The Quick & Dirty:
There is life beyond Bourbon Street. Check out:
- New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum
- Backstreet Cultural Museum
- St. Roch’s Cemetery
- St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
- A Second Line
The Long & Slow:
New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum:
Voodoo is not what I thought, and as I see it, the practice provided an opportunity for a woman of color to rise to power in New Orleans. Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau was a natural healer and astute business woman, gaining the respect of high society as a trusted nurse, tapping into and manipulating an extensive network of gossip to portray an all-knowing aura. She married a white man around 1826, 40 years before the end of slavery, and 100 years before the end of miscegenation laws. So bold!
St. Roch’s Cemetery:
I’m fascinated by how landscape influences culture. New Orleans is swampy and flood prone, so Orleanians are laid to rest six feet over, not six feet under. Tombs and vaults, including wall vaults that define the borders of the cemeteries, are the final resting place of the dead, and family members join them when the end is nigh.
Above ground tombs are typical in Latin countries, but in quintessential Orleanian fashion, the Germans, Polish, free people of color, Protestants, Arabs and Jews adopted the burial style, and uncharacteristically share a cemetery.
The most mysterious, and so the most fascinating, aspect of St. Roch’s cemetery is the Ex-Voto room. I’ve only ever seen something like this in Mexican Catholic churches. The Patron Saint of Good Health, people honor St. Roch by leaving plaster and brass feet, ceramic hearts, dentures, leg braces and crutches in the chapel, thanking him for healing them.
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
I took a tour with Save Our Cemeteries, and while it was interesting, it didn’t light a spark in me the way other parts of New Orleans had. Maybe you’re different–my mom would find it fascinating. Marie Laveau and Homer Plessy are laid to rest here, and Nicolas Cage has a triangular tomb waiting for him.
I happened upon the Backstreet Cultural Museum as I was walking from my place in the 7th Ward, through Treme, on the way to the Quarter. Stepping inside was like entering a gem mine in Fraggle Rock, bursts of colors and feathers everywhere.
The beadwork is awe-inspiring. It takes three men a whole year to make a costume, sewing bead by bead by bead. Much respect. The weight of the costume, between 100-150 pounds?! Impressive. It is a masculinity I can rock with.
The history of the Mardi Gras Indians is serious business. The tradition emanates out of reverence for the Native Americans who helped Black people escape slavery. Emboldened by donning his exquisite creation, the men, nearly unrecognizable, enter the streets to confront other tribes on the third Sunday of March.
A hierarchy of participants, from Spy Boy, to Flag Boy, to Wild Man (wearing real bull horns), on up to Big Chief, demonstrates the confrontational origins of the Mardi Gras Indians when they encounter another tribe. The communication network between these three ranks is vital to “surviving,” today represented through ceremonial dances, competitive boasting, and general peacocking.
As for the women, the baby doll tradition is also laden with meaning. Started by Black sex workers, “proud defiant women in a male dominated world,” they dressed in short silky outfits and paraded in public…in 1912, before women could vote and during the Jim Crow era! Thwarting gender roles, modesty, taboos, segregation, and redirecting that energy toward celebration as a form of resistance–revolutionaries!
I thought Mardi Gras was all flashing, boozing, and plastic beads on Bourbon Street. I’m thrilled that it runs deeper, and emerged from defiant and dauntless roots.
It’s like a block party had a baby with a dandy, and this is its baby shower.
Second-lining is an opportunity to participate in a parade to honor yourself, your life, and your community. Rather than just watch the parade go by, as you stand behind barricades, second-liners trot out in color coordinated finery, poking parasols toward the sky, and dancing in the August heat to notes from a brass band. Every Sunday from August until June, the wards are lit up with celebration, for no specific reason at all, or maybe for all the reasons.
Organized by Social And Pleasure Clubs, the routes are mapped out, and information is disseminated in a semi-secretive fashion. As an outsider, I only received an “invite” because I visited the Backstreet Cultural Museum the day before the next Second Line.
The afternoon of, I heard the Second Line before I saw it. When I eventually caught up, the crowd was moving through the 7th Ward like molecules of water, binding together, swiftly flooding the block. As the second-liners turned the corner, they left in their wake a ringing silence, the distant pulse of a tuba, the heartbeat of New Orleans, the only evidence of their jubilance.