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
Black and Indigenous cultural
bond in New Orleans.
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
Articles copyright 1995-2012 Workers World.
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium without royalty provided this notice is preserved.
Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY, NY 10011
Email: [email protected]
Subscribe [email protected]
Support independent news DONATE