Precious & Endangered
Today, The Bitter Southerner Brings You One Native’s Meditation on the New Orleans That Might Be, the New Orleans That Was, and the New Orleans That Should Be
A NOTE FROM THE EDITOR:
Last week at the Southern Foodways Alliance’s annual fall symposium in Oxford, Miss., The Bitter Southerner was honored to accept one of two John Egerton Prizes. The Egerton Prize goes to, in the SFA’s words, “artists, writers, scholars, and others – including artisans and farmers and cooks – whose work, in the American South, addresses issues of race, class, gender, and social and environmental justice, through the lens of food.” We felt particularly honored to be among the first recipients of the prize in the year after the passing of its namesake, John Egerton, the Nashville journalist who relentlessly chronicled the most difficult years of the American Civil Rights Movement and who recognized, perhaps before anyone else, that talking about our food and our culture brings us together, in spite of the forces that would push us apart.
Last November, I drove up to Nashville for Egerton’s memorial service, and that’s when I first met the writer of today’s story, Lolis Eric Elie. A friend asked if I would give Lolis a ride back to Atlanta, where he had a plane to catch the next morning. It was probably the best four-hour ride with a stranger I’ve ever had.
If you love the South, you must, by definition, love New Orleans. But I’d never had the chance to spend four hours in conversation with someone who knows the place as well as Elie does.
A resident of Fauborg Treme with deep roots in New Orleans, there are few writers who know the city, its culture, its art and its food as well as Elie. Hell, he was even Wynton Marsalis’ road manager for a while. Elie spent several years as a columnist for the Times-Picayune, writing dozens of incisive pieces about how the city came together to rebuild itself in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. When HBO’s David Simon came to New Orleans to make his masterful series “Treme,” he soon tapped Elie as the show’s story editor, and he eventually wrote three episodes of the show himself.
The way to learn about any city is through the eyes of an insightful native. So welcome to New Orleans, 2014, through the eyes of two such men — Lolis Eric Elie and the remarkable painter Willie Birch.
“There's something surreal about this city.” — Willie Birch
The Revolution Got Soul, Soul, Soul, 2004
The Current Chatter
The Faith Healers are caucusing with the Second Story Men at Ruth’s Chris, but the meat isn't nearly rare enough. I like mine just before it's raw, belches one, wiping away pink butter with the back of a hairy hand. Some prefer the crunchy little fingers. Others like the tasty petit toes. All agree that the preparation of kids—yearlings, they must be yearlings! — is a delicate art involving slightings of many hands.
And to what does the city owe this honor?
Las Vegas has already moved Venice and Paris to a more convenient location.
We’re late, says one. We’re terribly late. We must catch up, agrees another. And Atlanta, says yet another, rolling his eyes heavenward and inhaling an ocean of air with his snout as if that word Atlanta was an opiate capable of dreaming dreams.
There at the bottom of the white Zinfandel bottle, a plumply quiet one has discovered his philosophy. He rises from his haunches and bangs the table so loudly that it nearly dislodges the cocktail de shrimp from the councilwoman's clutches. Red sauces and horseradishes flying.
Atlanta was lucky. Atlanta had Sherman! None of this oldie moldy stuff underfoot. They got history and site preparation all at once. And you don't need no accent to pronounce Sherman.
Yeses and that's rights and all-around findings of general consensus.
But to be cursed with an old city? You can nail the shutters open in the Suburban Ornamental style. You can brick over shotgun weatherboards. You can lower ceilings and carpet floors. You can tame bright colors Puritan plain. But old grows like bad grass.
It's a dormant thing, but it creeps.
Back Yard Villere Street, 2007
Now I don't have anything against old, another utters from behind the open umbrella of her drink glass, as long as it’s up to date. Then with feeling: This week was next week last week. Today will be the past tomorrow. If we had started construction last month, we'd have history by now.
Why should history be a thing of the past, anyway? Ain't we historical?
His honor the mayor, drunk on dreams, mounts the bar, hand in vest Napoleon-style. Oh, my friends, to build a new New Orleans on the foundation of the old. A place that people will want to come to, with ample off-street parking and a special entrance for VIPs. And plenty of lights. Double at night. Where every Tuesday is Fat.
And jobs, says the councilwoman.
Dancers tapping, sidewalk sets on the half hour. Bright spit-shine glare. Singers singing traditional ditties like “Red in de rind!” and “I Done Got a Raise, to the Minimal Wage.” Sacred secret Voodoo masses (reservation suggested; snake handling, $10 extra). Traditional food like frog-foot gumbo and alligator-egg omelets. Happy Meals for the kids.
The little historical sites sprinkled everywhere? says a pinstriped second story professional, people would do things thinking nothing of the first three things anybody thinks of: Location. But if the 1800 block could be moved to the 4700 block, and the river could be moved to the lake, curiosity could hump satisfaction.
. . . and we could move St. Louis Cathedral to the Religious District. Video poker in the cafeteria at City Hall.
Meanwhile, a double-breasted suit puts an arm around a black waitress uniform. More Crown, less 7. Then to everyone: Positive. I like this. Very positive.
Progressive, says another.
Outside the box!
Out the box, whispers the waitress.
We have to think big. Bold, says a councilwoman. We have to have the courage not to stand in the way of progress.
Do it for the people, says the second story man.
And what should one call a place such as this? Razed on the ruins of itself?
It's just an idea, the suit says. But we have to think marketing. We need a name that's easy to pronounce, easy to remember, easy to spell.
Sodom, whispers the waitress. What about Sodom?
What about Bourbon Street? The whole city. Bourbon Street, Louisiana!
The hours tick faster.
We must end with a prayer, says the councilwoman, anxious to seem earnest before the check comes due.
But there's no need. It's being paid.
Domino Players, 2008; After the Storm, 2007; The Shooting, 2007
The History Lesson
Cityful passing away, other cityful coming, passing away too: other coming on, passing on. Houses, lines of houses, streets, miles of pavements, piled-up bricks, stones. … Piled up in cities, worn away age after age. Pyramids in sand. Built on bread and onions. Slaves Chinese wall. Babylon. Big stones left. Round towers. Rest rubble, sprawling suburbs, jerry built . . .
— “Ulysses,” James Joyce
Progress seems destined to do its Big Bang on the face of New Orleans. The autopsyists are soon to follow. What will they find? Virginia General Lee will certainly be atop his circle and Tennessee General Jackson astride his square. The avenue of William Charles Cole Claiborne (né Virginia, 1775) will be their connection between the American and Creole quarters. And the Chamber of Commerce will be their connection to the pale surface of things. But who will tell them of the native-born and the true facts buried in the out-of-the-way places?
Satchmo With Trumpet will be posed not more than a couple of miles from the courthouse knowingly built on the demolished site of his boyhood home. But to see what’s left of Mahalia, they’ll have to go to the suburban cemetery where she remains.
Perhaps they will hear of the dance in Place des Negres, but will they be told of the severed heads des Negres that dripped blood there? This place, the whole city and its environs, was inhabited by a most unruly shade of Negro. Revolting.
Gov. Esteban Miro tried to do something about it way back in 1786. Bando de buen gobierno. Our first uneasy experiment with good government. “The governor prohibited slaves from renting apartments or houses, buying ‘spirituous liquors,’ or dancing in public squares on days of religious obligation. In spite of the new regulations, long-standing practices persisted.”1 The Ibo. The Mina. The Bamana.
You could cut off their arms, and send them to do outside work. Neither killed the desire for freedom. Honestly, what else could you do but cut off their heads?
The Big Nine, 2007
Some of the white folks weren't much better. In theaters, they played “La Marseillaise,” the national anthem of the French revolution. In the streets, they sang, “Hang the aristocrats on the lampposts.” After the new French government proclaimed that all “Men are born and remain free and equal,” white radicals had the bright idea of spreading the revolution. “The ideology of the Rights of Man reverberated throughout lower Louisiana.”2 Imagine reading the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man to a bunch of damn slaves. Can it be any surprise that in 1795 they did? Point Coupee Parish. Plantation of Julian Poydras. According to the record of their trial, slaves, free people of color, Tunica Indians, German and French radicals planned the revolt.3 (Rainbow Coalition, né la Nouvelle Orleans, 1795.)
Charles Deslonde thought he could do it better in 1811. Five-hundred slaves and their allies, marching on New Orleans. “Give us liberty or ….” (They got "or.") Bras Coupé and San Malo knew better. They kept their colonies in the swamps and out by Chef Menteur. Villa Gaillarde. German Coast. Land of the Free.4
The Leader (Michael White), 2004
Fast forward 50 years.
“We inaugurate a new era in the South. We proclaim the Declaration of Independence as the basis of our platform,” Paul Trevigne wrote in L'Union, the newspaper founded during that war. “You who aspire to establish true republicanism, democracy without shackles, gather around us.”5
Lincoln was then presiding over the big war for “freedom,” so the Creoles sent E. Arnold Bertonneau and Jean Baptiste Roudanez to acquaint him with the vagaries of the subject. The class took place at the White House on March 12, 1864.
Bertonneau and Roudenez wanted everybody to be able to vote. “The right to vote shall not depend upon the color of the citizen, that the colored citizens shall have and enjoy every civil, political and religions right that white citizens enjoy; in a word, that every man shall stand equal before the law.”6
Such a democracy was unknown even in most Northern states. The nation's aspirations turned out to be a bit more humble. Richard Pryor got it right. No more singing of freedom and picking of cotton. “We free now; just pick the cotton!”
Fast forward 30 years. Once more and again.
State Sen. Murphy Foster is mad at the black legislators. (Black legislators?) His Separate Car Act of 1890 decrees segregation in Louisiana transportation. The nation preferred to keep its Negroes separate from its freedoms.
The Citizens Committee planned for New Orleans native Homer Plessy not to give up his seat in the white section of the train. His case slammed the door on democracy. But if New Orleans brought the nation separate but equal, we also brought it the eloquent Americanism of Justice Harlan's dissent in the case.
“We boast of the freedom enjoyed by our people above all other peoples. But it is difficult to reconcile that boast with a state of law which, practically, puts the brand of servitude and degradation upon a large class of our fellow citizens, our equals before the law. The thin disguise of 'equal' accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead anyone, nor atone for the wrong this day done.”
Pierre Dalcour knew all about frustration with thin disguises. He wrote about them in his concluding submission to Les Cennelles, the 1845 anthology of poetry by Creole New Orleanians.
My life of twenty years seems empty, dull,
Already the flowers of my spring have faded;
Already skepticism has withered my heart,
Already, I have lost my faith in happiness.
But if Dalcour and his generation knew frustration, they knew achievement as well. “The Creole of Color in the Arts and the Liberal Arts Professions" was the title of a chapter in Rodolphe Desdunes’ 1911 paean to Creole achievement, “Our People and Our History: Fifty Creole Portraits.” The sculptor, Eugene Warbourg: “The old cemeteries of New Orleans are filled with masterpieces from Warbourg's hands.”7 Ditto for the violinist and composer, Edmond DéDé: "A violin prodigy, he first studied in New Orleans under the tutorship of skillful and conscientious teachers. . . . His progress and his triumphs quickly attracted the attention of the musical world, and he was given all the consideration awarded to true merit.”8 For Desdunes, writing in the decade after the Plessy decision, it seemed that black New Orleans had already had its High Renaissance.
“There is no State in the Union, hardly any spot of like size on the globe, where the man of color has lived so intensely, made so much progress, been of such historical importance and yet about whom so comparatively little is known. His history is like the Mardi Gras of the city of New Orleans, beautiful and mysterious and wonderful, but with a serious thought underlying it all. May it be better known to the world some day.”
— Alice Dunbar Nelson. (Desdunes, p. xiii.)
Remembering the Black Veterans of World War II, 2005
The Interpreter’s Version
Enter Willie Birch.
Into this bitch’s brew of segregation and achievement, high art and low appreciation.
People outside the city say we're arrogant, he says. Willie has attracted that adjective to himself even in this city. But when he says that, he’s trying to get to something else.
Trying to figure out what it is about this place and these people that can be seen even when we’re out of context. What it is about that attitude that people see in his work.
Maybe it’s an extension of this history. These facts are not well known, even in New Orleans. But there's a conviction you can have, in the absence of concrete knowledge that this place is special, different and largely unknown to a world that could profit handsomely from a deeper initiation into its mysteries.
And what is Willie’s version of this place?
The Magnolia public housing projects where he lived back in the day when a move to the projects could be a step up to something better, not a descent into an abyss.
Across the street was the Dew Drop Inn. Sam Cooke. B.B. King. Earl King. Big Maybelle. Willie was too young to get in, but he's always talking about music. The Music. He wants to hear something different. Having heard all these folks plus Miles, Monk, Duke and Coltrane, he wants to hear something different.
He wants to do something different. He wants his work to be a new seeing.
Jazz #1, 1978; Jazz #5, 1978
Maxine Holtry Daniels. Miss Daniels. The art teacher he credits with starting this all. “In terms of me being an artist, that was set from the eighth grade,” he told Jeanette Ingberman in an interview.9
“I had a teacher named Ms. Daniels who put a group of us in the art school. She created the art school. I don't know if she could have done that in a situation like New York, but in New Orleans we had that strong sense of community, and that made the difference. As far as segregation goes, that's a whole other issue. It's like living in two worlds.”
Looking back on it, the story is a marriage of the real and the ideal. A black woman teaching black children art when even the white artists were having difficulty eating on a daily basis.
That marriage of ideal and real that governs his vision.
Willie Birch, point-and-shoot in hand, snapping away.
“You're beautiful! No, just like that. Don't do nothing different. You're beautiful. You don't know how beautiful you are.”
These are not cover people. Some are fat. Some keep it real; flash gold fronts. Some would have dressed differently if Willie had given them warning. In them and in their attitudes, Willie sees this city as he knows it. He sees the same arrogance that he’s heard commented on so often up in that great temple of humility, New York.
“Creativity is to help people understand themselves,” he says. And the idealized self he sees in these people has nothing to do with the life he would have them live if he could do such a thing. It has to do with the ideal of themselves that they represent in the particular moment that he has put on paper. That one smile or subtle sweep of the arms that is them when they are real.
Street Musician with Guitar, 1999; Hair Cut, 1992
What is important about Willie Birch’s work for New Orleans is that it is a capturing of a spirit that is precious and endangered. At times this city seems determined to plunge headlong into conformity, into the national culture of shopping malls, radio conglomerates, sports franchises and reality television. That we have remained as distinct as we have is remarkable given the pressure to be like every one else. In each of the moments that captures Willie’s attention is to be found a kernel of this difference.
There are the obvious allusions. The street parades. The second lines. The singers. The Carnival reveler in Zulu costume. But Willie sees those other things that are less obvious though no less emblematic. The private moment of mourning at a memorial service. The bare-chested barber cutting hair on the front porch. The whiteness of an old above-ground tomb.
For those of us who live here, these are familiar scenes. Indeed, among Willie's portraits are to be found many familiar faces. But these works are destined to achieve a historical importance.
To understand this, look at what is being lost on a daily basis.
The music programs in the schools are funded at the most minimal of levels. Who knows how many young musicians can be developed in the absence of such training?
Even at the mayor's official function on Carnival Day, music by New Orleans artists is an afterthought. The generic deejay hired to spin generic tunes has a predilection for Kool and the Gang and other fare easily found on cruise ships and in elevators. The old buildings where the musicians worked and lived, the old buildings crafted by the Creole artisans, the old buildings that give this city a distinct look are seen as impediments to job creation or contributors to crime. So they are torn down to make room for cheap hotels with high room rates and low aesthetic content.
The French Quarter, the heart of the old city, seems ever in search of a lower common denominator. A more vulgar T-shirt, a louder rock band, a larger container for $1 beers.
Willie Birch's art is a defiant "no" to those values.
The sensuality and sentiments here speak New Orleans with an eloquence that is insightful, local and universal.
Willie, you're beautiful.
Just like that.
You don't know how beautiful you are.
Dancing to the Sounds of Trombone Shorty, 2004
Header portraits: Dapper Young Man, 1999; Way Down Yonder in New Orleans (Woman in N.O. Tee), 1999; Woman Sitting in Big Al's Gallery, 1999; Mother and Daughter, 2002; Woman in Purple Sweatsuit, 1998. All artwork used with permission from the artist with credit to the Arthur Roger Gallery.
Footnotes: 1. “Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana, 1718-1868.” Caryn Cossé Bell. LSU Press. 1997. Page 19. 2. “Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, LSU Press. 1992. Page 349. 3. Hall, Page 349. 4. Hall, Page 217. 5. “Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization.” Arnold R. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon. LSU Press. Page 222. 6. Hirsch and Logsdon, Page 227. 7. “Our People and Our History: Fifty Creole Portraits.” Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes. LSU Press. 1911. Page 69. 8. Desdunes, Page 85. 9. "A Conversation With Willie Birch," from the catalog "Willie Birch: A Personal View of Urban America." Exit Art. 1992.