Sunday, May 06, 2007

Walking in their father's shoes

If you watch this bad camera video of a parade I encountered at Jazz Fest in New Orleans this Saturday, you should watch carefully for the two children. Both are equipped with just their size walking sticks just like the adult men of the New Generation Social Aid and Pleasure Club, and the eldest is doing his best to learn the steps.

In the dark days of late 2005 and into early 2006, I was not the only one worrying about the potential death of the unique, indigenous culture of New Orleans. I joined a parade of national commentators in wondering of this largest displacement of people the nation's had seen since the Civil War would lead to the death of New Orleans native culture. As early as September 9, 2005, I wrote:

Imagine if you will a New Orleans without Mardi Gras Indians; without neighborhoods where young boys actually want to learn to play the trombone, so they can march proudly at the head of the parade; without the little neighborhood restaurants where Creole cooking was perfected before we gave it to the world; without the little bars where every generation of musicians have played for a circle of friends and neighbors before they took our music into the world...

It would be an act of cultural genocide , a word I choose carefully and mindful of its terrible implications. It would be the ethnic cleansing of an alien other perched on the edge of America. It would be a crime not much different from that of the Taliban when they chose to demolish the ancient cliff Buddhas.

Seeing these children was a tremendous moment for me, an indication that the culture can survive if it is nurtured as it has been for generation. It worries me not to see any teenagers or young men. Have they all been lost to the ghetto culture, the self-titled "convict music" that blares from their radios, touting criminality, violence and misogyny?

I was heartened on my first Jazz Fest Saturday watching Chief Iron Horse and the Black Seminoles on the Heritage stage. Only two were in full costume, but there was a large compliment of young men who looked to be in their twenties drumming and singing on stage. They were not lost to dark side of hip-hop culture. Still, I wonder where are the teenagers.

Those young men on stage and the children in the parade area small but important sign of hope. This culture need not die, unless America chooses to let the city go, chooses in effect to kill it by failing to rebuild the levees and the coast, to pay the debt they have run up over the last one hundred years for a navigable river and oil-and-gas.

If America chooses to do this, it will not be remembered in this time as the enemy of the Taliban in the East or the ethnic cleansers of central Europe. It will be remembered as a fellow traveler with the demolishers of the Buddhas of Bamyan.

Great post. I hope too that things can be guided to nurture the culture and continue it. I am working on doing my bit with this very thing too - when I get further with my plans I'm going to email the NOLA bloggers about it.

Thanks Mark

Best Wishes
Vital heritage vibe. Teenagers might be on the razor's edge. Hip-Hop is very dominant worldwide. I went to Africa in 1997 and heard hip-hop when I was looking for African music. It was scarce. Maybe it'll blow itself out, but there's too many people all over the planet that have adopted its lifestyle.
Beautiful post, Mark. Gave me chills. Thanks for the video. I can only try to imagine.
Teenagers are always on the razor's edge in terms of the heritage vibe. It's not much different in most other cultures, sad to say...
Once again, IMHO the whole "death of the culture" angle has been vastly overblown.

Will the post-Katrina New Orleans be both whiter and more affluent than New Orleans immediately pre-Katrina? It seems likely in the short term...but by most accounts the city is still, even after the diaspora, a majority-black city. But I would contend that the questions of "majority-black or majority-white" and whether or not we'll have as large a percentage of the population living in poverty as we had in early 2005 aren't the overarching questions regarding the future of our culture. Unless you're convinced all the important and desirable facets of the culture of NOLA were developed within the past thirty years or so.

As I've stated before, the City of New Orleans didn't become a majority-black population officially until the 1980 census, meaning the tipping point probably came at some point during the late seventies. Did the jazz funeral suddenly appear in 1980, and the Mardi Gras Indians? Or red beans and rice on Mondays? Of course not...these, and just about every other aspect of NOLA culture developed much earlier in the city's history. Even the myriad aspects of our culture that are almost entirely gifts of our African-American citizenry through the years date from times when NOLA was much "whiter", and almost assuredly "wealthier", than the city is today or will be in the foreseeable future. Check some of the census information (such as is available) from the days of King Cotton and those of Storyville, and compare the demographics to our more recent past.

Think of it for a minute...think of how much of our culture was birthed in days when slavery and then Jim Crow were the rule in the city. When the African-American portion of our population was smaller than it is even today, and when that portion's contributions to our culture were belittled, derided, and flat out supressed by the powers-that-be of the day. As with many cultural aspects that spring from the "underclass" these were initially only embraced by those who did so because they rejected more mainstream norms and identified with the "bad" anti-establishment culture. The earliest whites to appreciate jazz were those who spent a lot of time in bordellos and barrooms, for example. And yet...

And yet even with all that going against it, the African-American aspects of NOLA culture were plenty strong enough to endure, and through the years essentially (in the minds of many) replaced many of what would have been considered "white" aspects of New Orleans culture. You don't see a French Opera House in the Quarter anymore, do you? Even though it was the first opera house in the New World, the cultural tastes apparently had been modified enough such that it wasn't replaced when it burned down.

Will some of the individual practitioners of different aspects of NOLA culture who were flung about the country in the diaspora never make it back? Of course. Cyril says he's not coming back, right? But those who remain carry on, as have generations before them. Because the only way something becomes enmeshed in a city's popular culture is if it's already enmeshed in it's citizens' souls. IMHO, the African-American contributions to NOLA culture are much stronger than many who now bemoan the city's demographic shifts apparently feel they are. They've had to have been in order to have endured this long.
By the way...the kid down the block in my Gentilly neighborhood that saw 6 feet of water during the flood still out on his porch to practice his trumpet--just like the other kid who was across the street before the flood used to sit on his porch to practice his tuba. The culture's not going anywhere. As I said, some of the individuals may be gone, but the culture as a whole lives on.
I couldn't agree more, PH, but if they don't address coastal erosion and levees it could all still be lost. I think in a complete diaspora it would go the way of spoken Creole.
GREAT closing image, comparing the Afghan Taliban to the American Taliban.

Global climate change and coastal erosion: they're all part of God's apocalyptic plan!!! Our job is to make way!
Great post, great video! Perhaps those little children are a beacon for your city.
D***ed straight.
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