Before the Storm: Oral Histories of New Orleans

Before the Storm: Oral Histories of New Orleans

Mainstream perceptions of New Orleans are shaped by visions of Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street and Girls Gone Wild, as well the corporate media's stories of "armed thugs" and "looting." But there is another New Orleans: the historic African-American city and culture built on resistance to white supremacy.

New Orleans is the birthplace of the Citizen's Committee, which organized the direct action that led to the first legal challenge of "Separate but Equal" laws (Plessy v Ferguson), and the New Orleans Black Panthers, who successfully held off the New Orleans police attempt to “evict” them from the Desire Housing Projects in 1970. New Orleans organizers played a central role in Mississippi’s Freedom Summer, and rural Monroe, Louisiana was the home of the Deacons of Defense, an armed self-defense organization founded in the early days of the civil rights movement.

New Orleans is home to a culture unique in the US, a culture born out of this resistance. Mardi Gras Indians are a Black community tradition that pays tribute to the support Native Americans gave to African Americans in the time of slavery, such as being a stop on the Underground Railroad. Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs were founded, as a form of community insurance when white insurance companies wouldn't cover Black people.

Music art and culture, from Jazz to Blues to Bounce, were all formed partly from this cocktail of resistance. As Cornel West has said, "Louis Armstrong came out of that unbelievable cultural breakthrough unprecedented in the history of American civilization. The rural blues, the urban jazz. It is the tragicomic lyricism that gives you the courage to get through the darkest storm. Charlie Parker would. have killed somebody if he had not blown his horn. The history of black people in America is one of unbelievable resilience in the face of crushing white supremacist powers."

These are some stories from the people's New Orleans, collected by local high school students as part of the Neighborhood Story Project, a community documentary project. This is the New Orleans activists and organizers are fighting to save.

Help from the Strangest Places
By Ashley Nelson

I live in what can be considered a community: a bunch of people of all ages living together. Yet people don't call where I live a community; they call it the ghetto. The Lafitte projects. To be honest, for a long time it never felt like a community to me because it seemed like everyone fended for themselves. But I was wrong and I apologize. although it took me some time to realize it, now I see

When my mother passed away it was a hard time for my whole family, but I think I took it the hardest. I had what I call a "sometimes" relationship with my mom: sometimes we got along and sometimes we argued. Thinking back to the bad times, I am sorry I didn't walk away instead of fussing and trying to prove a point when she was right all along. My mom and I had an open relationship and I could tell her anything. We talked all the time about boys, sex, drugs – things parents don't usually talk to their kids about. When I look at a photograph of her now, I remember how close we were and it makes me miss her so much. Because I really do.

January 10, 2002. The day my mom passed. I still remember the day of the funeral. It was cold but I refused to wear a coat. The sky to me looked dark, which isn't strange to me at all because everything that day through my eyes looked dark. I cried endless tears that day and questioned God repeatedly, Why?! I'd scream on the inside, now I have no one. Do you know I have no one?

After the service my family went to my grandma's house to cry, I guess, because that's all I saw-people crying and holding each other. I sat in this blue chair my grandma had since as long as I could remember and put my head in my lap and finished off where I left off at the funeral home. I cried. I cried like a baby in desperate need of a bottle. I cried as if were a 14-year-old girl who'd just lost her mother and had no shoulders to lean on and I had that right because it was true.

I looked up after hearing noise and it was a bunch of people I've never associated with in my life bringing cold drinks and food, and consoling both my family and me. They offered help in any way they could. That day, that cold and distant day, I never got to thank those people and let them know how much what they did meant to me. I know it's been a long time but I haven't forgotten. As I've gotten older, I've seen how this kind of caring happens all over Lafitte. It no longer seems so strange at all.

Masking with the Golden Arrows Mardi Gras Indian Tribe
By Jana Dennis

I became a Mardi Gras Indian in the year of 2001 when I was thirteen years old. My sister Joya and I were little queens, my twin Joseph was the spyboy, my younger brother Eddie was the second spy, and last but not least was my mother, who was the first big queen.

Those positions that I named all have a responsibility when your tribe is out in the street. The first spy boy stops traffic so the Indians can pass. The second spy boy has the first spy boy's back so nothing will happen to him. The big queen protects the little queen. If a little queen can't handle being challenged in dancing, then big queen has to hurry jump in and take her place.

Masking seems easy, but its not. Being an Indian you have to have patience. In order to mask you have to have a perfect costume. You can't come out there half-stepping. Having part of your costume ready and half not is going to make you look silly and stupid. It takes a long time to sew an Indian costume-about a year. It takes at least a month to sew just a patch. A patch is a piece of canvas sewn with a lot of beads, sometimes sequins too. You have to take your time and string every last bead onto that piece of canvas. It takes hours to sew a broach. A broach is a smaller version of a patch. All it has is sequins and a few beads.

We mask on Mardi Gras. We start from LaSalle, and go across the street to Shakespeare Park to take pictures with friends, family, tours, and fans. It makes me feel special; I enjoy all the attention on me.

Indians challenge each other in dancing and the outcome of the Indian suits. When I meet another Indian, I forget about everything around me and just start dancing.

[Reprinted with permission from the February/March 2005 issue of Left Turn. For background on the Neighborhood Story Project and more stories, see].