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.

Share
Single Page

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2018

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Printed Word in Peril·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Article
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Article
Nothing but Gifts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Article
Checkpoint Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Chance that a woman in one of the U.S. military’s three service academies claims to have been sexually harassed:

1 in 2

Stimulating people’s brains with an electric current while they sleep can improve their powers of memory.

Paul Manafort accepts a plea deal; Brett Kavanaugh accused of sexual assault; Jeff Bezos gets into the kindergarten racket.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today