Monthly Archives: October 2013

Talkin’ Revolution

‘Talkin’ revolution’ – that’s a ‘nice’, ‘safe’ activity, says Jerry Ward, who had been invited to speak of his early involvement as a student in the Free Southern Theater, founded in 1963 in Mississippi as part of the civil rights movement, and commemorated here in New Orleans, where it eventually moved, 50 years later. ‘It’s easy to talk.’ I had been thinking something similar before arriving at Friday’s panels, only because the organizers of the wonderful 3-day event to commemorate and celebrate this radical theatre’s history had chosen a provocative title.

Academics in particular do a lot of talking about revolution and theorizing radical politics without necessarily demonstrating a great deal of commitment to the everyday messiness of actual political engagement. This particular instance of ‘talking revolution’ on a university campus (Tulane) was taking place amidst an array of other activities including dance performances, a civil rights bus tour and a variant of the Free Southern Theater’s own formalistic invention: the story-circle. I was a bit sorry that the only part I was able to attend consisted of the ‘academic’ sessions. Little did I know.

The day began with the singing of freedom songs, a theme that continued into the first roundtable discussion that was concluded by a song sung by FST founder John O’Neal. This discussion was presented as an opportunity to listen and learn from our ‘elders’, a sign of respect I hear a lot over here that is markedly absent from discourse at home. The ‘elders’ certainly took advantage of their position in that what began as friendly reminiscences evolved into a very frank and sometimes difficult intra- and intergenerational dialogue. Moving to New Orleans, FST founder Doris Derby stated – to her New Orleanian descendants and hosts – was a mistake. In fact, it was a major reason for her leaving the FST. ‘Me and Doris have not been entirely honest here’, says O’Neal, conspiratorially, with regards to this move that he (and the late Gilbert Moses, the third FST founder)  supported and Derby did not: ‘as a woman we expected her not to have an opinion’ (it was not entirely clear that Derby was in on this conspiracy: sadly I wasn’t able to stay for the day’s final session dedicated to the experiences of FST women). And then later, did I hear Jerry Ward say: ‘[contemporary?] African American theatre is pathetic’? A slightly tricky pronouncement given that his audience was in large part made of up people committed to making those entities that have been inspired by FST work.

‘Theatre is dead’, claimed Kalamu ya Salaam, an FST alum whose influence on the black arts scene in New Orleans and beyond cannot be over-estimated. It seemed that in the second panel as well, polite dialogue had been traded in for some very honest and uncensored conversations. Conversations that seemed to live up to Salaam’s challenge that art always be engaged, despite the costs.

‘When you speak the truth you don’t get the support’, Carlton Turner, director of art collective Alternate ROOTS, agreed; though his insistence on theatre’s continuing power to engage community and re-engage democracy was un-fazed by Salaam’s apocalyptic pronouncement. If you continue to push the hard questions you end up on Watch List and having your conversations taped, Turner said. You keep on being deprived of money but you continue in spite of that.

A difficult dialogue to hear for academics in the arts and humanities who face shrinking job opportunities and increasing dependence on external grantmakers. In the UK, the government’s ‘impact’ agenda, which is calling on academics to demonstrate the relevance of their research beyond the ivory tower, should be about just the kind of social engagement these artists are calling for, constantly posing the question: ‘what values are you bringing into this space?’ (Turner). In reality, ‘impact’ insults both academic researchers and the wider publics that they ought to engage. It downgrades the function of research in the arts, both as an important endeavour in its own right – as a contribution to knowledge and cultural memory – and as a crucial part of teaching students, which is the principal task of arts and humanities departments. ‘Impact’ also proposes a patronizing, top-down approach to public engagement, a one-way exchange whereby the academic delivers knowledge to the people, with little consideration for community needs or reciprocity. Worst of all, ‘impact’ is about the marketization of knowledge: how can your research contribute to the UK economy?

A very different model of academic engagement had an important presence on this second panel: Jan Cohen-Cruz is an artist, scholar and former director of Imagining America, which is a consortium of US universities that have come together to work to realize the goal that higher education contribute to the greater public good, by supporting engaged scholarship and creative practice. Read their recently launched journal, Public, here. IA has been involved in all kinds of community engagement projects, including HOME, New Orleans, a project in which Cohen-Cruz and others explored the ways in which public art might play a role in rebuilding communities after Katrina.

Inevitably, conversations here turn to Katrina. An education justice activist commented that it was important to table education reform – meaning the firing of thousands of largely African American veteran teachers after Katrina, who were then replaced with largely white twenty-somethings working for Teach for America, an organization that is meant to offer the brightest teachers to the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods, but which actually subjects children to inexperienced, non-unionized staff who have received just five-six weeks training. After Katrina New Orleans became the centre of the so-called ‘charter school movement’, which has subjected often traumatized students to teachers unaware of community needs, who have often had to carry through a ‘no excuses’ agenda (including draconian disciplinary measures like silent lunches and ‘benches of shame’) that traumatize students and their young teachers alike. This conversation led Catherine Michna to pose perhaps the most challenging question of the day: ‘African American communities are being pushed out of neighbourhoods, colonized, killed and imprisoned: what can theatre do?’

Hurricane Katrina, scholar James Smethurst pointed out, enacted a ‘dramatic disruption of cultural memory’. A disruption that many on the left have wanted to name ethnic cleansing. But, as Smethurst commented, a version of the Katrina disaster is playing out across the United States, as neoliberal gentrification trends continue to displace communities and exacerbate divides between rich and poor. It might also be added that these are global trends: the New York Times has recently reported that London’s soaring house prices (in sharp contrast to the dire economic situation elsewhere in the country) makes the city a ‘bubble’, a tax haven for the rich that’s been bought at the expense of long-time residents whose children can no longer afford to live there. How does one get hold of cultural memory under such circumstances, asks Smethurst?

‘Where are the children here?’ asked Ward, in another provocative contribution to conference proceedings. The presence of children, all agreed, was essential to doing the work of building an archive (of the FST – which O’Neal repeatedly stated must be seen in the light of its failures as well as its successes) to be passed on. Where were the 15 and 16 year olds? Ward insisted. This led to a fascinatingly reflexive conversation whereby the participants considered the construction of the conference programme, which though well-intentioned, they reasoned, had allowed this crucial omission.

Their hosts, Junebug Productions (an heir to the FST), under the directorship of Stephanie McKee, sat good humouredly by, presumably proud in the knowledge that they had staged an event that had allowed people to speak their truths to power and go way off-script, to the point of questioning the form of the proceedings themselves. It is tempting to compare the improvised nature of the event to a jazz performance; certainly I felt that in coming to the ‘academic’ panels, I had still got a little bit of theatre. Impromptu audience contributions broke down the boundary between performers and spectators in just the way that the FST envisaged. There were no signs of impending revolution here, but the talk challenged everybody in the room, the university as an institution, and the conference as a platform for polite, contained dialogue.  And it opened my eyes to what truly ‘talkin’ revolution’ might look like.

Some reflections on my first second line

Second line

This is my sixth visit to New Orleans but Sunday was the first time I’d made it to a second line parade. I’ve seen countless images of them in documentaries, in David Simons’ series Tremé, read about them in tourist and academic literature, even written about them in passing. And I have been told by many New Orleanians that they are the most distinctive/important/magical aspect of this city’s culture.  On Sunday I got a taste of what these commentators meant, of why jazz scholar Joel Dinerstein describes second lines as ‘little cultural miracles’.

There are so many reasons why a white visitor to the city would and should feel self-conscious about attending second lines. Images of twirling umbrellas and brass bands have become iconic symbols of New Orleans culture as it is translated into and commodified by a globalized tourist trade. These caricatured silhouettes have long been utterly disconnected from the intimate neighbourhood ritual that goes on across the city every Sunday in all but the very hottest weeks of the year. The staged versions that occur in sanctioned tourist spaces have little or no relationship to actual parades where members of an established club annually dance into and weave their way through a well-trodden route of the city’s streets accompanied by a brass band and a group of followers, many of whom know each other and live in the area, and who constitute the ‘second line’.

New Orleans tourism, which feeds on many aspects of the city’s unique black cultural traditions, is such a disproportionately large aspect of the city’s economy that it has quite literally dispossessed peoples and communities of key city spaces. The French Quarter, the site of the original city and what many still see as its spiritual core, has been colonized by tourism to the extent that many locals can hardly bear to go there. It is as though aspects of the culture have been irretrievably lost through touristic appropriations – something that is not a real threat in cities like New York or London which are just too big to be overwhelmed by the millions who visit them each year. These are global cities that are in any case defined by routes as opposed to roots (a distinction proposed by Paul Gilroy in 1993).

I myself still live about two miles from the London hospital in which I was born, but this is not a mark of distinction in London as it is in New Orleans. I do not feel that I have any more claim to London than friends of mine who have made it their home but who were not born there. And while I could echo the classic New Orleanian ‘born and raised’ mantra with honesty, I cannot claim, as so many can here, that generations of my family have lived in London. London is a globalized city of transients who have made it their home – for a while. I personally cannot imagine any other home but what makes it so special is not a culture that has been preserved but that which is constantly in flux, the newness that has arrived through myriad waves of immigration.

That’s why I have never thought twice about going to the annual Notting Hill Carnival which celebrates African-Caribbean culture in the city. The carnival is probably more like Mardi Gras than the second line but is nonetheless the closest thing London has to the parades – in that it embodies distinctively black musical and performance traditions and involves marginalized identities reclaiming the streets from which they’ve been excluded. Especially now that Notting Hill has become a gentrified enclave for the super-rich, there is something very satisfying about those streets hosting Europe’s biggest party. This is an enormous festival that mocks claims to an exclusive ‘indigeneity’ made by white racists like the BNP (British Nationalist Party).

The second line, in contrast, is an intimate, indigenous tradition. The parades may resemble those that go on elsewhere – a number of scholars have pointed to their similarities with parades in West Africa – but second lines as we see them now were born and raised in New Orleans. Though they have evolved from the jazz funerals that nurtured them – and which continue to coexist alongside them – much has been preserved. African Americans may have been in the majority in the city since the 1970s, with the exception of a few years after Katrina, but they have been an oppressed majority that has resisted the brutal logic of racism and market capitalism in part through community rituals like second lines – that reclaim streets and neighbourhoods that have often been marked violent no-go areas by police and the press. They celebrate communal roots that have been denigrated.

The tourist appropriation of second lines thus takes place in the context of a culture that prizes the native like nowhere else I’ve ever been: you can have lived in the city for decades but if you weren’t born here, you aren’t a true New Orleanian. You will in fact be unlovingly known as a ‘transplant’ for as long as you live here, even if your children qualify for native status. New Orleans has famously boasted the highest number of native-born residents among major American cities for some time (77% according to the 2000 census), and while this changed after Katrina, evidence suggests that numbers are recovering (the question of nativity was dropped from the 2010 census, but Richard Campanella of Tulane University estimates that the current percentage of New Orleanians who were born in Louisiana is in the low 70s). The city also has the lowest number of foreign-born residents in the US. This makes for a real tension between a globalized tourist industry on the one hand, which threatens to cannibalize local deep-rooted traditions on the other – traditions that come from some of the most close-knit communities in the nation.

This city is full of paradoxes, and one of the most striking, it seems to me, is the fact that it is both so exposed to its ‘outsides’ culturally – the Caribbean, Africa, Europe – and yet so insular in other ways, often in the performance of those very traditions that attest to New Orleans’ transnational coordinates. This insularity has often been portrayed negatively, as parochial, even stagnant. These accounts often cast the post-Katrina influx of ‘new blood’ as an opportunity for the city to ‘move on’; I have even heard some people describe this process as ‘modernization’.  It is though this insularity that has been the incubator of the traditions that make New Orleans so unique. Thus the post-Katrina ‘opening up’ of the city not only threatens these traditions but, ironically, the tourist trade that is parasitic upon them – and which has driven much post-Katrina ‘development’.   

Post-storm New Orleans has been the recipient of several waves of ‘transplants’ that keep on coming. These transplants have contributed to the racialized gentrification patterns that were on the agenda before Katrina provided the ‘opportunity’ to push them through – and displace long-time residents, families and communities. Suddenly the spaces reclaimed by second liners are no longer no-go areas but on the contrary, have become spaces of white desire. It is no wonder then that white tourists/transplants with cameras are not necessarily welcomed to the party.  

That is not to say that the social aid and pleasure clubs that host the parades, or indeed the neighbourhoods they dance through, are themselves exclusively black, though the traditions from which they derive are undoubtedly African American. Those who argue for ‘black only’ parades do not, in my view, argue in the name of a ‘reverse racism’ – which is a meaningless term in a culture loaded against peoples of colour – but they do project a problematically essentialist and parochial understanding of culture (see some of the thoughtful discussion in the comments of this fascinating blog piece). This though still leaves little room for the white outsider/colonizer.

Nonetheless we went, and loved it. In fact, I was surprised that my sense of discomfort was less to do with my presence at the parade than with the feeling that the real disrespect came from my academic habit of over-thinking the event, of being at all self-conscious at an event that seemed to celebrate its absence. And as has become a familiar sight at most public events these days, phones, i-pads, cameras were everywhere being waved around as signs of participation. In fact, it struck me that pointing a camera was almost a gesture of respect: people were filming each other dancing, offering themselves up to cameras everywhere. I went with the resolve that if my camera did come out of my bag, it would be used only with permission. I came away feeling that asking for permission to take photographs in the midst of an overtly public display of fantastic moves, sounds and fun would have been an insult to all concerned.

I have seen second line parades compared to block parties in their intimacy, but it seems crucial to remember that they are moving block parties (as Dinerstein points out here) that accumulate people as they move through the city. To continue to play on what can become a somewhat reductive but nonetheless useful contrast that has animated much scholarship in black and postcolonial studies since the publication of Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993), routes are perhaps, after all, as crucial to second line parades as roots. Incubation is one way of thinking about what feeds local cultures, but having air to breath, grow and develop is surely a crucial ingredient.

I write this not to give myself permission to attend every second line parade between now and our departure in December. Prince of Wales’ 85th second line paraded just a few blocks from where we are living. I might have to step back into consideration mode before making the decision to attend one that didn’t intersect with a space that we have temporarily made our home. But before doing that I might also want to consider the theme of Sunday’s parade: ‘Can’t we all get along?’ More likely than not this is referring to intra- as opposed to inter-community strife – but either way it poses a good basic question. Certainly my two-year old daughter, blissfully unaware of the dilemmas, breathless in her determination to keep up with the ‘’brellas and trumpets’, thought we could. I will regret the day that she has to qualify her answer. Not because of some misplaced desire that she remain innocent – or ignorant – of her privilege. But just because her spontaneity seemed to fit the occasion, and her trumpets and umbrellas, in my view, were worlds away from the shallow tourist caricatures that would otherwise have formed her experience of second lines.

I am well aware that second lines are not mine, or my daughter’s, for the taking. I just couldn’t help feeling that this was a very welcoming and inclusive event that seemed to invite public participation. How to participate without stealing? How to avoid being so respectful you actually veer into disrespect? It’s a minefield. But I’m glad we decided to join in.


‘Karen’ and the Caribbean

Tulane fair

This is the first time I’ve visited New Orleans during hurricane season. It’s been a much less active season than anticipated and 10 September, the peak of the season – and incidentally the day we arrived – passed without a single hurricane and just one named storm making landfall along the US Gulf Coast. Andrea did not menace south-eastern Louisiana making Karen the first, if not apparently very dramatic, threat to the city of New Orleans in 2013.

For those from more temperate climes the threat of Karen was initially mildly alarming, but we have been reassured: fill up your tank, get some supplies in, and locate your flashlights. An evacuation is not anticipated, says the mayor’s office: ‘prepare families and homes to shelter in-place.’ Certainly the festive atmosphere on Tulane University’s beautifully landscaped and opulent Uptown campus (pictured above) this Friday evening did not exude anxiety. Indeed, gathering supplies and battening down the hatches is possibly a rather comfortable ritual in a wealthy neighbourhood like Uptown (that we have been temporarily parachuted into) that feels, despite its relative geographic proximity to the central business district, distinctly suburban – if with a slightly exotic twist (tropical vegetation, the Creole architecture for which New Orleans is famous – a beautiful suburb, which feels like a vaguely oxymoronic formulation). This is an activity for an atomized car culture for whom the message: ‘you’re on your own’ is, perhaps, interpreted by many as a sign of freedom. Especially in a neighbourhood on high ground that was mostly spared Katrina’s floodwaters.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) landing page is currently branded with the following message: ‘Due to the Federal government shutdown, and most associated web sites are unavailable… Only web sites necessary to protect lives and property will be maintained.’ And it turns out that the weather section is one such site. Nonetheless it is interesting to reflect on the implications of a government shutdown on the eve of a tropical storm 8 years after Hurricane Katrina, which highlighted a different kind of government shutdown, the kind that in fact resulted from the same disastrous political context that frames the current shutdown: political resistance to government provision of even the most basic social safety nets (specifically in the current context, healthcare).

This political impulse, and indeed the hermetically sealed experience of middle class suburban life, is worlds away from the subject of a conference I’ve attended over the last few days: ‘Radical Caribbeans’. Hosted by Tulane’s Cuban and Caribbean Studies Institute, the programme was packed with sessions dedicated to examining the aesthetics and politics of collectives, particularly those collectives that seek to represent the most disenfranchised peoples – in economic, environmental, racial, and gendered terms. And in fact, as one session on Thursday explicitly highlighted, aspects of New Orleans culture are marked by radical political and aesthetic constellations that radiate from and back to the Caribbean and other black diasporic locations – even if these connections are all but invisible in the charming but slightly bland atmosphere of Uptown.

The second line parades for which the city is now famous derive from the mutual aid societies that sprung up in working class black communities for whom the government shutdown – or at least rollback – has long been in operation. The city is also home to the Mardi Gras Indians – groups of African American men who pay tribute – through costume, music and dance – to Native American culture and, many argue, the Native American tribes who aided Louisiana’s large maroon population in the 18th century. The post-Katrina community organizing that has attempted to resist the neoliberal remaking of New Orleans – involving the dismantling of public education, health and transportation – might be seen as a contemporary chapter in this kind of activism that has resisted government oppression, dysfunction and rollback.

New Orleans has been described by many as a ‘Caribbean city’, and not just because of its sub-tropical climate and the fact that some parts of it look and feel like Port of Spain. A radical critique of the ideology of work is embedded in the city’s myriad festivals of which Mardi Gras is only the most prominent example. While the statement that New Orleans operates on ‘Caribbean time’ is usually a derogatory one, both to New Orleans and the rest of the Caribbean, there is something quite interesting and genuinely resistant behind the caricature. But the prejudice endures.

It is no coincidence that reading David Brooks on the Haitian earthquake in 2010 is curiously reminiscent of his stance on New Orleans in 2005:

Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.

We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.

It’s hard not to feel that New Orleans too is a ‘progress-resistant’ culture – that is similarly crying out for the cure of middle-class American values – according to Brooks:

The first rule of the rebuilding effort should be: Nothing Like Before. Most of the ambitious and organized people abandoned the inner-city areas of New Orleans long ago, leaving neighborhoods where roughly three-quarters of the people were poor.

In those cultural zones, many people dropped out of high school, so it seemed normal to drop out of high school. Many teenage girls had babies, so it seemed normal to become a teenage mother. It was hard for men to get stable jobs, so it was not abnormal for them to commit crimes and hop from one relationship to another. Many people lacked marketable social skills, so it was hard for young people to learn these skills from parents, neighbors and peers.

If we just put up new buildings and allow the same people to move back into their old neighborhoods, then urban New Orleans will become just as rundown and dysfunctional as before.

Both Haiti and New Orleans have been on the receiving end of ‘structural adjustment’ programmes initiated by the US that have seriously damaged indigenous economies and cultures. They are part of the same political ecology, battered both by racism and storms that often form in the Caribbean and head towards the US Gulf Coast. The fact that many storms that make landfall in the United States often batter Caribbean islands on route is only ever a footnote of global news coverage. It was hardly mentioned in the western press in 2012 that Hurricane Sandy devastated an already devastated Haiti – less than two years after the earthquake – on its way to New York. While Katrina sparked the attention of a global news network alive to anything occurring in the United States, one only needs to compare the constructions of New York in the wake of Sandy to those of post-Katrina New Orleans – or indeed the constructions of 9/11 and Katrina survivors – to understand something of the marginal status of New Orleans in the larger national imaginary.

Karen formed in the Gulf of Mexico where she has, apparently, and thankfully, become ‘disorganized’. But she serves as a reminder that tropical storms are a transamerican reality that might help us think beyond atomized cultural habits. It is sensible to gather supplies if you’re about to be hit by a severe weather event, but it is worth remembering that the hoarding and monopolization of resources, the privatization of community, is precisely why some groups are so vulnerable. Where others stay dry.