The Black version of Day of the Dead, La Toussant is celebrated on November 1 and November 2 every year.
At midnight, every year, and on as many Halloween nights they could convene, my grandmother Leona and her friend, Té, would walk to the cemetery down the street from their Lafayette, Louisiana homes. Before they’d made their way on to the burial grounds, they’d perch a lace kerchief elegantly on their heads.
Once they made it to the burial grounds of the small Catholic Church they helped start, they’d paint the graves of their family members with white lime. During the annual re-freshening of the graves, my grandmother Leona and Ms. Té drank beer and smoked cigarettes as they sang and laughed until the wee hours of the morning.
The annual trip to the cemetery to paint and decorate their ancestor’s graves was a small variation of the celebration my grandmother grew up with in St. Martinville, a modest-sized town which is about a 20-minute drive west of Lafayette. When she told me about her Halloween story, she referred to it as “the old way” or the traditions she practiced as a child. While her memory of honoring the dead is a little-known ritual across the U.S., it is still celebrated in the interiors of Louisiana by Black folk called La Toussant.
The holiday of La Toussant carries folk traditions located in the southwestern towns of Louisiana. La Toussant, also known as The Solemnity of the Saints, like El Día de los Muertos, takes place on November 1 and 2. Aligning itself with the Catholic holiday, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, La Toussant participants perform customs and rites of local Blacks, known as Creoles. The latter group, Cajuns, who are whites that migrated to the area from French Canada in 1785 do their own version, but it is in St. Martinville, a predominantly Black town where the center of La Toussant presides.
“The day after Halloween . . . is more important in south Louisiana than any other area of the country both as a Catholic holy day of obligation and as a family of unity,” writes Jane Vidrine in her article on traditions and folk life in Louisiana.
For the ceremony, “families would gather all day to whitewash the graves” of those departed, tells Vidine. In Louisiana, due to the low-lying lands and flooding, most graves sit in tombs on top of the ground. Traditionally, family members cared for burial sites. Due to segregation, most cemeteries were located at churches for Blacks, a designated burial site for African Americans or on small plots on family land.
Because of the close-knit communalism, an older ceremony included a local priest blessing the gravesite of each departed with their living relatives kneeling and praying. Vidrine says that a man in her study described it as a procession or “parade.”
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Within the last years of her life, my grandmother told me about her Halloween jaunts to the burial sites of her father and others, as if it were a simple short story. Yet, it was a powerful, pass-down moment. While she saw her yearly custom as a guilty pleasure from her demanding life as a mother, wife and domestic worker for a local white family, it is a ritual showing one of the ways Black folk remembered and connected back to their ancestors.
Of other importance, La Toussant resembles an African ritual of ancestral veneration that uses liquor and smoke as a way to appease spirits. Throughout Africa, ancestral celebrations and regular homage remain prominent. In the Americas, it is too, and can be as simple as pouring out liquor or a moment of silence for those who passed on.
Eventually, my grandmother was buried in the cemetery that she went to for years to upkeep her kinfolk’s tombstones. When she transitioned in 2016, we had a 4-day send off full of food, singing, crying and celebration. At one point, a rainbow covered the sky above us as we sat in the yard where she grew an impressive urban patch and raised her babies decades before. From then on, every time I see a rainbow, I call it “Le’s Rainbow.”
Nowadays, after Halloween, the Mestizo holiday of El Día de los Muertos dominates. With its grandiose displays of intricately decorated skulls paired with beautiful massive bouquets displayed in parades also offers a host of activities paying homage to forebears. It is a vivid, visual narrative recounting how indigenous peoples in the now-named Americas, powered through with Aztec, Mayan and Olmec culture in spite of Spanish conquistadors.
On the other hand, La Toussant speaks to a similar survival of a fusion of African and Native in French and Spanish colonial south. Now when I visit Lafayette, I go to grandma’s burial site and often walk through the zig-zag labyrinth of above-ground tombstones. Making my way to her burial site, I pass whitewashed graves decorated with baby dolls, flowers, Mardi Gras beads, candy and even empty bottles of alcohol. This is evidence that ancestral rituals extend beyond the Catholic religion, and are indeed rooted in African and Native culture that preceded all of the popes and the saints they ordained.
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