It was probably a foolish proposition to embark on a road trip at the height of a winter storm. But I had a lifelong craving that needed to be sated. So I set off from my home in Toronto on a 23-hour journey, through snow in Michigan, sleet in Ohio, hail in Kentucky and rain in Tennessee and Alabama. It's only after I'd left Meridian, heading south along a two-lane Mississippi highway, through Hattiesburg, Poplarville and Picayune towards the Louisiana state line, that the sun emerged from a days-long retreat, wakening me from an early-morning reverie.
All of this happened in late December 2003. Several years on, I don’t regret hurtling down the interstate in the middle of a blizzard one bit. Call it hubris or even imprudence but I got to see New Orleans before the hurricane nearly drowned it. From afar, the Big Easy was that quixotic Southern town, forever out of step with Dixie and orthodox America, but wholly in tune with itself. In my imagination New Orleans was bawdy and mercurial. It oozed music, debauchery and bonhomie. It was a mystical place that feted its dead, embraced ritual and gorged on the profane.
Up close, I discovered that New Orleanians not only marched to their own beat, but created time. Whereas the frazzled denizens of New York and Chicago scurried, folks from New Orleans sauntered or strolled. They elongated their phrases allowing words to linger long after they’d been spoken. The city possessed a joie de vivre that echoed lazy summer nights on the streets of Montreal, listening to jazz, and sipping on chilled bottles of Maudite or Fin du Monde.
New Orleans was a city that had long stewed in its own juices. It was the fount of Jazz, the birthplace of trailblazers such as Charles “Buddy” Bolden, the first “King of the Cornet”, who imbued Ragtime with Blues and launched the New Orleans Sound; Joe “King” Oliver, composer of the classic “Canal Street Blues” and leader of the Creole Jazz Band; Sidney Bechet, child prodigy and virtuoso of the clarinet and soprano saxophone; and Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, trumpeter, composer, arranger, singer and bandleader extraordinaire - the most important musician for all time.
The Crescent City was home to the piano maestro and patriarch Ellis Marsalis, father of an illustrious band of music-making sons, Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason. It had birthed a bevy of songwriters and troubadours such as rock and roll pioneer Professor Longhair, Antoine “Fats” Domino, Allen Toussaint, Mahalia Jackson, Dr. John, Harry Connick Jr. and the Neville Brothers. The city was at the crossroads where the variegated stylings of American music – Jazz, Blues, Country, Rock and Roll, R & B, Funk, Gospel, and Rap – converged.
New Orleans was a haven for writers of every persuasion, seduced by its sultry climate, cosmopolitan nature and bohemian ways. Both Walt Whitman and Mark Twain had been mesmerized by its complicated strangeness. During the 1920s, at the height of Prohibition, young scribes like F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos had whiled away their days and nights in the French Quarter or Vieux Carré – a raucous, sodden colony of iniquity. Even impecunious writers with limited prospects could afford to dine in style at fine restaurants like Antoine’s or Galatoire’s. Sherwood Anderson once proclaimed New Orleans “the most civilized place in America.”
It was in New Orleans in 1925, in a small room at 624 Pirate’s Alley overlooking St. Anthony’s Garden, that an often-erratic former post office worker and veteran of Canada’s Royal Air Force (RAF) named William Faulkner wrote his debut novel Soldier's Pay. According to Faulkner's biographer, Joseph Blotner, New Orleans was the one place where the native Mississippian felt “he could at once be at home and be accepted.”
In 1945, a twenty-one year old dandy and native New Orleanian named Truman Capote, the only child of a peripatetic bootlegging conman and a teenaged beauty queen, returned to his hometown to write the novel Other Voices, Other Rooms that launched his career. The Big Easy was where Thomas Williams, a playwright from St. Louis, Missouri, met his Italian-American lover Frank Merlo, and adopted the nom de plume Tennessee. Williams would write A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947 while living in a house at 632½ St. Peter Street in the middle of the Quarter. New Orleans had been the beloved city of the tortured wunderkind, John Kennedy Toole, author of the posthumously published, Pulitzer Prize-winning picaresque novel A Confederacy of Dunces. Toole ended it all in his white Chevy Chevelle on a lonely gravel road in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1969 at the age of 32.
In a soul food restaurant in a gritty Black working class district, about ten blocks north of Tulane (University), a garrulous 40-something-year-old waitress, let's call her Priscilla, coaxed me into ordering one of the establishment's “recommended favourites”, lima beans and macaroni pie; she assured me the dinner would be divine. Seemingly oblivious to my bemused dinner partner who sat opposite me, Priscilla wooed me by cooing “honey”, “baby” and “sugar” in a single breath, as sassy middle-aged Southern servers are wont to do. Then she brought the pie, with the greenish beans on the side.
On my second day in New Orleans, I left my Mid-City hostel on South Lopez St., and ambled over to the French Quarter, a mere 20 minutes away. Despite its Gallic pretensions, little of the architecture in the Quarter was French, as almost all of the French colonial structures had been destroyed in the fires of 1788 and 1794. Most of the Quarter’s buildings were reconstructed during Louisiana’s Spanish colonial era from 1762 to 1800. And so despite the cries of Spanish patriots the world over about the blasphemy of an ill-gotten name, the misnomer “The French Quarter” remained.
Notwithstanding its pastel colours, wrought iron balconies, stately galleries and cobblestone streets, much of the neighbourhood seemed a tawdry empty shell. In the gilded age of capitalism’s triumph the Vieux Carré’s raison d’etre was to be consumed. It had that hucksterish, unctuous quality that screamed Niagara Falls or Dan Quayle.
In the middle of a weekday afternoon on Bourbon Street in the heart of the Quarter, two rather morose-looking Black boys no older than twelve mechanically tap-danced on boxes to earn a few coins. A gaggle of giddy middle-aged White tourists – likely from the Midwest – weighed down by cameras, backpacks, khaki shorts and sporting those ubiquitous Tilley hats (presumably having mistaken pathos for art) clapped enthusiastically and tossed the children some change.
New Orleans had been established in 1718 by the Montreal-born French-Canadian Governor of Louisiana, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville. The colony proved to be an inhospitable place for the vagabonds, prostitutes and ex-convicts deported by France “to settle” it – even then the French were expert at condemning their refuse, “la racaille” to les banlieues. That these sorry creatures survived those early years was thanks to the decency of the Choctaw Indians who fed and sheltered them. While the French carried brandy and guns to trade with their new Indian partners, they also brought dislocation and diseases that decimated indigenous villages throughout the Lower Mississippi Valley. The French also made some members of the Chitimacha and Chickisaw nations their slaves.
In 1719 the first shipload of enslaved Africans, mainly Bambara and Senegambians, was deposited on the shores of New Orleans. The colony became North America’s largest and most sadistic slave market: a place where bodies were dismembered and families torn asunder. Among the thousands of enslaved persons for sale were highly skilled carpenters, masons, navigators, blacksmiths, and farmers whose brilliance transformed the territory’s landscape and economy.
As I made my way through the narrow streets of the Vieux Carré, the stories of the violated and dispossessed were nowhere to be found: no monuments or plaques; no traces. They have all but disappeared. Any reference to New Orleans’ sordid past had either been omitted or erased from the neighbourhood’s iconography and the officially sanctioned literature of the place. It was as if city bureaucrats preferred visitors to leave the Big Easy with suitcases packed with illusions.
On St. Peter Street we chanced upon the Royal Café, a nondescript mid-range eatery specializing in Louisiana fare: gumbo, beans and crawfish etouffé. The meal was tasty but before we could move on to dessert, my partner and I struck up a conversation with our waiter, a mustachioed light-skinned Black man by the name of Isadore Vance.
Isadore Vance was a man’s man; a powerful man with a thick neck and big mitts for hands. Isadore looked like he could have played football for the hometown New Orleans Saints. He measured about 6’1ft and weighed a solid 215 pounds. Yet, for all of his broad-shouldered, barrel-chested brawn, Isadore was a sweet and gentle soul. Like many in his community, Isadore Vance was Black, Catholic and proud.
While the vast majority of the Black population in the United States is Protestant, “New Orleans’ Blacks”, as Isadore reminded me, “have always been a little different.” New Orleans was home to the largest African-American Catholic community in the country. With 60% of its total population describing themselves as Catholic, New Orleans was the only predominantly Roman Catholic city in the southern United States.
“That's something a lot of folks still don't realize”, Isadore told me in his slow-as- molasses drawl, “a lot of us here are not Baptists: we’re Catholics. It’s cause of the French.”
To Black New Orleanians, their Catholic faith was a kind of cachet, evidence that they were a distinct people with traditions that placed them outside the norm of the African-American population. Many considered themselves to be a little more refined than their too-easily fainting, endlessly pontificating, evangelical Protestant cousins. It wasn't so much that they thought they were “the chosen people”, but rather “the elect.”
From its beginnings in Louisiana, the Catholic Church had regulated the behaviour of slaveholders and established that as human beings slaves had rights. For much of the 18th century Louisiana was a part of France and thus followed the Code Noir, a series of provisions that stated what slaves were and were not entitled to. Slaves were to be baptized as Catholics; allowed to attend services; excused from work on Holy Days; granted permission to marry; and entitled to adequate food and shelter.
Between 1718-1890 slaves, free Blacks and Whites worshipped together in integrated New Orleans parish churches – though seating within the church remained segregated. It was only in the mid-1890s, during the repressive era of Jim Crow, that Catholic churches established separate parishes for Blacks; a move denounced by Black Creoles as capitulating to the perversion of the colour line, the line that the preeminent Black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois would call the problem of the 20th century.
New Orleans had been unique in the ante-bellum South as it contained a substantial Free Black population, comprised mainly of Black Creoles- (often French-speaking native born Louisianans of mixed European and African heritage). In 1840 the free Black population in New Orleans was 20,000. Black Creoles, who were often so fair-skinned they could pass for white, had enjoyed more privileges because of their lighter skin colour. They established their own institutions and came to play a significant role in the social, cultural and political world of New Orleans. Many Creoles adhered to the notion of the superiority of their French and Spanish cultural heritage and “looked less to the North Star” and more towards France for inspiration. The Haitian Revolution of 1804 and the edicts of the French Republic of 1848, which had abolished slavery in the French West Indies, radicalized them. Because they occupied the interstices between Black and White in America they had long rejected as repugnant the norms of the nation’s racial ordering. For this they were deemed a threat to the dominant White class and said to be lacking in racial solidarity by elements of Black American society. The truth was that throughout the years Black Creoles had consistently been on the vanguard when it came to the race question. Indeed, Homer Plessy, the young man who in 1892 challenged the constitutionality of the Louisiana’s separate but equal law was a member of a French Creole family from New Orleans.
In 1763, at the end of the disastrous Seven Years War, the French lost their hold on Louisiana to their Spanish rivals, but by 1800 Napoleon had restored the territory for La Patrie. In 1803, with France nearing defeat in Haiti at the hands of their rebellious former slaves, and war with Britain looming in Europe, Napoleon sold Louisiana to the fledgling United States for 15 million dollars, in what became known as the Louisiana Purchase.
Once the deal was signed, hordes of English-speaking Americans poured into New Orleans. White French Creoles (native -born Louisianans of so-called “pure white blood” descended from the “original French and Spanish colonizers”), threatened by the influx of these parvenus, depicted the newcomers as dour, vulgar boors more interested in accumulating wealth than in living well. In spite of the formal handover to Anglo-American administrators, the French influence in New Orleans remained.
That Isadore Vance even had a job in the French Quarter was thanks to the multi-billion dollar tourism industry powering the New Orleans economy. Despite his seeming good fortune much about the Quarter rankled him.
"Our people really don’t come here”, he told me. “Most of the Quarter is owned by White folks. Our people really don’t own anything down here.”
I spent the better part of two days walking around the Quarter in a city that was 70% Black, and rarely saw any Black faces at all. Black people had lived in the Quarter in larger numbers in the 1950s, however around that time gentrification arrived and Black residents moved out, often selling their homes for a fraction of what they were worth.
Many moved away to neighbourhoods like the 9th Ward on the city’s east side: communities that were swamped when Hurricane Katrina hit and the levees broke.
Before Katrina, New Orleans was home to a myriad of vital African-American cultural institutions, a burgeoning Black middle-class, vibrant neighbourhoods and three historically Black universities: Xavier; Dillard; and Southern University at New Orleans. Xavier was the only historically Black and Catholic university in the United States. It produced a quarter of the nation’s Black pharmacists; graduated more Black science majors than any other post-secondary institution; and sent more Black students to medical school than Harvard and Yale combined.
Despite these symbols of success, New Orleans remained one of the poorest and most violent cities in the country. Some 38% of children in New Orleans lived in poverty: the national average was 17%. In this city of 500,000, civic officials projected an astonishing 300 murders by year’s end. New Orleans had one of the highest per capita homicide rates in the nation.
In the 19th century, New Orleans had been one of the most integrated cities in the United States: by the beginning of the 21st century it had become one of the most segregated. Ninety-three per cent of students enrolled in public schools in New Orleans were Black. The National Educational Association found that public school spending in Louisiana was among the worst in the United States: 37th out of 50 states. Since 2001 spending declined by 3%. About 40% of the Crescent City's population was illiterate: 50% of ninth graders were not expected to graduate from high school in 4 years. The equivalent of more than two classrooms of students dropped out of school across the state every day.
Louisiana spent $6,021 per year educating each child in the public educational system, while expending upwards of $68,000 per child per year incarcerating its juvenile inmates. The state had one of the highest rates of juvenile incarceration in the country: 78% of juvenile inmates were African-American: Black people comprised just 1/3 of Louisiana’s population.
The 2004 edition of America's Health: State Health Rankings, an annual survey endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control, revealed that Louisiana had one of the highest cancer and infant mortality rates in the union. Almost ¼ of its population was obese. In 2004 Louisiana spent a meagre $22 per person on public or population health, putting her at 40th position in the nation: Minnesota ranked first, spending $187 per person. Over 20% of the state’s population lacked health insurance. For many of Louisiana’s citizens, living in the state was hazardous to their health.
Even before the hurricane struck, Black working people like Isadore Vance were struggling to eke out an existence in the Big Easy. Isadore said that as a waiter trying to support his infant daughter in a state with no minimum wage, he made $2.13 an hour plus tips. For an eight-hour day the Royal Café paid him a little over $17.00. Isadore often worked 70-80 hours per week just to make ends meet. He wasn’t part of a union, he didn’t have any benefits, and thus relied on the generosity of his customers to make ends meet.
“It’s not right, but what can you do? Jobs are scarce. They don’t hire us. And if they do, it’s the worst ones. A lot of brothers are up at Angola.”
Angola State Penitentiary was one of the nation’s most notorious prisons. Nicknamed “The Farm”, it was a former slave plantation that was located along the Mississippi River about 60 miles northwest of the Louisiana capital Baton Rouge on 18,000 acres of some of the richest farmland in the southern United States. Like many of their enslaved forebears, Angola’s prisoners worked in the fields harvesting cotton and sugar cane; they were paid 4 cents an hour for their labour; prison authorities later sold the jail-grown produce on the open market.
By 2004 Angola had become the largest maximum-security prison in the United States. Of the 5,000 inmates within its walls, 90% were Black and most hailed from New Orleans. It was estimated that 90% of Angola’s inmates would eventually die there. Isadore told me that he knew of a number of boys from the old neighbourhood who’d be calling Angola home for the rest of their lives.
According to Human Rights Watch, Louisiana had the highest rate of incarceration for any state in the nation – over 800 per 100,000 – and one of the highest for any jurisdiction in the world. One per cent of its population – over 30,000 individuals – were behind bars - most were from the Big Easy.
As I got ready to head back to the India House, the college-chic Hostel where I stayed, Isadore told me that he was thinking about leaving the Crescent City for good. He was considering a move to Port Allen: a sleepy rural town of 5,000 souls which had the cheek to call itself a city. Port Allen was located about an hour and a half northwest of New Orleans between Interstate 10 and US Highway 190 on the west bank of the Mississippi. Isadore’s father was working at an oil refinery nearby.
“Maybe I can get myself started up there”, he said. Isadore didn't hold out much hope for his hometown.“New Orleans is crazy. You get into all kinds of messed-up situations here if you stay too long...We Black folks are like crabs in a barrel, man, whenever one of us gets ahead, the others are trying to pull him down. I don’t see it changing. White folks try to act as if they own this town. They buy everything up and try to move us out. They’re even trying to move us from uptown. You heard of Magnolia Project?”
I shook my head.
Isadore explained to me that the Magnolia Housing Project was a low-income area located in a rough part of town. Multi-platinum rap star, Juvenile, and the renowned African-American sculptor Willie Birch had grown up in the neighbourhood.
“Yeah, well they’re trying to tear down the projects and replace it with a Wal Mart so they don’t have to shop across the way. So it will be convenient for them. This city is hard. It’s like they take a lot of our stuff from us. It’s like they’ve gone around the world selling it because they had an opportunity to do it and now they’re claiming that it’s their own. I mean the food, the music, everything that makes New Orleans ‘New Orleans’... We made most of it and yet they’re profiting from it. It’s not right... There’s no future here for folks like us.”
Adrian Harewood is a writer / broadcaster and host of the CBC Radio Ottawa afternoon program “All In A Day.” He was born and raised in Ottawa.
September 15th, 2009
Jon Paul Fiorentino awarded 2009 Eric Hoffer Book Award for Poetry
August 1st, 2009
Amatoritsero Ede publishes much anticipated book