Anniversaries are weird to begin with, whether what’s to commemorate is blessed or damned.
In my experience, the things we celebrate and honor and mourn, and time itself, are slippery and continuous. Bar lines can’t contain a thought in Delta blues or bebop solos. Traditional New Orleans jazz never really ages.
Yet we mark time and memorialize. And I guess we should.
Still, these events, their consequences and meanings, don’t freeze in time. My strong and unpleasant suspicion is that, now that a decade since the 2005 flood in New Orleans has been duly noted, now that the TV people have packed up cameras and the sponsored panel-discussion banners are down, we’ll lose any focus at all on what has happened, what should happen, and what will happen in New Orleans.
I fear that care will again, inevitably, forget this City that Care Forgot. As one of my New Orleans friends said to me the other day, “It’ll take another 15 years before anyone thinks about us again because 25 is the next big number. ‘Until then, we’re on our own again.”
Was yesterday the right day, anyway? Yes, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, and the 17th Street, London Avenue and Industrial Canal levees were breached on that date. But one could rightly argue that the true anniversary of this disaster should be marked on August 30; that’s when the last of the levee breaches occurred and, more importantly, when the flooding of the city began to rise to irretreivable disaster, when the dimensions of pain and loss as well as the weakness or utter lack of proper response came clear. Hell, one could argue that this anniversary requires a festival, stretching a full week (that Times-Picayune front-page headline: “7 Days of Hell”) or maybe a decade, accurately marking the time, for many, away from a home they longed for, or spent mired in the suffering born of unequal and inequitable recovery.
Yet Saturday, August 29, was the date we took. Among the New Orleans residents I know, some celebrated renewal. Some mourned loss. Others touted progress or lamented lingering inequity. Some did these things publicly, some privately. Some just left town. Some stayed in and drew shutters. Still others sought just another day, a regular one, in the place they still, for better or worse, call home.
The city, meanwhile, was dotted with commemorative events. A media bulletin from Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office noted eight coverage opportunities from 9am through 5pm, spanning several neighborhoods. The city hosted its third U.S. president in as many days (George W. Bush visited Warren Easton Charter High School yesterday).
A FRIDAY NIGHT CONVERSATION with Michael White persuaded me to start my Saturday at the Hurricane Katrina Memorial Wreath Laying Ceremony. Like many New Orleans musicians I know, White, who is a clarinetist and a Xavier University professor with an endowed chair, sat out the week’s goings-on. But the memorial was something he played for each year and, he told me, a place where “I can let myself feel whatever I need to feel.”
At 9am, there I was, at “cemeteries end” of Canal Street, where wreaths would be laid at the memorial to honor 54 unclaimed and 31 unnamed victims of the storm. According to an official program tacked to a wooden handle to form a mock church hand-fan, Dr. Frank Minyard, now deceased but coroner of Orleans Parish during the flood, had created the nonprofit organization that built the memorial in collaboration with, among others, a coalition of funeral directors. Its design, the program noted, “evokes the hurricane’s shape and creates a meditative labyrinth…” Its location, the Historic Charity Hospital Cemetery is somewhat ironic: Charity Hospital, which was razed in favor of the newly built $1.1 billion University Medical Center, against the consistent protests of many New Orleanians, might well be considered a casualty of the flood and the questionable recovery process that followed. (Roberta Gratz, whose riveting book, “We’re Still Here Ya Bastards,” analyzes the failures of governmental policies and the triumphs of grassroots organizing in post-flood New Orleans, gave concise and chilling background to the Charity Hospital story in this piece for The Nation. This documentary gives yet more details.)
At the wreath-laying ceremony, seated on folding chairs under a temporary awning, were senators and local politicians in suits and ties, military officers with decorated uniforms, priests in clerical collars. Luther Gray, who once successfully lobbied to place Congo Square on the National Register of Historic Places, wore all white. He and another drummer beat djembes to sound a West African lamban rhythm—“for healing,” he told me later.
Michael White played a slow and pious version of “Amazing Grace” on clarinet, choked with emotion in some moments, clear and ringing in others. And then the speeches began, punctuated here and there by a prayer or another song, including Michaela Harrison’s riveting solo rendition of “Come By Me,” that sounded like an urgent plea.
At one point, I saw tears rolling down White’s cheeks as he sat in the front row. Cameramen with long lensed equipment fairly pounced. Didn’t they get it? White had framed his pain and transcendence for public consumption through his playing. These were his personal feelings. I wondering about these photographers and their editors: How would these tears be framed?
Meanwhile, speakers attempted to frame loss and grief and honor with bold strokes. Sandra Rhodes Duncan, president of the Katrina Memorial Foundation, recalled being asked about the effort to bury the unclaimed, “Why would you want to do that?” “Because you must remember where you came from to understand where you are going,” she said. Mayor Mitch Landrieu called those buried at the memorial “unnamed but not unclaimed, because we have claimed them.” Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal mentioned—twice in the space of a minute, as if to openly defy the reality of the levee failures as the true cause of most deaths—“those that lost their lives as a result of Hurricane Katrina.” Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader of U.S. House of Representatives, sounded the common refrain of empathy and admiration: “Your strength gave us all strength.” Shaun Donovan, Director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget pledged, “We will not stop.”
The most moving speaker by far was Frank Minyard’s successor as coroner, Dr. Jeffrey Rouse. He recalled common experiences to chuckles and sighs—“Remember your refrigerator?” “What it was like explaining to a 19-year-old soldier from wherever that you simply wanted to see your house?”
He gestured to the memorial, acknowledging the nameless victims, and said, “They sit in silent judgment of us. They are the conscience of this city.”
By 10:30am, I was at the intersection of Jourdan and North Galvez Streets, near the spots where the Industrial Canal breached in 2005. Cherice Harrison-Nelson was among those pouring libations for a healing ceremony.
She wore the Phoenix Rising crown she’d sewed for Mardi Gras three years ago, hand-beaded to depict flames and a bird ascending, and laden with blue feathers on each side. But she’d also sewn something new to wear, a simple white suit with beaded images forming the shape of the African continent, along with embroidery that read: “8.29.05” and “SH”—for “still here,” she said (or “shit happened,” she added a few moments later). On her feet were blue work boots (there’s still much work to be done,” she explained). Like her brother, Donald Harrison, Cherice inherited a deep tradition from her father, Donald Sr., but as does Donald Jr., she now avoids the term “Mardi Gras Indian.” She is Big Queen of a group she refers to as Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society.
Here, before the levee and the spot of unimaginable pain a decade ago, was the staging area for a tenth annual Katrina march and second-line—part interfaith prayer, part multi-platform political rally, and eventually giving way to a march—not precisely a second-line parade, but with participation from several of the city’s parading clubs and brass bands, and culminating at Hunter’s Field for a rally and concert featuring the Rebirth Brass Band.
Radio deejay Wild Wayne and poet Sunni Patterson hosted the event. Activists milled about, handing out flyers and gathering names for organizations ranging from the Hip Hop Caucus to the Sierra Club.
Nuthin But Fire Records CEO and rapper Sess 4-5, who helped organize the first march in 2006 with Wayne and rapper Mia X, among others — had told Alex Woodward of the weekly Gambit that the event would “make sure the world sees that New Orleans people, we’re still fighting to be made whole.” Sess told Woodward, “I read about all the great new jobs and everything, but I don’t see that with people I know or people who look like me.” As Woodward wrote: “Wayne added that the city’s hip-hop community had been largely overlooked in the recovery narrative, while jazz and brass bands, though integral to New Orleans and its recovery, were at the forefront. Outside of this march, Wayne said, hip-hop has been left out of the citywide panels, discussions and other events commemorating Katrina’s 10th anniversary.”
What might have looked from a distance like a street party was actually a focused rally. Over the din of shouts, cheers and conversations, you could hear Mia X—“the recovery has bypassed black people”—and Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr.—“Pray for the dead but fight like hell for the living.”
As they spoke, Cherice Harrison-Nelson joined with members of “Echohybridity,” a group of black feminists who were spending the day creating roving performances and installations to “illustrate Black displacement and border-crossing.” Here, they stood silently by the levee, arms extended, holding small white flags to symbolize the lives lost.
At 11:30, I stopped by the Sanchez Center, where President Obama had spoken two days earlier. Preparations were underway for the afternoon’s “Lower Ninth Ward Resilience Festival.” The boys and girls of the MLK Jr Charter High School Marching Band were lined up in tight rows, awaiting their instructions. Down the street, Herlin Riley—a wondrous drummer whose inheritance of New Orleans tradition blends easily with his mastery of modern-jazz trap-set pedagogy—was dressed in white, and setting up for a concert. When in New Orleans I make it a personal strategy to find out where Riley will be playing and then to simply show up: So I hung around as long as I could, just to soak in his rhythms.
By the time I caught up with the parade, it was just reaching Hunter’s Field. Soon, The Rebirth Brass Band achieved full force. Here were little kids on shoulders bouncing to the beat, Social and Aid & Pleasure Club members pumping feathered fans into the air. A guy with dreadlocks in front of me banged out a perfect cinquillo rhythm with a drumstick on an empty Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill bottle. This was party with purpose, or at the very least a good time in a communal spot rich with community legacy, from jazz instruction to football training to Mardi Gras Indian assemblies. The Rebirth band swung. It sweated. It reprised songs that were local hits, and that call up ancestral memories and yet still moves asses. And you know what? No one I heard mentioned resilience.
WAS IT THE WISEST OF IDEAS to plan a spectacle of speeches and music at a basketball arena at 5pm on a hot, sunny day already loaded with neighborhood commemorations and activities? Probably not.
Shortly before John Boutté sang Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” backed by Ivan Neville’s powerhouse group Dumpstafunk, kicking off a program including an address by Bill Clinton, the Smoothie King Center, where the New Orleans Pelicans play, was not yet half-full. Young men and women with clipboards and cellphones and urgent-looking brows moved swiftly. Stiff-jawed men with dark suits and earpieces took their positions.
Still, the volunteers who wore identical T-shirts, participants in a “Citywide Day of Service”—several thousand working on more than 100 separate projects, according to the mayor’s office—radiated both exhaustion and excitement as they settled in for some recognition or inspiration or just some kind of show.
Boutté, the city’s most charming and pure-voiced singer, never fails to inspire, yet he’s better appreciated in more intimate spaces, like the DBA club on Frenchmen Street where he holds court most Saturday nights. Not long after the 2005 flood, those performances grew cathartic. Boutté would drop timely, pointed references into Randy Newman’s “Louisiana, 1927,” about George W. Bush’s post-Katrina flyover, or some such; he’d transform Annie Lennox’s “Why” from lover’s inquisition to social-justice cry. If you looked up at the projection screen at the Smoothie King Center, you could appreciate how Boutté emphasized the idea of change that was “gonna come,” on a day mostly about blacklaps for changes already in place.
The Smoothie King Center stage set was off-putting in ways that are hard to describe. As if one of those cable-news logos had sprung to life, gigantic blue-gray letters hovered above each speaker or performer: “Katrina 10.” Video screens flashed montages: Tragic news footage of 2005 suffering while Ledisi sang “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”; shots of homes getting rebuilt when Stephanie Jordan funked-up “Home” from “The Wiz.” “The Power of Community” was the headline projected through it all. Just as prominently: “Presented by The Rockefeller Foundation.” The Rockefeller folks have during the past decade done a world of good in New Orleans; and the foundation is staying the course. Still, the impression given here was somewhat akin to title sponsorship of the “new” New Orleans.
Soon newscaster Soledad O’Brien, who has done her fair share of nonprofit work in New Orleans through her own foundation, was onstage, pointing out that New Orleans is really a collection of neighborhoods. She pointing up at the names of them, ringing the stadium’s mezzanine in lighted letters. Unspoken was a quite real worry: That some of these iconic neighborhoods have, since 2005, begun to evaporate into more faceless tracts. O’Brien didn’t say the word “resilient,” but she came close: “New Orleans, you never give up.”
Rep. Nancy Pelosi told locals, “You have taught America how to be great. You have turned a nation’s compassion into a nation’s commitment.” Mayor Landrieu boasted: “Three presidents in three days!” He touched nerves: “Do you remember where you were ten years ago?” As he’d done all week, he talked about “the flood that followed the flood”—that is, the waves of manpower and aid that flowed into New Orleans from all points. And he turned that around: “Guess who else went a long way for New Orleans? The people of New Orleans. The city of New Orleans had lost its love for itself. We thought that everyone else had forgotten us. And because people loved us so fully we found a way to love ourselves.” That had a ring of poetry to it, and yet I know quite a few New Orleans residents who crave jobs, more affordable housing or mental health care to go along with that newfound self-love.
To his credit, Landrieu made consistent reference to “the greatest manmade disaster in history.” By Saturday, he had fully revised the strategy that led him to announce at the Carver Theater in May, during his State of the City address: “New Orleans is no longer recovering, no longer rebuilding…. Now, we are creating.”
Perhaps it was the steady drumbeat of comments and statistics about the inequitable recovery and the pockets of persistent poverty, especially among black residents, that changed Landrieu’s tune. At the Smoothie Center, he made clear, “We are not finished. We have more work to do. We will not stop until every neighborhood is back, until justice is done.”
Before nine religious officials—ministers, priests, an imam and a rabbi—had left the stage, following a series of individual prayers, Golden Eagles Big Chief Monk Boudreaux walked slowly out. He was followed by his grandson, Marwan Pleasant, his daughter Big Queen Wynoka Boudreaux; his son Joseph Boudreaux, and fellow Mardi Gras Indian Kerry Vessell. They beat tambourines and sang a Mardi Gras Indian traditonal, “Indian Red.” They took it slowly and yet with a sense of urgency. They didn’t dance or strut or pose, the way they do with elaborate purpose out in the streets, while enacting compliex traditions, or with the crowd-pleasing intent some Indians adopt when onstage in performance settings.
Here, Monk looked regal in his green feathers and elaborate beadwork. He and his fellow Indians sounded stately, lovely—pious. Not even the Guardian reporter seated next to me, who turned and asked, “Who are these people,” could break the mood.
In program that often seemed garish for all its good intention, Monk and company offered the sincerest and most musical moments. And if this particular indigenous New Orleans tradition remains enigmatic or even unknown to some, it is nonetheless essential to an understanding of this city and its needs.
The spiritual heft of the moment made sense. As Fred Johnson, a founder of the Black Men of Labor Social Aid & Pleasure club, once told me at the offices for the Neighborhood Development Foundation, where he serves as CEO, “You don’t play around with ‘Indian Red. “It’s like the ‘Our Father.’” As Alison McCrary, a civil right lawyer who is also a nun, said several years ago, after the police had again challenged Mardi Gras Indian assemblies in the streets, “This tradition deserves the same legal protections as a church procession, because it serves the same function and has the same power.”
I remember working on a Village Voice piece about New Orleans in 2008, following Mardi Gras. In it, I wrote:
The calendar was pointed in its irony this year: Elsewhere, February 5 marked Super Tuesday. All attention was squared on would-be elected leaders with practiced battle cries, competing to prove themselves fierce and attractive. But in New Orleans, Super Tuesday was Fat Tuesday. Uptown, in the limelight, the various well-publicized krewe parades (a throng that included Hulk Hogan, King of Bacchus) lorded over the city, riding high on floats and tossing down beads. But on less-traveled streets, more in the shadows and announced mostly on a need-to-know basis, Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs, possessors of strictly inherited thrones, asserted their authority. Dressed in 10-foot-tall, 6-foot-wide feathered and beaded suits and accompanied by “queens,” “spy boys,” and others, they were announced by drumbeats and chants, lending voice and hope to New Orleans residents who’d been all but ignored this primary season. The Big Chiefs competed with words, too. And in a ritual that once supposedly did turn violent, they battled to win hearts and minds, competing through elaborate suits to “kill ’em with pretty.” The presidential candidates were selling change, but in New Orleans, a city all but ignored by that lot, the message from these local leaders was continuity.
Here we are again in a presidential campaign season. Was it odd that not a single would-be president took a moment away from their daily stump speeches and to make a timely and potent statement about New Orleans during this tenth anniversary? Maybe it happened, and simply got buried in beneath Donald Trump’s temper and Hillary Clinton’s emails.
In any case, soon came another Clinton—Bill, who can’t run again, and whose work in New Orleans involved an unlikely partnership with George H.W. Bush.
Bill Clinton said that he’d risen to find that he’d lost his voice. Indeed, he sounded hoarse in a way that recalled his stump speeches at the end of his 1990s campaigns. And his address shared more with Monk Boudreaux than with any of the politicians that had come before—it was soft-handed, based on personal experience and seemed heartfelt.
Clinton recalled his very first train ride, when he was 3, to visit “my widowed mother who was in nursing school at Charity Hospital.” He talked about his next visit to New Orleans, at 15, when he was “an aspiring jazz musician.” He had knocked on the window of Al Hirt’s Bentley to ask the trumpeter to bring him into the club, because he was underage and had been turned away. “I told him, ‘I came all the way to New Orleans to hear you play.’ And he took me in.”
I found myself not wanting to fact-check him on all that. (Hell, Sidney Bechet’s memoir, “Treat It Gentle” is full of essential lies that say more about the truth of jazz tradition that most well-researched nonfiction books.)
Like the politicians before him, Clinton addressed New Orleans as exceptional. “Food doesn’t taste the same anywhere else,” he said. “There are no Mardi Gras Indians anywhere else. New Orleans has made a reputation of interesting differences.” As they had, he posed challenges: “What do we owe the memory of those who didn’t make it? What do we owe those who saved lives? What do we owe to those who died over the last ten years doing everything they possibly could to bring New Orleans back and give it a better future?”
Unlike the other pols, he did mention a need for better mental health care. And more so than any of the others, he struck a tone that balanced what is exceptional about New Orleans with what is common to all suffering and ambition. He attempted to reconcile the competing truths that render “resilience” a pointlessly inadequate term. In the process, he stared race in the face, as anyone looking long, or just longingly, at New Orleans must do.
“The people who are pessimistic understate what has been accomplished,” he said.
“They underestimate how important it is to live in the future and not in the past. We can be happy about all that, but not satisfied. But it should not stop you from trying to erase the last manifestations of the color line—the economic disparity…
“It’s the nature and the history of our country to realize that our job is always to form a more perfect union. You will not lose the history of jazz. You will not lose the taste of your gumbo. You can still dance your way down the street at the end of a burial. You will not lose what you offer, if, all of a sudden, without regard to race, we have the same chances at education, jobs, income, health care, everything.
“Celebration must be leavened by re-dedication to erasing the lines that divide us. Laugh tonight and dance to the music. Have a good time. You’ve earned it. And tomorrow, wake up and say, “Look at what we did. I bet we can do the rest too.”
At little past midnight, I was at Preservation Hall for a trumpeter Christian Scott’s set. He played music from his new album, “Stretch Music”—by turns, fiery and lyrical, and always laid upon a bed of multiple rhythms. I took note of his uncanny rapport with his newest musical associate, flutist Elena Pinderhughes, and with the rest of his group. I recalled the lessons he’d talked to me about yesterday, gleaned from the question asked by his grandfather Donald Harrison, Sr., a storied Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief: “Are you listening, or just waiting to speak?” (I find myself wondering the same when listening to presidential candidates debate).
I’d started the day with Scott’s aunt, Cherice, pouring libations for the dead and invoking ancestors. Halfway through this Preservation Hall set, I saw Scott’s uncle, Donald Jr. poke his head through the entranceway to the tiny hall. As much as anyone, Donald Jr. has been my guide to both deep-seeded local traditions and forward-leaning ideas, both of which are often best expressed through rhythms and melodies.
I thought about why Jerome Smith, once a young fighter in the Civil Rights movement and now an elder statesmen when it comes the traditions and infrastructure of black New Orleans, measures recovery mostly by how many black children are back and safe and how closely they relate to their elders, and whether these elders are back and safe.
Among those who care to pay attention to New Orleans right now, everyone has an opinion. Some are hopeful. Some are hateful. Some protect tradition, others preach innovation. Resilience now seems like a product to be consumed. Recovery sounds like a slogan. For all its fresh innovation and new construction, there is no “new” New Orleans. What’s real about the city remains culture and continuity. The New Orleans I’ve come just barely but still deeply to know in the past decade defines resilience one family, one street, one neighborhood, one beat, one song, one call and one response at a time. Keep those things close to heart and every day is an anniversary.