A Parade of Heroines: V.E. Rillieux’s “Love and Devotion”

by Jennifer Gipson

This text is presented in the framework of the project "The stories that history tells us:  Afro-Créole literature from 19th Century Louisiana". 

A “free man of color,” a writer, and a proprietor of a small New Orleans business, Victor Ernest Rillieux had the “disadvantage of being poor,” according to Desdunes.  Rillieux, who was born in 1842 in died in 1895 or 1898 (Desdunes and Tinker differ on the year), was one of nineteenth-century Louisiana’s most prolific writers.  Indeed, it to our disadvantage that so little survives of his poems, songs, and translations and that we know little of his life. 

The following poem demonstrates Rillieux’s gift for poetry as well as his concern for the plight of his people.  “Love and Devotion” bears a very meaningful dedication: “To Miss Ida B. Wells.”  Wells, a teacher and journalist whose parents were born into slavery, was best known as a social activist.  She was involved in the black civil rights movement, advocated women’s rights, and exposed the horrors of lynching to American and European audiences.

However, the meaning of these verses is much more profound than simple praises of an extraordinary woman.  Filled with historical and religious allusions, “Love and Devotion” first invokes the image of Judith (ll. 13-15).  This legendary hero of the Hebrew people managed to cut off the head of the Holphernes—an act that spelled ruin for the armies threatening the Israelites at that time.  Thanks to her beauty, intelligence, devotion to God, and—of course—her powers of seduction, she gained access to Holophernes’s tent.  At the successful conclusion of her scheme, Judith returned victorious to the Hebrew legions with Holophernes’s head concealed in a bag.

The following stanza (ll. 19-24) reminds us of yet another famous woman, the visionary Joan of Arc.  Claiming divine inspiration, Joan of Arc, led the French army to victory at Orleans during the Hundred Years’ War.  Following their expulsion from France, the English captured her.  She was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake.  However, the French people did not forget her courage or piety, and she became their patron saint. 

Through these comparisons, Rillieux illustrates how Ida B. Wells, just like the great women of old, came to the aid of her people.  The principal difference is not her dark complexion but the means by which she delivers she people.  “With your voice, you fight!” (l. 26)  By no means is her struggle any less difficult.  Confronted with rifles, lynching, and intolerance (ll. 34-35), she does not dare to let injustice stain her quest for justice and equality.  She is courage and makes sacrifices; the fervent prayers of her people are behind her.  Her actions prompt the notice and fear of the White Cap (l. 44), a symbol for the racist terrorist sect the Ku Klux Klan.

In the two final stanzas, Rillieux once again invokes the valiant exploits of Judith and Joan of Arc and issues a challenge to Wells: “Speak then! Let your oppressed soul /Tell a horrified Europe, once and again / The horrible fate of your people” (ll. 37-39).  Rillieux concludes with an encouraging tone, highlighting the support of those who implore God’s blessings upon their heroine, Ida Wells.

Although Rillieux addresses these verses to Wells, the message of “Love and Devotion” has a universal scope.  Ida B. Wells’ virtue lies not only in her “love” of her people but also in her “devotion” to all of humankind.  In spite of slavery and discrimination and violence against their people, Rillieux and Miss Ida B. Wells, the object of his praise, both proclaim a message of tolerance, peace and action whose power and importance rivals even the greatest figures of history or legend.

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