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.


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