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Larry Blumenfeld on Ned Sublette’s ‘The Year Before the Flood’
Posted on Feb 4, 2010
Thus, “The Year Before the Flood” rides the cycles of life in New Orleans—parades, murders, hurricanes and festivals. (Sublette identifies the city as the northernmost point of what he calls the Catholic “Saints and Festivals Belt.”) Defying its title, the book spills out into the year of the flood and beyond through a brief but pointed coda. It starts four decades earlier. Sublette, who was born in Louisiana and has lived in New York for 30 years, began writing this memoir during the 2004-2005 academic year, on a fellowship at Tulane University. He was thrust back to his own beginnings, too. He opens in Natchitoches (pronounced Nackatish), La., with his first-grade teacher explaining to students why coins must not be put in mouths. (“It might have been in the hands of a colored person.”) By the seventh grade, Sublette and classmates are asked to dramatize a slave auction. “Some people lived between the piety of knowing that slavery was bad,” he thinks to himself, “and the desire of living it once again.”
Cut to Tulane’s Howard Tilton Library, with Sublette “still trying to break through the lies I’d been told in grade school and at the movies.” He’s excited by the idea of living on Constance Street (his wife is writer Constance Ash), in a rented 1880s home in the Irish Channel district; the two are charmed by its old floors and 14-foot ceilings and lulled to sleep by the sound of passing trains. What emerges is a jelly roll of a story—loving musical analysis and anecdote wrapped in historical analysis, filled also with clear-eyed accounts of the violence and racism endemic to New Orleans life and dotted at one end with caustic criticism of the Bush administration’s exploitation of disaster. Every bit of it grows personal: Sublette discovers that, two years earlier in the house he’s rented, a white Tulane student was stabbed to death in his kitchen by three black men with criminal records who’d knocked on the door and asked for money, then pushed their way in. When Hurricane Ivan bears down on New Orleans in September 2004, Sublette is in New York for a week: He books a last-minute plane ticket out of New Orleans for Constance, as others are trapped on packed highways and Mayor C. Ray Nagin announces that the Superdome is available as shelter. “We could evacuate because I was on top of the situation, and we had the means ,” he writes. “Suddenly, I was on the survival side of the rich/poor divide.”
“This book is about things New Orleanians maybe took for granted,” Sublette explains early on, “and non-New Orleanians mostly didn’t know about.” Which made me time-travel back to 2006, when, reporting in the wake of Katrina, I sat in the Xavier University office of clarinetist and professor Michael White. “I don’t think America ever truly understood New Orleans culture, because the mind-set is so different here,” he said, peering into the red notebook in which he’d jotted down the names and whereabouts of colleagues. “So that whole tradition was hidden from most of America.”
Certainly misperceived. Yes, the glorious and exotic culture of New Orleans provided potent metaphor in the wake of tragedy, still does. Largely missed was the fact that those musicians—that culture—was, and remains, the story to great extent; always has been when it comes to New Orleans. Sublette well grasps that in 2006, second-line parades marked the first and best assertions by black and poor New Orleanians of a right to return. But were they welcomed back? In his previous book, Sublette quoted Christian Shultz, a traveler who in 1808 noted Congo Square slave dances: “These amusements continue until sunset, when one or two of the city patrol show themselves with their cutlasses, and the crowds immediately disperse.” He relates an eerie 2004 parallel by describing the strained relationship, even before Katrina, between those who parade through and those who patrol the streets:
“I had just snapped a picture of Bayou Stepper Michael ‘Aldo’ Andrews, as his nephew James ‘Twelve’ Andrews and the New Birth Brass band tore into what was obviously their finale from the front doorstep of the Mother-In-Law. It was overtime, and the cops were not inclined to let the band finish their last few bars. The law must be obeyed to the letter in New Orleans, at least if you’re black. The cops turned a number, maybe seven, of their car sirens on full blast, right in the assembled crowd’s face, drowning out the band completely. … Cherry tops were spinning like it was a drug bust or a terrorist swat. You must disperse!”
“I was seeing a kind of civil rights demonstration,” Sublette writes of the Tamborine and Fan Club’s 2005 Super Sunday parade. He’s right—literally. In 2007, the Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs that sponsor weekly parades took to federal court to challenge the city’s hiking of police security fees, and won. The suit invoked the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression, claiming that permit schemes “effectively tax” such expression. “It’s a solid, core ACLU issue,” ACLU staff attorney Katie Schwartzmann told me. “We handle freedom-of-speech cases all the time. But this one is different in that the speech at issue signifies this city and an entire cultural tradition.”
“There’s a feeling among many that some of our older cultural institutions, like parades and jazz funerals, are in the way of the progress and don’t fit in the new vision of New Orleans,” Michael White had told me. “That they should only be used in a limited way to boost the image of New Orleans, as opposed to being real, viable aspects of our lives.”
There’s plenty of evidence to support that thought. Musicians were arrested last October during a funeral procession in Tremé, one of the oldest black neighborhoods in America and long an incubator for jazz tradition. At recent Mardi Gras Indian gatherings, the spectacle of black men looking fierce in eight-foot-tall suits of feathers and beads has lately been overtaken by the sirens and flashing lights of NOPD cruisers, enacting their own display of power and domain. “Parading in New Orleans is about taking control of the street,” Sublette wisely surmises.
Mardi Gras Indians emerge as perhaps the most transcendent heroes in Sublette’s story, and he follows the development of this tradition from 1885, when Becate Batiste, an African-American building tradesman in the Seventh Ward of partly Indian descent, took to the streets with his group, the Creole Wild West, a downtown posse of African-Americans dressed like Indians.
“Mardi Gras Indians are, in effect, a black mystic society,” Sublette explains. “It’s easy to imagine what Mardi Gras Indian performances might mean, but it means what its practitioners need it to mean, and it is as much mystery as it is clear meaning.” Yet he leaves no doubt that this expression is, as much as jazz, and as much as the white Mardi Gras, a direct response to a near-century of Jim Crow.
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