‘The House That Will Not Stand’ is not a celebration of affluent Black women, it’s an indictment of the racial caste system
To be sure, mixed-race or Creole women like Marie Laveau fought for the freedom of their people, but even Laveau herself owned slaves.
by Briana L. Ureña Ravelo
It has been recently announced that there’s a new film in the works based on The House That Will Not Stand, a play of the same name by Marcus Gardley about a family of Creole women in early 19th century New Orleans. It centers the story of a widowed Creole woman named Beatrice Albans who has entered into a common-law marriage called Plaçage with a white Frenchman. When he passes away, he leaves her and her mixed-race daughters with the hopes to inherit part of his riches and estate, a right often granted to Black and mixed race women and their progeny in such Plaçage agreements, despite them not technically being legal arrangements.
The story takes place during the time when Louisiana was transitioning from colonized French territory to a US colony through the Louisiana Purchase. Part of what occurred in the exchange between settler hands was the social and structural changes regarding how race was constructed and where Black and mixed people, both free and enslaved, fell in that system. Many affluent, free, mixed people who had experienced their race as a class of colored people separate from both Black and white under French rule, now found themselves pushed into the category of Blackness under the “One Drop Rule”. This meant that their fortunes and positions radically changed for the worse.
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Under French rule, a Plaçage was a way for racially marginalized Black and Afro-descendant women to have an opportunity to gain position in society for them and their families and to escape the harsh realities and violence of Black life pre-abolition of slavery, both through the acquiring of the social capital of whiteness through marriage and ancestry and by the “diluting” of Black blood through birthing mixed-race children. The terms created and used at the time to refer to Black peoples including of different admixtures intentionally alluded to them as animals who needed to have certain bad attributes bred out and other more desirable ones injected into the bloodline.
The promotion of the upcoming film, however, seems to pointedly surround the alluring and sensational idea of successful and affluent Black Creole women millionaires in an era of genocidal colonial expansion, slavery and very aggressive, violent, white supremacist social stratification and conquest. While it is true these women weren’t white, they also benefited under the contemporary race and class system. They were granted class, status, and citizenship above enslaved Black people, could move more freely, enter into these advantageous common-law marriages, and had much more autonomy over their lives and that of their offspring.
Part of me understands the appeal of this particular part of the story, especially for a subset of people whose social focus is on representation of marginalized communities and stories and histories of color. I also understand the appeal for those who want to see Black women succeeding as opposed to struggling or being reduced into another tired trope of that era. Black women, while being the demographic to be the most educated and to work the most, often are the poorest and face the highest infant mortality and domestic violence rates. It’s nice to see a period piece where we’re winning, for once, instead of just the help.
However, in our desire to see successful antebellum Black women when all the stories we see regarding this era are whitewashed, trauma porn or white savior framings of the Good White Abolitionist Ally, we shouldn’t forget the realities of race, caste and identity in Southern United States, especially when a significant portion of it was under French colonial rule. We need to be honest about the parallels we see between the stratification of Black people based on color and class, and how that old racial system still remains in many ways to this day.
So, I find myself asking if the upcoming film will tell the complex reality of race, capital, and the participation in oppression by mixed-raced Black people at the time? Or will it retroactively sanitize the truth of race, color, and class in colonial Louisiana and reduce it to aspirational capitalism?
The women of The House That Will Not Stand are Free women of color granted position and class through Plaçage, but these white men often had formal white wives they could legally marry and that the law technically favored. Under Plaçage, Black women gained an opportunity to pass down wealth and ownership to their offspring and even assure their freedom if they were not already Free People of Color. It granted them ample social and legal rights, privileges, riches and benefits that enslaved Black women did not have. These Free Creole women, who often had a parent or grandparent who was white and not enslaved, even often owned slaves themselves. The play upon which the film is based actually features a character who is enslaved and owned by the head matriarch of the story’s central family, and this fact shatters any hopes one might have about a period piece where Black women do not appear as the help.
This is the crux of the story of The House That Will Not Stand. The women who once saw themselves in line to inherit their white family’s fortune and maintain their class were now seeing that post-Louisiana Purchase, they would be seen as simply being Black. Makeda, the Black enslaved woman owned by the family and who was hoping to get her freedom, finds that she will instead become the property of the deceased husband’s real widow, a white woman the law acknowledges above his Creole wife via Plaçage.
To be sure, mixed-race or Creole women like Marie Laveau fought for the freedom of their people, but even Laveau herself owned slaves. While some pushed for liberation, many free and slave-owning Creole and Black people in some instances opposed slave revolts and abolition as that would be the collapse of the economy that made them rich and the crumbling of a system that kept them separate from the Black slave class. They knew well that the racial caste system would no longer divide between “Free” and “Enslaved”, but would instead become a more strict and unforgiving standard: who is white and who isn’t.
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Beyond us merely being misinformed about true history, it worries me that we would be so hungry for a story of Black women who have position and success, even while others of their race or ancestry do not. And we often seem to crave these as opposed to wanting for stories of insurrection, rebellion and liberation that was also plentiful during that time.
We need to be honest with ourselves and admit that many of us aspire to these stories of a few chosen assimilated negroes making it under capitalism because that is the most we strive for ourselves, regardless of whether or not that means the maintaining of a system of classed, exploitative, anti-Blackness. Many of us want this so long as we find ourselves spared.