals of friends and clergy, as one able to use the resources at hand to craft a meaningful life for herself. She is undeterred in her quest to get an education, in which many obstacles, starting with her own family’s low valuing of school, would be insurmountable for many.
The book focuses on Claire’s interior world. We don’t get rich descriptions of mansions, scenery, or background; it is a stark account of a hard life. We get an unparalleled look at the neglected and little discussed experience of being a black girl in the south during Jim Crow. We see how family leave-taking occurs through untimely deaths and abandonment especially when relatives pass for white. The parochialism of New Orleans is demonstrated by the way neighborhoods while close together in physical proximity might as well be worlds apart. Jeffrey shows how in a tiny community where everyone knows everyone else’s business and gossips incessantly, one can still disappear and pass into the White world, if one stays in certain geographical locations within the city.
It shows the absolute vulnerability of young women for whom love feels so tenuous that she is easy prey to self-interested men whether it is a priest or a peer. Men, in this story, have ideas about how women fit into their lives, but care little for how they fit into a woman’s. The idea that she might want something for herself and something beyond the limits of her community is shocking to all.
This book is a cold eyed view of a community at its lowest, where people are left to fin for themselves. It is a hard-eyed look at the limitations of Black Creole community when myopia and prejudices are left to run unchecked. At the end of the book, readers might wonder, after men have taken advantage of Claire’s desire for love, is she wiser? Must she continue to sexualize her relationships since that feels like love? Will she find another way to cope with enormous loneliness? The ending leaves us wanting a part two for how Claire will mature into full personhood and realize her ambitions that she has guarded steadily since childhood.
Saenger Theater on Canal Street at night - 1941
The Garden District, New Orleans
600 block of Canal Street - 1895
View Down St. Charles from Lee Circle - 1921
Mardi Gras on the 100 block of St. Charles to Canal Street. - 1930
Looks to be the King of Rex on a float in the center.
Via Infrogmation Flickr
Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday New Orleans 1947
Little Pink House, French Quarter
Morning Call Coffee Stand - 1960s
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