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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Thinking about New Orleans






New Orleans:  A Crossroad of Axes



Never shy about proclaiming itself the birthplace of jazz or America’s classical music, New Orleans does not talk about itself as a point of origin for American literary traditions or movements.  The reason is not far to seek.  What is original in the literature of the Crescent City is French, West African, Creole (Spanish and French), Bambara and Mande, Cajun; it is rooted in Paris, Haiti, Martinique and St. Domingue, Senegambia; its debt to London and the King James Bible and the invention of American English is minimal.  The Louisiana Purchase was payment for property not for culture. From 1804 to the present, the constipation of America’s puritan ethos has been alien to the matrix of artisanship, musical genius, performance, and wordsmithery of New Orleans.  As Marcus B. Christian wrote in his famous poem “I Am New Orleans,” culture is a blending and reinventing “Of Creoles, Americans, Frenchmen, Spaniards,/ Jews/Africans, mix bloods, Germans, Irishmen,/ and Indians” into “one common bond of defense.”  The city as “un entrepôt” defied the laws of thermodynamics and achieved perpetual cultural motion at very great cost, because it has never been free of racism, colorism, discrimination, classism, economic oppression, and sexism, the veneer of the carnivalesque notwithstanding.  New Orleans is New Orleans is New Orleans: an oscillating metropolis of entreposage.

Tom Dent, a native son of the city, put what is at issue clearly in “Report From New Orleans,” the prose coda in Magnolia Street (1976), his first collection of poems: “New Orleans is a weird town, wavering in the breeze of history.  An old place, one of the few towns in this country where one can look at the layers of two or three centuries in one glance.  Then there is the poised wrecking ball of ‘progress’.”



Perhaps the spirits provoked by the winds and waters of the Storm (2005), angered by the bloodless face of “progress now,” command us to make a fresh inspection of cultural layers in this laid-back and care-forgetting place.  Perhaps the x,y, and z coordinates of place demand a new articulation.



What have  L’Album Littéraire, Journal des Jeunes Gens, Amateurs de la Littéraire (1843) and Les Cenelles (1845),  Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson’s The Goodness of St. Rocque (1899) and Brenda Marie Osbey’s  Ceremony for Minneconjoux (1983)  to do with Gumbo Ya-Ya (1945), the French Quarter-inspired work of Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams, Bob Kaufman’s The Ancient Rain; Poems 1956-1978, Tom Dent’s classic play Ritual Murder  , John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (1987), or Kalamu ya Salaam’s What Is Life?: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self (1994)?   Does New Orleans ever take off the mask that grins and hides to coax dollars from tourists long enough to assess its own cultural wealth?

Truth be told, the necessary answers will only surface through dedicated, cross-generational  conversations and even more dedicated cross-class scholarship and public documentation among citizens of New Orleans and the artists, performers, writers, and  musicians who devote their considerable talents to preserving and recreating a unique, multi-faceted culture in a city whose essence is not exactly American.  The answers may produce joy, anger, disbelief, or despair.  They are beyond prediction.  What is most important is that we collaborate in producing cultural knowledge that may be critical and crucial for a future. For in the words of P. A. Desdunes:

Nul n’estime le people ingrate qui dans l’oubli

Profond laisse dormer ceux qui l’ont ennoble.

The remembering, of course, will be rendered in perfect New Orleans English.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.











New Orleans:  A Crossroad of Axes



Never shy about proclaiming itself the birthplace of jazz or America’s classical music, New Orleans does not talk about itself as a point of origin for American literary traditions or movements.  The reason is not far to seek.  What is original in the literature of the Crescent City is French, West African, Creole (Spanish and French), Bambara and Mande, Cajun; it is rooted in Paris, Haiti, Martinique and St. Domingue, Senegambia; its debt to London and the King James Bible and the invention of American English is minimal.  The Louisiana Purchase was payment for property not for culture. From 1804 to the present, the constipation of America’s puritan ethos has been alien to the matrix of artisanship, musical genius, performance, and wordsmithery of New Orleans.  As Marcus B. Christian wrote in his famous poem “I Am New Orleans,” culture is a blending and reinventing “Of Creoles, Americans, Frenchmen, Spaniards,/ Jews/Africans, mix bloods, Germans, Irishmen,/ and Indians” into “one common bond of defense.”  The city as “un entrepôt” defied the laws of thermodynamics and achieved perpetual cultural motion at very great cost, because it has never been free of racism, colorism, discrimination, classism, economic oppression, and sexism, the veneer of the carnivalesque notwithstanding.  New Orleans is New Orleans is New Orleans: an oscillating metropolis of entreposage.

Tom Dent, a native son of the city, put what is at issue clearly in “Report From New Orleans,” the prose coda in Magnolia Street (1976), his first collection of poems: “New Orleans is a weird town, wavering in the breeze of history.  An old place, one of the few towns in this country where one can look at the layers of two or three centuries in one glance.  Then there is the poised wrecking ball of ‘progress’.”



Perhaps the spirits provoked by the winds and waters of the Storm (2005), angered by the bloodless face of “progress now,” command us to make a fresh inspection of cultural layers in this laid-back and care-forgetting place.  Perhaps the x,y, and z coordinates of place demand a new articulation.



What have  L’Album Littéraire, Journal des Jeunes Gens, Amateurs de la Littéraire (1843) and Les Cenelles (1845),  Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson’s The Goodness of St. Rocque (1899) and Brenda Marie Osbey’s  Ceremony for Minneconjoux (1983)  to do with Gumbo Ya-Ya (1945), the French Quarter-inspired work of Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams, Bob Kaufman’s The Ancient Rain; Poems 1956-1978, Tom Dent’s classic play Ritual Murder  , John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (1987), or Kalamu ya Salaam’s What Is Life?: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self (1994)?   Does New Orleans ever take off the mask that grins and hides to coax dollars from tourists long enough to assess its own cultural wealth?

Truth be told, the necessary answers will only surface through dedicated, cross-generational  conversations and even more dedicated cross-class scholarship and public documentation among citizens of New Orleans and the artists, performers, writers, and  musicians who devote their considerable talents to preserving and recreating a unique, multi-faceted culture in a city whose essence is not exactly American.  The answers may produce joy, anger, disbelief, or despair.  They are beyond prediction.  What is most important is that we collaborate in producing cultural knowledge that may be critical and crucial for a future. For in the words of P. A. Desdunes:

Nul n’estime le people ingrate qui dans l’oubli

Profond laisse dormer ceux qui l’ont ennoble.

The remembering, of course, will be rendered in perfect New Orleans English.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.











New Orleans:  A Crossroad of Axes



Never shy about proclaiming itself the birthplace of jazz or America’s classical music, New Orleans does not talk about itself as a point of origin for American literary traditions or movements.  The reason is not far to seek.  What is original in the literature of the Crescent City is French, West African, Creole (Spanish and French), Bambara and Mande, Cajun; it is rooted in Paris, Haiti, Martinique and St. Domingue, Senegambia; its debt to London and the King James Bible and the invention of American English is minimal.  The Louisiana Purchase was payment for property not for culture. From 1804 to the present, the constipation of America’s puritan ethos has been alien to the matrix of artisanship, musical genius, performance, and wordsmithery of New Orleans.  As Marcus B. Christian wrote in his famous poem “I Am New Orleans,” culture is a blending and reinventing “Of Creoles, Americans, Frenchmen, Spaniards,/ Jews/Africans, mix bloods, Germans, Irishmen,/ and Indians” into “one common bond of defense.”  The city as “un entrepôt” defied the laws of thermodynamics and achieved perpetual cultural motion at very great cost, because it has never been free of racism, colorism, discrimination, classism, economic oppression, and sexism, the veneer of the carnivalesque notwithstanding.  New Orleans is New Orleans is New Orleans: an oscillating metropolis of entreposage.

Tom Dent, a native son of the city, put what is at issue clearly in “Report From New Orleans,” the prose coda in Magnolia Street (1976), his first collection of poems: “New Orleans is a weird town, wavering in the breeze of history.  An old place, one of the few towns in this country where one can look at the layers of two or three centuries in one glance.  Then there is the poised wrecking ball of ‘progress’.”



Perhaps the spirits provoked by the winds and waters of the Storm (2005), angered by the bloodless face of “progress now,” command us to make a fresh inspection of cultural layers in this laid-back and care-forgetting place.  Perhaps the x,y, and z coordinates of place demand a new articulation.



What have  L’Album Littéraire, Journal des Jeunes Gens, Amateurs de la Littéraire (1843) and Les Cenelles (1845),  Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson’s The Goodness of St. Rocque (1899) and Brenda Marie Osbey’s  Ceremony for Minneconjoux (1983)  to do with Gumbo Ya-Ya (1945), the French Quarter-inspired work of Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams, Bob Kaufman’s The Ancient Rain; Poems 1956-1978, Tom Dent’s classic play Ritual Murder  , John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (1987), or Kalamu ya Salaam’s What Is Life?: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self (1994)?   Does New Orleans ever take off the mask that grins and hides to coax dollars from tourists long enough to assess its own cultural wealth?

Truth be told, the necessary answers will only surface through dedicated, cross-generational  conversations and even more dedicated cross-class scholarship and public documentation among citizens of New Orleans and the artists, performers, writers, and  musicians who devote their considerable talents to preserving and recreating a unique, multi-faceted culture in a city whose essence is not exactly American.  The answers may produce joy, anger, disbelief, or despair.  They are beyond prediction.  What is most important is that we collaborate in producing cultural knowledge that may be critical and crucial for a future. For in the words of P. A. Desdunes:

Nul n’estime le people ingrate qui dans l’oubli

Profond laisse dormer ceux qui l’ont ennoble.

The remembering, of course, will be rendered in perfect New Orleans English.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.






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