I left the bayous of Louisiana in 1977 with all the worldly possessions my Toyota Corolla could hold and a deep feeling that I would never live there again. I wasn’t unhappy, but I knew it was time to discover the world.
Pragmatic by nature, I used graduate school as the good reason to move all the way to Connecticut without knowing a single soul. Sure, there were other reasons to uproot my life, but that kind of insight only came with distance and the passage of time.
As I look back now, I realize that my big move gave me the space to question the racism and bias I grew up with and the safety to come out as a gay man.
As exciting and scary as it was to leave that day, I never for a moment doubt that it was one of the best decisions of my life. My graduate degree set the path for my career in higher education, and my personal growth journey has become the cornerstone to the happy, healthy life I now enjoy.
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What amazes me is how connected I still feel to my Cajun roots, even though I am firmly transplanted in the Northwest. Here I am all these years later spending hours cooking a gumbo for Christmas Eve and scouring cookbooks for the best black-eyed peas and collard greens recipe to make for New Year’s Day.
I blare my "chank-a-chank" music when no one’s around and strut my best two-step around the house like I’m still dancing at Mulate’s in Breaux Bridge. I even seek out Cajun restaurants just to order their gumbo so I can tell the server where I’m from and then politely inform him or her that nobody can make gumbo like my mama.
I like to visit my hometown occasionally. I always drive by the houses where I used to live, the movie theater that was segregated by race when I was a kid, and the houses on the old paper route that I still know stone cold today.
I’m especially drawn back to the city park and the bayou that runs through it, gracefully contorted live oak trees draped in Spanish moss and crepe myrtles with their crinkled pops of color. The muggy air, weighing like an unwelcome moist towel on my face and neck, captures and connects me to a deeper sense of identity I don’t often think about.
It surprises me that I feel such a strong connection to the place and people when I’m there but always feel very ready to come back to my Tacoma home after a short while. Subtle and not so subtle comments and “jokes” about any kind of difference occasionally come up, and it’s hard to just roll with it like I did when that was all I knew.
It took a while, but I’ve learned to look for the gifts received from my growing up in Louisiana. I am convinced that a great part of my career success is the empathy I developed to help people from diverse backgrounds transform their lives through education.
I’m equally convinced that thanks to the love and support of my family and friends, I am now able to live my life authentically as a gay man and openly share that part of who I am.
So I’m letting my roots show. I’m "proud proud, me,” as we say in the bayous, to be a Cajun, and even prouder of the people from there who shaped who I am.
Tuesday is Mardi Gras, and I'm going to let my freak flag fly. I'll be the one wearing multiple strands of purple, gold and green beads, eating red beans and rice and singing “Jolie Blonde” out loud.
These bayou roots run deep.
Ted Broussard is newly retired after working as a counselor and administrator in community and technical colleges. A downtown Tacoma resident, he is one of of six reader columnists writing for this page. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org