Still Live, With Voices

By  |  August 20, 2015
New Orleans, 1980. Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith © Library of Congress New Orleans, 1980. Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith © Library of Congress
I would like to tell the story of my city.

I would like to do so in simple, declarative sentences. I would like my narrative to be neat and linear, like I learned in school and on television. Do not think me unequal to the task. In fact, I have already started a draft:

“We were founded by the Europeans. They taught us to cook and to speak French and to look down on the Americans. We were built by the Africans. They had tremendous talent for dancing and singing and following European instruction. We were saved by the non-Native Americans. They taught us to work hard and to honor the dollar and to cherish the word freedom even more than the condition itself. Then the gods of misfortune stirred the winds of disaster and left us clinging for dear life, Noah-like, in the flooding of three years ago.”

As you can see, my city has three parents, not counting the gods and the winds who have shaped us as surely as any DNA. I myself have two parents—a kind, sweet mother and a most unruly father. The neatness of every draft I compose is ruined by these voices, these five voices that suddenly pop out like wild hairs that have eluded the barber’s scissors.

So we Africans, the Africans in you, are nothing more than dancing beasts with wild hair?

No one is anything yet, Father. It is a draft and we are all in a state of becoming.

In a state of becoming sold down the river again.

Excuse me, kemo sabe, but when the Europeans were doing their founding, they founded us already here. Put that in your story. More voices, you must have more voices.

I will have more voices, I’m sure, invited or not.



“For much of the nineteenth century, New Orleans was the economic powerhouse of the Southern United States. The city has spent millions to recapture that greatness. The investment may one day pay off. But, in the meantime, we are known principally for two things: our food and our music. They grow so naturally here as to be deemed by our city fathers as hardly worthy of investment.

“In the matter of food, we were instructed by the French, whose reputation for culinary genius is time-tested and well-earned. Subsequent Europeans—the Spanish, the Sicilians, the Germans—have all left their culinary mark. Black cooks, with their innate sense of seasoning, have also lent their peculiar je ne sais quoi to our culinary heritage.”

Do not blame us for your food, monsieur. Your poisson meunière is deep-fried; your rémoulade is red and has no anchovies; your “French” bread has a crust like phyllo dough, not like a proper baguette, and you put that slimy okra in your bouillabaisse. Your food is good, peut-être. Peut-être. But Français? Jamais!

Okay, it’s Creole. It’s our version of French. It’s France in America, plus three hundred years, plus black cooks.

Why do you insist on crediting the French with everything? That bouillabaisse is neither bouillabaisse nor French. It’s okra soup. It’s soupa kanja. It’s West African; just like jambalaya. And can you imagine Creole food without rice? We were growing rice in Senegal before the French knew how to plant it. And these vague “Africans” you refer to had countries—Senegal, Benin, Cameroun, etc. It’s been documented.

Have either of you read the books about our food? They all say the same thing. Genius French chefs. Talented black cooks. Don’t blame me.

I hate to darken your narrative again, kemo sabe, but the filé in your gumbo is the sassafras leaf powder we introduced to your people.

If I might please continue. . . .

You might, but you will be the only one pleased.



“Opera has been performed in New Orleans since the 1700s and there were even celebrated free people of color playing and composing classical music. But our city is best known for jazz. That music has its roots in Congo Square, the area where black people, slave and free, played music and danced dances that linked back to Africa.”

Not that “jazz comes from Africa” foolishness again!

I didn’t say jazz came from Africa!

And you didn’t say anything about American marching bands. What about all that European harmony and those European instruments? What about all those New Orleans trumpet players who learned from the Herbert L. Clarke and Arban method books? The whole of jazz is little more than theme and variations à la “Carnival of Venice.” And if not for B. A. Rolfe’s inspiration, would Louis Armstrong ever have soared into the upper register of his talents?

Yes, but all the greatest musicianers—Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Joe “King” Oliver—they were all black.

“In the 1950s, New Orleans emerged as a capital of rhythm and blues. Local artists like Dave Bartholomew, Fats Domino, and Lloyd Price topped the charts while stars like Little Richard recorded hits here. In the 1960s, artists like Allen Toussaint helped touch off a distinctive soul sound. In the 1990s, New Orleans topped the popular music charts again as a result of the success of two record labels, No Limit and Cash Money.”

I suppose there’s no room for the white people in your so-called history.

White people were the architects of this city. Didn’t I say that?


“Two streets exemplify the architectural heritage of New Orleans, Esplanade and St. Charles Avenues. The former is the grand boulevard of the Creoles. The houses are close to the banquette and tend to hide the grandeur within. St. Charles Avenue, with its large front yards and front porches, exemplifies the style of the American sector. Much of the construction was done by free people of color who all but dominated the building trades in the antebellum period.”

Yes, but your Americans tried to put an end to that dominance. They declared it illegal to hire black craftsmen to work on public buildings.

That may be, but even now many of the top carpenters in town are black men with French surnames.

Señor, I have not troubled to disturb your little narration before, but the Spanish built the French Quarter. Most of what the French built was destroyed in the fires of 1788 and 1794. And these free people of color you keep referring to? Most of them were freed during the period of Spanish rule.

If all that’s true, then why don’t they call it the Spanish Quarter?

Now, señor, you’re asking my question.



“The two New Orleans topics that have most consistently enthralled outsiders have been the topics of race—or, to put it more precisely, miscegenation—and corruption.”

How is that two topics?

“Centuries of transracial liaisons have resulted in a large population of light-brown Creoles who at times have been seen, and seen themselves, as a separate caste.”

I have never heard of a black or brown Creole. The Creoles are white descendants of the original white Spanish and French settlers.

“Yet among the free people of color and their descendants were also scores of radical egalitarians. They produced the first African-American daily newspaper, La Tribune de la Nouvelle-Orléans, and actually sent a delegation who met with, and demanded voting rights from, President Lincoln. Their fight before the Supreme Court for equality culminated in Plessy v. Ferguson—Plessy was from New Orleans—in which it was declared that ‘separate but equal’ segregation was consistent with American democracy.”

If these light-skinned Creoles were so egalitarian, why did they look down on dark-skinned people? You remember what happened when ol’ brown George Lewis and his black clarinet showed up at a gig at one of those Creole functions? The woman at the door asked the band leader, “Where did you get that?” She wasn’t talking about the clarinet.



“The city has earned a reputation for corruption, perhaps dating as far back as the colonial period when various schemes were used to convince settlers to move to Louisiana. Recent indictments of public officials have done little to reverse this perception.”

That’s that French legacy you people are so proud of. If we hadn’t bought you, New Orleans would be an even bigger cesspool.

Vraiment? Well, mon ami, how do you explain this: the schemer who duped my people into investing in this mosquito-infested backwater was John Law, a Scotsman.

My son, have you noticed that no one ever forgets the corruption in New Orleans, where the political leaders are black, and no one ever remembers the corruption in Alaska, Rhode Island, Texas, and the halls of Congress, where most of the accused and convicted are white? Curious thing, memory.

Do you people ever see anything other than race? Edwin Edwards is in jail. A pair of insurance commissioners suffered the same fate. The Long brothers’ legacy is as much infamy as comedy. But since they’re not black, you don’t count them.



“When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, and eighty percent of New Orleans was flooded, many Americans blamed the high water on the culture of corruption and the tolerance of sin that they say was emblematic of New Orleans.”

Was there, or was there not, going to be a gay pride parade in New Orleans? I said it then and I’ll say it now: My God will not sit idly by as heathen Sodomites mock His Holy Name.

“While thousands of New Orleanians were trapped in floodwaters and on roofs, President George W. Bush flew by the area in an airplane. A delegation of Canadian Mounties arrived in the New Orleans area a few days after the storm to aid victims. Days later, the government of the United States finally began to provide meaningful assistance to its citizens.

“More than two dozen countries offered to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, but they found the American government less than enthusiastic about accepting relief. As Bush told ABC News, ‘I’m not expecting much from foreign nations because we hadn’t asked for it. I do expect a lot of sympathy and perhaps some will send cash dollars. But this country’s going to rise up and take care of it. You know, we would love help, but we’re going to take care of our own business well, and there’s no doubt in my mind we’ll succeed. And there’s no doubt in my mind, as I sit here talking to you, that New Orleans is going to rise up again as a great city.’”

A lot of that aid came from the damn communists like Cuba and Venezuela, and America doesn’t need help from a bunch of damn communists!

You’re right. New Orleans, Myanmar—we don’t need no stinkin’ aid!

“As the journal Foreign Policy put it, ‘When France and dozens of other countries pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and supplies to the relief effort, their donations should have helped ease the crisis. Instead, one year after Katrina battered the Gulf Coast, none of the money given to the federal government has made its way to evacuees.’”

What do you have to say about the French now, monsieur?

Communist!

“Investigations by engineers and journalists ultimately revealed that the flooding in the city was caused, not by the strength of the hurricane, but by the weakness of the levees. These levees were designed and built by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. They were not constructed to the specifications of the designs. ‘This is the first time that the Corps has had to stand up and say, we’ve had a catastrophic failure,’ the chief of the Corps admitted in June 2006."

Sometimes, God works through levees.

“Almost all New Orleanians were forced to evacuate in the days following Hurricane Katrina. Many thought the city would never recover and at least one congressman suggested that New Orleans be left for dead. Yet, the city has stunned its doubters, and one study claims that it has returned to seventy-two percent of its pre-storm population of roughly 450,000.

“There was particular concern that the African-American community would not return, but black New Orleanians still form the majority of the city’s population, albeit a smaller one.”

Thanks in part to the mayor and city council, you might add. Just when affordable housing is our most acute need, Mayor Ray Nagin, Arnie Fielkow, Cynthia Willard-Lewis, Jackie Clarkson, James Carter, Shelley Midura, Stacy Head, and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell decided to destroy the very public housing developments where so many New Orleanians lived. May the stench of their deeds ever perfume their path!

The old buildings are being replaced with newer, better ones.

Yes, and they’ll be fully ready for occupancy in only three years.



I am told that there are cities where the citizens speak with one voice and are able to achieve progress in an ordered, mature fashion. In these places, the streets are clean, the people are well-mannered, and the humors of the blood are kept in passionless balance.

I am tempted by such places. If only New Orleans could tame the unruly voices within it—if only I could tame the cacophonous conflicts within myself—perhaps we and I could achieve the bland efficiency that responsible outsiders so earnestly wish for us.

But what does the music sound like in those places? What spices do they use to season their food? What sorts of colors do they paint their houses? When a street parade erupts in their path, do they honk their horns or do they get out of their cars and join in?

It’s expensive living here. We pay a high tax for our nonconformity. I would gladly move, but I fear my time here has ruined me for life anywhere else. When a brass band parades in front of my house in the middle of the night, I’m neither surprised nor disturbed.

If you live long enough with these voices, they start making sense.
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Lolis Eric Elie is a New Orleans–bred, Los Angeles–based writer whose work includes documentary film (Faubourg Treme), television (HBO’s Treme), and essays. His essay “The Origin Myth of New Orleans Cuisine” appeared in the April 2010 issue of the Oxford American.