Droplets of jazz break upon the ear, infiltrated by chatter about pirates, ghosts and vampires. The trees hang heavy with shimmering Mardi Gras beads or ‘throws’. These fauvist weeping willows charm and enchant tourists. Where am I? New Orleans, Louisiana, USA.
Voodoo, Creole & White Thinking
A rich blend of influences from abroad played a hand in constructing the vivid cultural collage that is this city, frequently abbreviated to NOLA (‘New Orleans, Louisiana’). Her laid-back lifestyle has earned her the pet name ‘Big Easy’, a Southern rejoinder to the perpetually restless ‘Big Apple’.
The city’s mergence between cultures is most readily and visually demonstrated in New Orleans Voodoo or ‘Voodoo-Catholicism’. First brought to New Orleans by enslaved West Africans during the 16th Century, Voodoo’s popularity grew following the Haitian slave revolt of 1791, as more followers moved to Louisiana. From their first arrival in New Orleans, Voodoo practitioners merged their faith with the Catholicism of the local population. However, New Orleans Voodoo differs from the Voodoo of 15th Century West Africa. At face value, a blending of the two faiths would seem incongruous at best, but their similarities made for harmonious coexistence. The famous New Orleanian Voodoo Queen or Priestess, Marie Laveau, (1801-1881) attended mass. Both religions are monotheistic and the voodoo spirits are akin to Catholic saints. Not only did the practitioners share a comparable ethos, but they also interacted with each other enough to know this to be the case.
Waves of migration and intermingling of peoples have made words like ‘Creole’ hotly debated in New Orleans. So much so that the term currently ‘holds no official definition’, though it has included many over time. One being:
‘anything from an ethnic group consisting of individuals with European and African, Caribbean or Hispanic descent to individuals born in New Orleans with French or Spanish ancestry.’
As recently as 1990, there was a misconception that ‘Creole’ had only ever referred to a white person. Linguists trace this misunderstanding back to the white New Orleanians who objected to black people identifying with the term following the American Civil War.
As a result, black Americans became forcibly divorced from the notion of ‘Creole’ in an attempt to uphold white preeminence beyond the introduction of black voting rights.
A further misrepresentation stemming from racist thinking is the ongoing depiction of Voodoo as primitive and obsessed with raising the dead. Drawing parallels between Catholicism and Voodoo has ‘synchronized’ the two faiths. So much so, that it is now common to see Catholic Saints in Voodoo spaces of worship. Yet the reverse does not hold. Integration, it seems, has not been a mutual process. Black people have simply adapted to the ‘white way’ of life. Similarly, the white objection to black Americans identifying as ‘Creole’ is arguably another hallmark of white attempts to repel black influence. Bizarre … really, to think that whiteness — or any ethnicity, for that matter — continues to hold sway in the US, a country that has been multiracial for centuries.
Black, Gifted, & Unequal
Intentionally excluding black influences from the term ‘Creole’ is just one example of rewriting history in a way that erodes and erases the experience of black Americans.
Music teacher and jazz performer Brian informs me that: ‘some people are trying to rewrite history. They bulldozed down the two childhood homes of Louis Armstrong, the most recognisable name in the whole of jazz history. They didn’t even save any artefacts for a museum.’
Louis Armstrong’s legacy generates significant profits. At the time of planning, it was estimated that the airport named after him, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, would: ‘create annual new revenue of $19.24 million for the State of Louisiana and $29.44 million of local governments in the New Orleans area.’
In 2019, The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation reported generating a revenue of $50,535,109. Despite this, Armstrong’s achievements are under-commemorated in his own backyard. In Brian’s view, this is an example of how: ‘other races will take the benefits from that person, group or nation but reject the people themselves’. He adds that it’s like saying: ‘”we love the food, music, dance of a place and want the ‘things’ that we get out of you, but you aren’t worth anything.’” This points to systemic white exploitation of black intellectual property. But it isn’t the only problematic feature of the jazz scene at the heart of New Orleans.
The uncomfortable reasons for the very development of NOLA’s black jazz are not fully acknowledged. In the segregated Southern States, working as a musician was one of the few ways black people could make a living.
To this day, jazz musicianship remains a key means of employment for the black community but is still associated with a precarious living. Posters and placards bearing the message ‘Please Pay Musicians’ are not absent from NOLA. Historically, black musicians were poor because they were legally second-class citizens. Nowadays, jazz musicianship is seen as a luxury, a freely-made career choice that just doesn’t pay well — rather than a skill inherited from the sheer will to survive. More accurately, the notion of free choice has been distorted through a legacy of oppression. Brian echoes this by noting an accompanying ‘denial of any racism in jazz’. The undervaluing of the black performer has not ended, it’s simply mutated to fit a modern context. Failure to recognise the racial power struggle inextricable from black jazz has enabled that struggle to continue.
Bias, Bigotry & Floyd
By evading the history of discrimination in America, its legacy has permeated other facets of society and infrastructure. For example, the biases of a pro-slavery doctor, Samuel Cartwright, perpetuated many myths about black anatomy, including the belief: ‘that black people have a smaller lung capacity than white people.’
The idea that black people had a smaller lung capacity than their white counterparts was the prevailing assumption of doctors for over a century. This falsehood compromised the accurate detection of asthma and other respiratory complications in black patients. Just as the problematic roots of jazz have been buried deeper with time, discrimination, when unchallenged, alloys with the nuts and bolts of social structures and becomes the default setting.
The normalised marginalisation of black Americans is something that musician Craig Adams Junior knows only too well. Craig has suffered many examples of racism throughout his lifetime. ‘A judge looked at me and told me that because of something I did when I was 14, I would never amount to anything. I’ve been called every name in the book. There are people who get drunk every day and when they see a black musician in a wheelchair, they say everything they wanna say and I can’t do nothing but take it. I did two months in jail for something I didn’t even do. I have cried and cried and very few people have listened.’
It takes a major incident to pick out this normalised discrimination. And that’s exactly what happened two years ago today with the death of George Floyd. The case became a cause célèbre for the intrinsic discrimination black people live with in the United States. But the public’s enraged response was not just because of his preventable death. The incident reopened a wound. It gave people an opportunity to vent their long-held, gnawing anger at the ongoing mistreatment of African Americans.
‘Most people are aware of what they’re doing and they have the choice to stop it or let it go on — and most people have been choosing to let it go on until it gets to a George Floyd case,’ explains Craig. The incident became a time of reflection and an outlet for repressed anger. Routine mistreatment of black Americans could no longer be ignored.
According to Brian: ‘Some responded to George Floyd in a militant way. They were already waiting for the right cover to express the hostility they had bubbling beneath the surface. And some are [now] waiting for the next opportunity to vent rage that they’re nursing.’ Brian tells me that churches, including the one he attends; ‘are making some strides. They’re bringing congregations together to put into action what we’ve been talking about [with the intention]: “let’s do it and then talk about it’’’.
Is bringing people together crucial in this fight? Mall worker Corey definitely seems to think so. ‘We black people don’t want to come together, we lazy, [nothing will] change until we unite and come together.’
So how divided is the African American community when it comes to the ongoing fight for their rights? Craig Adams Jr. is cynical. ‘I don’t expect a big change to happen in my lifetime with regards to how black people are treated,’ he tells me. ‘The bad seeds who have the power and the silver spoon will never allow any change.’ Brian is more optimistic. Never having ‘used the term “equality”’, he argues: ‘What I want is just to be free. Everybody should have the opportunity just to develop and become who they were created by Almighty God to be. That’s what I want. And if I happen to not go as hard in a certain direction as another person then that’s okay. They deserve a higher wage or a higher accolade than I do because I did not do the same amount of work or put in as much time, or the other person simply got a better result out of their practice. But I don’t want to be suppressed or marginalised by anyone, whether for something on the inside like my beliefs or something external like my race. I can’t stand for that.’ The contrast between sheer cynicism and individualist optimism is staggering.
Despite his individualist optimism, Brian feels that some of the initial outrage generated by the death of Floyd ‘has gone into a dormant state without being resolved.’ And he is not the only one who feels that the initial support has waned. Corey explains: ‘people have lost interest because black people are used to being treated like that,’ — notably, by the police and authorities.
As a black man, Craig tells me that he always has to: ‘think about how I behave, how I carry myself and how I respond to people. It is always at the front of my mind because I don’t want to be the next George Floyd. I have been under the same police brutality; them not being able to get their way, beating me and having no choice but to take me to jail and charging me with anything they could think of. As an adult, I have learned to control how I respond and the way I treat people so that I am not in that spotlight.’
The spectre of the segregations means white people in the American South have the privilege of the right to a public meltdown. Something that would be seen as a white person’s ‘mental health issue’ often gets labelled as ‘black violence.’
The legacy of the segregations has been sustained by a lack of confrontation and questioning. The roots of its discrimination have not been fully unearthed, still less addressed. For Brian, a ‘culture’ is a group of people who have accepted a set of beliefs which inform their ‘opinions, thoughts, biases and decisions’ — including attitudes towards those of another racial group. ‘People behave in a certain way because of who they are,’ says Brian, and what they have been taught to think. Racial bias permeates the negative way black people see themselves. By downplaying the achievements of black Americans like Louis Armstrong, black New Orleanians are without role models to identify with. The result is a vicious circle of negative thinking directed at oneself.
Little wonder then that Corey views his own race as underachieving and not contributing properly — rather than having been held back, ignored and denied equal chances to succeed. ‘We sell drugs and we kill each other. Black people smoke and drink a lot but you do not see Caucasians acting like that, and that’s why they run the world. But we won’t ever rule the world because of how we behave and because we’re killing each other,’ he says with conviction.
Everything points to the fact that black-white segregation has been replaced by psychological barriers that now divide the African American community. These are explained, to some extent, by different opportunities and life experiences. Black Americans who have not suffered horrific police brutality are more hopeful of the possibility of full emancipation. Corey’s view that ‘we need to come together but everyone is out there for themselves,’ can be understood within the context of black poverty and unemployment — often products of institutionalised racism in the United States.
The show us that 19.5 per cent of Black Americans live in poverty, compared to 8.2 per cent of their White counterparts. White families in the US also have a net worth that is almost ten times greater than that of black American families. These facts alone indicate that the luxury of time to rise up and organise is something many black people in the US are simply without. So they wait, for the next George Floyd to help them group together — even if only for a short while.
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