Postcard — December 3, 2015, 8:00 am

Congo Square

New Orleans reckons with its legacy of slavery 

Congo Square. Photograph by the author.

Congo Square. Photograph by the author.

On Thursdays, my sixth-grade science teacher moonlights as the doorman at the Maple Leaf Bar in Uptown New Orleans, a few blocks from the Mississippi River. Here, the man who once grilled me on the differences between altostratus and cumulonimbus clouds now stands guard over a sacred threshold: Thursday nights, at “elevenish,” Johnny Vidacovich and his trio hold court for two back-to-back sets.

Most weeks, a throng of locals and tourists cram into the dimly lit space; before the citywide smoking ban went into effect in April, whirring ceiling fans would churn up smolder from a half-dozen cigarettes. But on some occasions, it’s just me, my former science teacher, the barkeep, a few stragglers, and a sweaty, portly woman in her fifties, who prefers long skirts, thick socks, and clogs, and is prone to rambunctiously gyrating in front of the stage. On the nights when newcomers flood the bar, she draws visible signs of scorn from the crowd. I am convinced, though, that everyone secretly admires her: unabashed in her bodily devotion to the music, she allows us to feel we are glimpsing a slice of authentic New Orleans—ever-elusive in this city whose mythologized culture of mouthwatering gumbo and Mardi Gras abandon is peddled to tourists.

Johnny V, a drummer of local renown, is a fixture on the city’s music circuit. For his weekly set at the Maple Leaf, he plucks two or more musical greats from around town to accompany him. He slinks onstage behind them, and when the music starts in, he woozily works his way around the kit, his bald head dangling. Johnny V has influenced several of New Orleans’s greatest living drummers—Brian Blade and Stanton Moore, most famously—but what makes him special is his style: unbuttoned, versatile, and thick with local history. His syncopated rhythms are riddled with the tresillo and clave rhythmic cells—the former a “triplet,” the latter a five-stroke pattern—both staples of traditional local drumming. With his eyes clamped shut, he coaxes wild riffs out of his kit, clacking the drums, their metal stands, the cymbals, and even the floor underfoot. According to Johnny V, New Orleans beats fall “in the crack”—somewhere in the uncharted space between straight eighth notes and a shuffle—and come off a little “slushy.” His sound, more so than that of many others, conjures the city’s musical history.

The hybridized rhythms heard in a New Orleans second line or sprinkled in among Johnny V’s riffs were inherited from the city’s slaves, who had arrived centuries earlier from Cuba or Haiti or Africa. The ur-site of cultural exchange in New Orleans, where these various musical traditions first came into contact with one another, is Congo Square—arguably the birthplace of jazz itself. Tucked in a corner of what is now called Louis Armstrong Park, in the Tremé, the square began serving as a weekly gathering spot for slaves and free people alike in the early eighteenth century. For the next hundred years, slaves in the Louisiana territory—under both French and Spanish colonial rule—were allowed Sundays off. In 1817, fourteen years after the Louisiana Purchase, city officials curbed this freedom with a draconian ordinance mandating that all slaves, on their day of rest, remain confined to Congo Square.

1 In 1864, more than twenty thousand people reportedly congregated on its grounds to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation.

Eyewitness accounts from the early nineteenth century put upward of five hundred people at the site on Sunday afternoons.1 These afternoons meant—among other things—drum circles in the square. Drums made from kegs and carved logs of all sizes, stretched with sheepskin, were rolled out, along with hollowed-out calabashes, which were struck with sticks or filled with seeds and pebbles. At first, singing and chanting was done in native tongues, but over the years the words were hybridized. African and Afro-Caribbean dances, such as the Congo and the Calinda, were also staged. From the edges of the square wafted sweet aromas: molasses candies, pralines, and pecan pies were for sale, and many takers swilled down their treats with ginger beer (the hard stuff was forbidden on the Lord’s day).       

Today, the gatherings have been revived by a coterie of local-history aficionados, accompanied by the intermittent gaggle of students or tourists. As one of the leaders of the Congo Square Preservation Society, Denise Graves proudly told me that, since 1989, “Every Sunday at three o’clock we drum.” Djembe drums, shakers, cowbells, and other percussion instruments are distributed to the motley crowd, which usually numbers in the dozens, and participants, a sprinkling of whom wear dashikis, obediently huddle around a drum leader—typically Luther Gray, the head of the Preservation Society. Gray starts off by supplying a beat that forms a rhythmic backbone; players then trickle in, following along as best they can. The uninitiated nervously eye the other drummers, while the seasoned occasionally break off into brief, florid solos. The circle, to keep with tradition, often admits dancers into its center—some, performers schooled in West African dance; others, clumsy (or tipsy) visitors eager to experiment with an alien ritual.

2 Congo Square is believed to sit on sacred ground, atop an old portage between the Mississippi River and Bayou Choupic (now Bayou St. John), where Native Americans once celebrated corn feasts.

Around town, the square is spoken of in celebratory tones as hallowed soil where key elements of New Orleans culture still remain.2 For Freddi Evans, who has written the most extensive history of the square to date, it is, above all, a “place of freedom and a place of expression.”

The square’s treasured cultural legacy, though, conceals a darker strand in its history. This was, after all, the place where slaves were confined, under police guard, during their day off; pillories and whipping posts dotted its grounds in the early nineteenth century. Between 1893 and 2011, the site existed officially as Beauregard Square, in honor of the Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard. Photographs from the first half of the twentieth century show signs forbidding blacks from walking across the square, much less congregating in it.

For Evans, who helped spearhead the initiative that prompted the New Orleans city council to officially rename the space Congo Square in 2011, the change was a vital way of “honoring the legacy that enslaved Africans left and the contributions that they made to the cultural foundation of New Orleans.” The change also allowed the square to better function as a de facto memorial. Antebellum New Orleans was home to the largest slave market in America, where, between 1804 and 1862, more than 100,000 men, women, and children were sold as chattel—but, besides Congo Square, which is more cultural touchstone than explicit memorial, there are almost no monuments in the city that openly acknowledge the lives of slaves or abolitionists. (A statue in the 7th Ward does depict civil rights attorney A. P. Tureaud.) “This town,” local journalist Jason Berry wrote in an email, “is like many others in the South that never paid tribute properly.”

Over the summer, Berry penned a widely discussed letter to the editor of the Times-Picayune, recommending that the city’s Confederate monuments be relocated to a designated green space (a “Forest of the Ancients”), alongside newly commissioned sculptures of black historical figures. He was responding to the debate, which has roiled New Orleans since June, over dethroning the city’s most prominent monument: a sixteen-foot-tall bronze of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Mounted on a sixty-foot marble Doric column, the statue soars above Lee Circle, a traffic circle dividing Uptown from the Central Business District and the French Quarter. Lee faces northward, one foot planted in front of his body; his arms are crossed, either haughtily or proudly, depending on whom you ask.

Done in the tradition of other triumphal columns, such as Trajan’s Column in Rome, the monument of Lee in particular is freighted with a heady dose of grandeur. “This shaft,” proclaimed mayor William Behan at the statue’s 1884 unveiling, “has been erected as a tribute to the greatness and virtue of one of the purest and noblest men whose names are written in modern history.” Behan’s admiration for Lee is unsurprising; before becoming mayor, Behan served under the general in the Confederate Army.

The campaign to remove the statue was spurred by national debate about the Confederate flag, in the wake of church shootings in Charleston, South Carolina. In July, New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu called on the city council to start a legal process to take down four public monuments: the statue of Lee, a hulking equestrian statue of P.G.T Beauregard, a life-size statue of Jefferson Davis with his arm regally outstretched and palm turned upward, and a monument to the Battle of Liberty Place—an insurrection against the state’s reconstructionist government by a league of local white people.

In the past year, the statue has presided over both glittering Mardi Gras floats, and solemn gatherings mourning the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. This summer, protesters demanding the statue’s immediate removal burned the Confederate flag at an on-site demonstration; “Save our Circle” rallies followed, also in front of Lee—to the delight of local television crews.

Many locals feel that only through the removal of the statue can racial inequality begin to mend in more substantive ways. “It’s a statue that stands for white supremacy,” averred the prominent local activist Malcom Suber, who has been a visible presence at protests in recent months. “It was put there for the purposes of asserting white supremacy. It stands as a continued symbol of white rule in New Orleans.” According to Suber, many pained members of the community—himself included—don’t simply want the statue removed. They want it “torn down.” The city, he said, would do best to “dump it in the Mississippi River.”

But drowning Lee in the Mississippi can only do so much. Even though the Congo Square faithful, after the site’s renaming, could celebrate its cultural legacy without invoking the memory of a Confederate general, the wound of slavery remains. Beyond the drum circles and festivities, Graves told me, the square continues to function for some as a place of “personal healing,” where people of African descent can connect with their ancestry.

Two days before the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I visited Congo Square. The heat and humidity of New Orleans can make you aware of parts of your body you never knew you had, but the oak trees bordering the square offered cool pockets of refuge. That weekend, amid the citywide “celebration”—the revelry clashing, at times, with memories of the cataclysmic event—the square was abuzz: with community meetings, with volunteers passing out flimsy water cups, with bewildered bicycle tourists, with fervid chanting circles. Organizers and participants from all parts of town were preparing for a “Healing and Recovery” gathering—scheduled to run from noon to midnight on the anniversary, August 29—involving local dance, music, and food. In an echo of the Sunday gatherings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the event was shot through with history that didn’t have to be summoned but was already present.

I returned to the square after dark on the twenty-ninth. For weeks, the city had seemed sure of itself, flaunting its progress since the storm with whitewashed numbers and brazen speeches that lauded, for instance, the recent entrepreneurial “boom,” and made no mention of the fact that, for years after the storm, 52 percent of black males remained excluded from the labor force. But here, in Congo Square, there was a solemn pocket of uncertainty. The drum circles had disbanded, and the commotion of the day had died down, and no more than forty people, nearly all of them black, remained. What, today, could be the meaning of this reclaimed site, this memorial, for a city that is better at profiting from its legacy than at offering a future for its legatees? There was only this: a stage that emitted pulses of red light and ambient sound, and a crowd, quiet, hovering in atomized clusters under a full moon. For those who had stayed, it seemed unclear whether mourning or celebration was in order.

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