Roy Joseph and a friend listen to him pick his blues guitar. Even amidst disaster, the soul of New Orleans is found in its music, food and people.
NEW ORLEANS (NNPA) - Natives of New Orleans have a special way of dancing, talking, eating, even dressing—as if their hearts beat to a “second line parade rhythm” that is distinctly African.
“We feel the pulse. You can’t fake it,” says Michael White, a Black music professor and specialist in New Orleans culture at Xavier University. “Even if the music is not actually on—people of New Orleans actually hear and feel what is called the second line parade rhythm. And really, that is a continuation of the African rhythm that has existed in New Orleans since the beginning. All the rhythms that went through Congo Square and came to the streets in the jazz, those rhythms sort of govern our lives.”
But what has governed the lives of New Orleans residents in recent months has been Hurricane Katrina and, to a lesser extent, Hurricane Rita.
The fear is that the rich jazz culture has hit a sour note.
The call and response rhythmic distinction, described by Prof. White, is just one of the major Black cultural and historical features missing in the devastated city, says Black historians and sociologists, who fear that those distinctions may be forever lost.
As the French Quarter was back up and running within weeks, instruments belonging to musicians in the Lower Ninth Ward and other parts of New Orleans were found incased in mud and debris. Photos: Zenitha Prince
“Jazz was not only an expression of Black people in terms of celebration, but it captures and crystallizes all of the hopes, desires and aspirations of Black people for freedom, self-expression and participation in this democratic society,” explains Prof. White. “In the music itself, there was a lot of self-worth, there was promotion of the individual, a way of achieving respect and a voice and recognition to keep from being lost, anonymous and invisible.”
He continued, “The question becomes, ‘Will many of the people that form the heartbeat of New Orleans culture return?’”
This question is the key to whether the city will ever be the same.
“Anytime people are displaced, you lose a lot of institutional history and institutional leadership, and we hear that many of those people may not return because they fear they will not be able to experience the same level of life,” says Silas Lee, a Xavier University sociologist.
The author of a study, “A Haunted City? The Social and Economic Status of African Americans and Whites in New Orleans,” Mr. Lee says the demographics of the city has changed because Black people, an integral element of New Orleans culture, are being displaced.
“They don’t have housing, they don’t have jobs. Whites experienced a significant level of damage also, like in Lakeview where the breach occurred. However, African Americans, with their homes, it’s a question of getting the insurance companies and adjustors out there to evaluate the damage and get them the compensation; whereas, with many of the Whites who sustained a lot of damage, they are beginning the process of rebuilding without waiting for the insurance companies.”
In his report, a comparison of 1983 and 2003 Census Data, he says New Orleans popularity and cultural reputation had uncovered deep racial and economic disparities that existed long before Katrina.
“Our celebratory culture and accepting nature conceals a city with a troubled soul,” the report states. “Behind the mask of serenity resides a divided city, not just by race, but also social and economic demographics which liberates some and traps others in the iron cage of inequity.”
Like in all American cities, those inequities are deeply rooted. But landmarks of the Black struggle for parity are abundant. In New Orleans, that tangible history is in ruins. One major example is the historic Pontchartrain Park Subdivision, which was to celebrate its 50th anniversary last October.
“This was one of the first subdivisions developed in the city historically for Blacks,” says Reginald Starks, another Xavier professor, whose home in Pontchartrain is in ruins.
Pontchartrain was developed shortly after World War II for Blacks who were not allowed to own mortgages in White neighborhoods. Katrina has now reduced it to blocks of uninhabitable structures, surrounded by dead gardens and trees.
Before Katrina, New Orleans was more than two-thirds Blacks. A recent study by Brown University sociologist John Logan found that New Orleans is at risk of losing as much of 80 percent of its Black population. Some officials predict that the reconstructed New Orleans will be predominately White. The transitioning is already clear. After Katrina, the city’s Black population is down to approximately 20 percent, says Mr. Lee. Predominantly White areas are bouncing back first. The signs of recovery are everywhere in the French Quarter, which is more than 90 percent White. There, café and restaurant owners have begun opening their doors, allowing the tantalizing smells of fresh beignets, chicory-flavored coffee and spicy jambalayas to permeate the air. Curio shops are already peddling Hurricane Katrina-inspired T-shirts along with feathery Mardi Gras masks, and Bourbon Street is rich again with the sounds and smells of human excess. Moreover, the faint sounds of a throbbing bass chord and the whine of a brass horn wafts along the night breeze.
As Mardi Gras in the French Quarter got underway, festival traditions of Black culture were lost. White points out the Mardi Gras Indian Parade, self-described gangs of Blacks who wear elaborate customs to commemorate the spirit of resistance to oppression and being captured as slaves, as a key festival known for its rich Black culture.
“They parade down the street independently as a show of strength and pride, playing music of West African influence,” Prof. White says.
Another, he says, is the annual Social Aid and Pleasure Club Parade of benevolent organizations and Black self-help groups that celebrate power, freedom and unity; and the jazz funeral, a musical send off for musicians.
Some newer traditions have taken up residence in other places. The Essence Music Festival, which has been held in New Orleans over the July 4 weekend for the past decade, will be held in Houston this year. And the 20-year-old Bayou football classic game between Grambling State and Southern Universities was moved to Houston in November.
Prof. White is also the owner of one of the largest collections of New Orleans jazz memorabilia in the nation, all destroyed when Katrina waters covered his slab house for more than two weeks. He has performed for 30 years with the likes of the original Liberty Jazz, the Preservation Hall Band and his own Michael White quartet.
“I lost rooms and rooms full of books, CDs, vintage instruments, valuable photographs, music memorabilia, videos, original music, music transcriptions and the list goes on,” he says, citing a clarinet mouthpiece that belonged to Sidney Bechet and original transcriptions of music that was written or composed by Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong.
“So much of Black New Orleans culture was sort of taken for granted and ignored,” Prof. White says. “It just sort of existed in spite of politicians, commercialism, racism, ignorance and indifference.”
Solemnly he adds: “It shows where our value system is and where our lack of cultural awareness is. Now is an opportunity for change, a time to reevaluate how we look at culture and the importance of New Orleans to the United States and the world.”
(This is the fourth of an eight-part series of stories about the Gulf Coast and the road to recovery after Hurricane Katrina. This project is a cooperative effort between the National Newspaper Publishers Association and the Baltimore Afro. Baltimore Afro Staff Writer Zenitha Prince contributed to this story.)
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