New Orleans, Ten Years Past The Flood: Resilience Follies, Part 2 (Talking About Culture)

New Yorker cover: “Second Line,” by Kadir Nelson

Headline of the day, the New Orleans Advocate:
Has New Orleans Recovered? Depends On Who You Ask?” Wherein, Della Hasselle reports:

“According to a survey released Monday by the Manship School of Mass Communication’s Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs at LSU, nearly 80 percent of white residents in New Orleans think the state has mostly recovered…. But three in five black residents — 59 percent — say it hasn’t.”

The above image—the cover of the current New Yorker magazine features a piece of art by Kadir Nelson titled “Second Line.” I like the way if conflates the image of a black boy playing trumpet with another image (by now iconic) of a cement stoop in the Lower Ninth Ward. (You still find such stoops, last vestiges of former houses; here one I shot just yesterday, below.)
The questions raised by Nelson’s artwork—What will remain? How solid is the foundation?—seem apt for the panel discussion I moderated last night at Basin St. Station, “Ten Years After: The State Of New Orleans Music And Culture,” presented by the Crescent City Cultural Continuity Conservancy (C5, for short).
The panel was walking distance from the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street, where the Atlantic magazine hosted a day-long conference yesterday, and where the city of New Orleans begins its bevy of discussions and events under the banner—there’s an official logo and a color scheme—“Katrina 10: Resilient New Orleans.” Yet it was far from that media glare.
Still, our room was packed, and I have no idea how many tuned in thanks to a live-stream on WWOZ-FM’s website.
The panel is archived and available for viewing here.
Jan Ramsey, publisher of the monthly New Orleans Offbeat magazine, blogged about it here.
I’ll do a full transcription when I can, and gather what was discussed in a more presentable form. Here are some excerpts and notes.
I mentioned that my decade of reporting in New Orleans taught me a term I’ve ended up defending more than once to a skeptical editor: “Culture bearer.” It reflects the fact that in addition to musicians, New Orleans culture involves many kinds of participants and supporters: from Mardi Gras Indians to the people who help them sew beads and apply feathers, and who drum alongside; from Social Aid & Pleasure Club members, who put on Sunday second-line parades to the folks who show up, help prepare sashes and banners, and dance in the parades; from the poets and visual artists and chefs whose work is inseparable and sometimes in conjunction with the musicians to the activists and attorneys who protect and defend all of the above from a city that is often at odds with its own cultural identity.
Some comments from the podium:
Fred Johnson, director of the Neighborhood Development Foundation, and founding member of the Black Men of Labor (the most traditional of parading clubs):

The level of insensitivity to our culture and to the people who create our culture has been amplified.

And this:

Our culture is medicinal, but it’s not strong enough to fight what is economically wrong, what is socially wrong, in this city right now.

Jordan Hirsch, who was founding director of the nonprofit Sweet Home New Orleans, pointed out:

This community came back faster and with a higher rate of return, despite lower income levels and less access to assistance, to reconstitute its community faster than the local population with more privilege.

When I asked Bennie Pete, sousaphonist and founding member of the Hot 8 Brass Band if post-Katrina New Orleans “is a place for you, a place for people like the guys in the band?” he shot back:

Yeah it’s for us, because it’s ours. From the elders all the way down to the children that make our community, we created it.

When the discussion turned to ordinances and policies that the city uses to control and organize its cultural activities, Chief Howard Miller, President of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council, said:

The culture must be allowed to continue–free range.

Lolis Eric Elie, former Times-Picayune columnist and co-producer of the documentary, “Faubourg Tremé: the Untold Story of Black New Orleans”:

In the post-Katrina context, as always, we found that maintaining this culture is very much a political act. And that recovery has not assured at all that our social institutions are maintaining themselves in the ways that we have intended and that we would like.

Evan Christopher, a clarinetist and composer who has been an outspoken advocate for the city’s indigenous music traditions:

2005 was a missed opportunity for culture bearers to take hold of their own narrative in and out of New Orleans.

Tamara Jackson, president of Social Aid and Pleasure Club (SAPC) Task Force, recalled her efforts in late 2005 and early 2006 to organize an “all wards” second line parade that drew busloads of natives back from Houston for the first time since the storm, and the ‘hours and hours” of rancorous meetings she endured in the Royal Sonesta Hotel with the city’s police chief, just for permission to pull it off.
(There is brilliant and finely detailed context to those earliest second-line parades after the flood in Jordan Hirsch’s piece up today at Slate.)
At the panel, when I asked Jackson if relations between city officials and the second-line community were better now as opposed to 2007, she said simply:

Hell, no!

And when, during a question segment, an audience member wondered if outsiders and tourists were truly welcome at second-line parades, Jackson replied:

Do you feel safe there? Do you sense the strength and the love? If the answers to those questions are yes, then you are welcome.

Jerome Smith was not on the panel, but he mounted something like a brilliant insurrection, commanding the microphone and everyone’s attention in ways that only he can. He spoke with poetic force about the rhythms of “old women opening and closing their shutters” and “neighbors saying good morning and goodnight.”
“That’s the real music of our city, and its context has always been directed by our local gatherings,” he said.
He recalled a pivotal moment, while still a young man, when he spoke his mind to Robert F. Kennedy, who was then U.S. attorney general (a scene recounted nicely on pages 267-8 of Harry Belafonte’s autobiography, “My Song”:

The Mardi Gras Indians prepared me to stand up to Bobby Kennedy. When I sat in his apartment, looking over Central Park, it was no contest. I did not try to define myself in his words. I defined myself in my own words. I had no fear. Because the Mardi Gras Indians had taught me, “No humbah.”

That’s the part that says, “No humbah.”

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