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Tribunal defends

Legacy of cultural resistance in New Orleans

Published Sep 5, 2007 10:28 PM

It has been two years since the tragedy along the Gulf Coast was unfurled by the winds of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and escalated by state neglect. This year, the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund decided to put the local, state and federal government on trial at an International Tribunal on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Black and Indigenous cultural
bond in New Orleans.
Tribunal document

Testimony was given by many New Orleans residents attesting to the systematic racist oppression, going back to the days of slavery; the great poverty that existed there before the storms; the crumbling educational system; police brutality; and more. Indeed, every feature of capitalist society was on full display in New Orleans, and perhaps more intensely than in other areas.

One of the topics covered was the culture of New Orleans, how it is endangered and now being co-opted and commodified by those who despise the culture of the oppressed.

It is said that roots run deep in New Orleans; that a person is never separated from her or his connections to the city. Perhaps this can be said for all Black people who descend from Africans brought to the U.S. as chattel slaves, because the roots of Black culture—nourished by the sweat, tears and blood of African slaves and absorbed by the ground they tilled, kept and harvested—run thick as tubers to the core of the Earth.

Africans have been in New Orleans since before the city’s establishment in 1718 and the culture of Black people can be found in the cuisine, the speak and has defined the music and dance of the city.

Unlike in most cities, especially in the South, Africans were allowed a space to gather, socialize and play music, albeit only on Sundays. This place is still known as Congo Square. A precursor to the banjo is on display in the square, as well as many other instruments.

According to the African American Registry: “Congo Square holds a special symbolic importance to African-Americans. It is significant because of the role the square played in New Orleans’ musical heritage and as a symbol of the early African contributions to the origins of jazz and other American musical forms. In the twenty-first century, standing in tribute to the accomplishments of the tightly knit New Orleans musical community, Congo Square remains a memorial to the artists who transformed their sound and exported it throughout the world.”

Mardi Gras

One of the traditions often misunderstood and that is in danger of being lost is the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians. While never recognized as a cultural tradition by the Arts District of New Orleans, it is at the same time exploited as a draw for tourists.

Cherise Maria Harrison-
Nelson testifies on Aug. 31.
WW photo: Larry Hales

Cherice Maria Harrison-Nelson, an educator for the Recovery School District, spoke about that tradition and the threat imposed by denial of the right to return of residents of the city. Harrison Nelson is a Big Queen in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, co-founder of the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fameand daughter of Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. of the Guardians of the Flame “krewe,” who died in 1998.

A movie about the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians, “Tootie’s Last Suit,” is about Allison “Tootie” Montana, who “masked” or donned his suit for 52 years and died in City Council chambers while protesting police brutality.

Mardi Gras itself is a tradition that can be traced back to European customs. In fact, the name itself is French and means “Fat Tuesday.” (nola.com)

There had always been separate celebrations, one for whites and one for Black people, because of racism and the history of slavery.

The tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians and of “masking” grew out of a close relation of Black slaves with Indigenous tribes and a desire to pay homage to Native people for the assistance they gave to Black slaves in escaping and evading recapture. (mardigrasneworleans.com) It is an attempt to blend an homage with African traditions, and the people who carry on the tradition do their own beadwork and make their own costumes.

Traditions of resistance

Given that the tragedy of New Orleans before and after the storms in 2005 uncovers the conditions of the poor and oppressed in U.S. society, it is painfully obvious to those in power in New Orleans and the U.S. ruling class that the city may become the rallying cry of the Black masses, along with [email protected] and Indigenous peoples, for freedom from oppression and the system from which that oppression springs.

New Orleans was home of the largest slave revolt, led by Charles, a slave on the Deslondes plantation. Nearly 500 slaves, inspired by the successful revolution in Haiti in 1804, fought for freedom.

The city stands as a testament to the will and determination of oppressed people—in its traditions, songs, dances, speak, ideals, hope, and as Amilcar Cabral once stated, “seed of resistance.” One need look no further than the traditions of New Orleans—how the culture was forged from expressions of the enslaved, their desire for freedom and their resistance.

The attempt to deny the right of return—to make New Orleans a playground for the rich—is not merely about the land. It is also an attempt to break up communities and pockets of resistance to racist oppression. And it is playing itself out in cities across the country. This is not simply natural migration, but ethnic cleansing, and if not addressed for what it is by the broad movement, then a dangerous period in history may give way to more intense oppression.