The post below was crafted for the Voices on the Gulf educational website created by my New York City Writing Project colleague Paul Allison as a meeting place for teachers and learners across the county to consider the lessons of this past summer’s environmental disaster.

The Gulf oil spill and its aftermath go on, but the news is fading in the back pages. We’ll continue to discuss it, study it, analyze it, and express opinions about it, but our conversations may redirect in time–and that’s OK. Now that so many diverse audiences from all parts of the country are contributing to the website and joining the discussions, I wonder how we can universalize this event? What lessons–cultural or social or environmental or economic or whatever– are we learning that apply to all of us, whether we’re from Louisiana or Massachusetts or California?

Thinking along those lines, I ran across this documentary excerpt of an interview with Eunice, La., musician Wallace “Cheese” Reed and his wife, a documentary done by a Canadian researcher some years ago–I’m not sure how long, but I’m pretty sure Mr. Reed is deceased now. Anyway, this video is rich for me because the Cajun language and the music preserved here were current in this part of Louisiana when I first moved here 30 years ago after marrying a Cajun. In fact, I acquired my modest conversational skills from this generation of Cajun speakers, the last generation who for the most part spoke French as a first language.

The tradition of the music seems to be faring better than the language–The festivals and the dances go on. But as the Cheese Reed generation dies, we lose the conversational language funeral by funeral. Ironically, the educational system when Reed’s generation started school is as guilty for what amounts to genocide as any other societal force that’s worked against Cajun language–The Cajun speaking first graders in Reed’s day were spanked and punished for talking French at school as the system forced the six-year olds to absorb English through cruel immersion, demeaning and degrading at the same time their native tongue. Of course, they were reluctant to pass the language of shame on to their own children in the next generation, so the stranglehold began that has the folk language in its last gasp. It may not survive past my generation.

Many of us now are realizing, probably too late, that we cannot reverse the overwhelming tide that has swamped efforts at preservation since the 1970s. Fortunately, documentaries like this one offer some hope, because as long as these videos are preserved, the words and the songs will continue to breathe. Hopefully, some future generation will discover artifacts like these and make revival of spoken French in Louisiana their passion.

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