Both the story and the poem above highlight the plight of young minority women under the placage system. Originally, the placage system was practiced in...
To discuss the placage system, I will choose Armand Lanusse's A Marriage of Conscience and his poem Epigram.
Background: Setting, Historical, and Dramatic Context
Both the story and the poem above highlight the plight of young minority women under the placage system. Originally, the placage system was practiced in New Orleans and parts of the Caribbean; it was what we would call a common-law marriage. As the mother explains to her daughter, a placage or "conscientious" marriage constitutes "a vow of marriage with no legal basis." Placage marriages were entered into between European men and quadroon women (historically women who were of one quarter African-American and three quarters European descent). Since these marriages were essentially marriages of convenience, these women were viewed as little more than mistresses.
During the colonial period, the shortage of European women in New Orleans led English men (tasked with the job of expanding colonial territories in America) to seek out unconventional sexual unions. At the time, voyages from England to America were often fraught with danger, and few women could make the trip unscathed by disease or the dangers of the sea. Thus, placage proved a convenient arrangement for wealthy European men who valued the light-skinned beauty of the young female quadroons.
As in Lanusse's story, the quadroon balls in 19th century New Orleans were central to the initial placage ritual. Young quadroon and octoroon women were showcased at these balls for the perusal of prospective male "protectors." Often, the mother was the negotiator in placage arrangements. She basically sold her daughter to the highest male bidder in exchange for money, property, and jewelry. Often, a placage arrangement would set the mother and daughter up for life, and so, there was great incentive for the mother to placate her daughter's suitors.
Themes in both the story and poem.
While the story addresses the theme of female exploitation, it also addresses the theme of how placage affects the relationship between the male protector and his (eventual) white wife and how the arrangement of such unions sours the relationship between the quadroon girl and her mother. We must remember at the time that inter-racial relationships were only marginally tolerated in New Orleans, while inter-racial marriages were banned altogether. The anti-miscegenation laws saw to that.
In the story, the young girl believes that Gustave will treat her honorably, but her mother rejects her daughter's naive view of the arrangement. To the mother, the placage arrangement is a necessary evil, but to her daughter, it is a matter of love and devotion. In Epigram, the mother vows to eschew her sins, but first, she asks the priest whether she is not wrong to show her daughter "how to get a man." Her words refer to the placage union she hopes to arrange for her daughter.
It is noteworthy that the priest does not answer the mother. This may be intentional on Lanusse's part, however. In colonial New Orleans, the Catholic Church frowned upon inter-racial marriages and unions. However, in both The Marriage of Conscience and Epigram, the priest's stance is more ambiguous. In the story, the priest officiates over the marriage of convenience between the young woman and Gustave. In the poem, the priest is silent when the mother asks her controversial question. Essentially, Lanusse is criticizing the priesthood for its hypocrisy involving placage unions. Often, avaricious priests prospered materially for their part in officiating placage marriage ceremonies.
While Epigram does not address the daughter's viewpoint in the matter, The Marriage of Conscience highlights the conflict that arises between a mother and daughter regarding placage. The story also addresses the public humiliation a placage mistress endures when her "protector" marries. Towards the end of the story, the young woman commits suicide when she catches a glimpse of Gustave and his lawfully-wedded white wife. As a "respectable" citizen, Gustave has to ignore his personal feelings about his mistress' death; his wife expects his indifference, and society demands it. It can be said that in both the story and the poem, Lanusse highlighted the plight of women of color to perfection.
1) Fears and Fascinations: Representing Catholicism in the American South by Thomas Fredrick Haddox.
2) Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana by Caryn Cosse Bell.