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Kristina Kay Robinson: What’s Old Is New Again

In the face of mass displacement, unsolved murders, and discriminatory housing policies, New Orleans’ Black community survives in part through its artistic traditions and spirit of collectivity.

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Image from Flickr user Keoni Cabral.

By Kristina Kay Robinson

New Orleans is a city marked indelibly by white supremacy. Huge stone monuments to Confederate “heroes” like Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard scar the city both spiritually and geographically. But New Orleans is also a Black city. A place where a culture of resistance was born and thrives in direct opposition to its white minority class. The city’s traditions find their roots in the diaspora of Africans that met and exchanged their art and magic in Congo Square and in the Native people who resided in Louisiana before it was a possession. This meeting and merging of Afro-Indigenous peoples forms the core of the culture of the New Orleans that I know.

In 1977, Ernest “Dutch” Morial was elected mayor of this New Orleans and ushered in an era of Black mayors that would last until 2010, when Mitch Landrieu took power. By the time Landrieu, the first white mayor in over thirty years, was re-elected to a second term in 2014, the city had undergone radical population changes. Hurricane Katrina, which claimed thousands of lives, also resulted in epic levels of displacement for the Black residents of New Orleans. The city’s heavy-hit Ninth Ward neighborhood saw its Black population shrink by as much as fifty percent in the first ten years after Katrina, all while the white population grew by more than twenty percent in this same community.

What does it mean for a city steeped in all that is Black, one whose name and wealth were made by the traditions cultivated in Black communities, to lose one hundred thousand of its former Black residents? What does it mean for us Black New Orleanians who remain? How does an artistic and politically active community reconstitute itself after such a devastating fracture?

There are still many ghosts here. From our ancestors, who arrived via the west coast of Africa and later en masse from Haiti after the revolution, to the casualties of rebellions big and small, including the largest American rebellion of enslaved Africans in 1811. In the days following Katrina, Henry Glover was murdered by the NOPD, his body moved from the scene of the crime and later burned by another set of officers, his skull never recovered. There were those murdered and maimed on the Danziger Bridge. And there was the most damning event of all: a mandatory evacuation was called in New Orleans, a major American city, and the twenty-five percent of people who had no transportation were left behind. There were no buses, no trains out of New Orleans. It would be five more days before relief and the federal government arrived, and when it did it would be at gunpoint.

To remain in the city has required a quick recovery, an erasure with no mourning. No truth or recompense for what has been lost and what was taken. No admission of what we all know to be true: that the worst results of Hurricane Katrina have had nothing to do with Mother Nature.

In New Orleans, we still live with the trauma of those five days and the many days that have followed. Thus far to remain in the city has required a quick recovery, an erasure with no mourning. No truth or recompense for what has been lost and what was taken. No admission of what we all know to be true: that the worst results of Hurricane Katrina have had nothing to do with Mother Nature. Never have there been more white people and non-profits needed to address the shortage of teachers and after-school programs. Teachers in New Orleans today serve a student population that is ninety percent Black. In 2005, nearly seventy-five percent of these teachers were also Black. But by 2013, according to data compiled by the Tulane University Cowen Institute for public education, “minority” teachers accounted for about 54 percent of staffs in charter schools, which are now the only option for most New Orleans parents. This has led to much discord between teachers and parents and students, with student-led protests against the lack of Black instructors cropping up in the city.

The mass termination of 7,500 educators, most of them Black, in December 2005 made way for this dismantling of traditional public-education in favor of the nation’s first all-charter school district. These veteran teachers comprised a significant portion of the New Orleans’ Black middle class and many have not been able to find comparable work since. A grand social experiment has put the squeeze on the self-reliant, artistic, and politically inclined Black folk that make New Orleans a place of global note. In the nearly ten years that have followed Katrina, the narrative of a “new” New Orleans has become familiar and macabre. The city’s Downtown Development District hangs flags in the Central Business District emblazoned with the slogan: Welcome to Your Blank Canvas. A narrative that treats Black suffering and death as an inevitable and unmournable consequence of “progress” is bought and sold without question. This narrative says the “new” New Orleans is a place being overrun with creatives and innovators from elsewhere, a place more “diverse” than ever. Newcomers debate the merits, flaws, and clichéd suffering of our people and our culture. They determine which parts of it have value, which parts we must discard, which parts are fair to replicate or mock.

The ability to create in the vortex and aftermath of displacement is an even older trick than disaster capitalism, and an inextricable characteristic of the culture of New Orleans.

The story of the “new” New Orleans ignores what the newcomers never had access to. It ignores the Black and Vietnamese neighborhood where I grew up. The nights when we watched the Indians hit the street without a white person in sight. When we had the right to our syncretic selves and had nothing to prove to anyone from anywhere else. When we danced the fire-trick of ceremony and consumption and managed to maintain our dignity and our identity.

But the ability to create in the vortex and aftermath of displacement is an even older trick than disaster capitalism, and an inextricable characteristic of the culture of New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina is not the first catastrophe our culture has survived. Right now work is being done to ensure that our story will survive the disaster of articles and essays pondering openly our darkness, depth, color, exoticism, sex, and worship. That it will survive the familiar stories of murdered Black men and women that mark the headlines but for which there is no justice to be had.

The second-annual Art Madness in New Orleans, an exhibition put on last March by the Axiom Art Collective, was most notable for its attention to joy in their collective works. Axiom Arts Collective is comprised of five artists, all native to New Orleans (Farris Armand, Courtney “Ceaux” Buckley, Bryan Brown, Jessica “Jhand” Strahan, and Kristen “Kawd” Downing). Their gallery on Freret St. sits right at the crossroads of a traditionally Black area of Uptown New Orleans and a rapidly gentrifying hot spot. The collective draws on a large organic base of local support, which has allowed it to welcome outside attention while not being dependent on its support to keep the gallery doors open. The walls feature large scale paintings that create and recreate Black American mythology, pay homage to Africa, and also regularly display whimsy and a strong sense of humor. The show was pleasantly absent of people looking for exoticism, dirt, or color, an attitude that permeates the writing about Black people in New Orleans by those new to the city. There is something exciting happening in New Orleans, but it isn’t new at all. It’s an ancient remix of creation and divination, the meeting of the twin elements of the esoteric and the avant garde, its presence felt first, like the Mardi Gras Indians, on the street-level.

Accomplished playwright, performer, and shamanic-healer Geryll, “Dr. G Love” Robinson is one such artist pursuing this ongoing conversation. Robinson, along with a group called Category 5 Arts, created healing mandalas for the city in the wake of Katrina’s devastation. The practice of relying on ancient technology to interface with twenty-first century oppression is the foundation of both Robinson’s creative work and her healing practice. Robinson also exemplifies the practice of collectivity that was brought across the ocean from Africa to New Orleans and found also in the indigenous nations of the Americas. It’s a practice that still thrives today. It can be found in the creation of Spirit House, a play co-written by Robinson and artist and activist LaKeesha J. Harris in conjunction with the Greater New Orleans Housing Foundation and Cripple Creek Theatre Company. Using the spiritual framework of the orishas and the elements, the play explores the discriminatory housing policies and rental practices that plague black residents in New Orleans. Spirit House also features research from New Orleans native Shana Griffin, co-founder of the Women’s Health and Justice Initiative. Her research on housing policy and ecological justice has also played key roles in other exhibitions and arts communities, such as the Wildseeds: New Orleans Octavia Butler Emergent Strategy Collective’s installation “Sacred Space.”

The Wildseeds is an arts collective and book club that uses Black speculative fiction as its radical framework for liberation. Their feature art installation “Sacred Space” was conceived as an altar to displaced children. It appeared as a part of ExhibitBE, an outdoor graffiti exhibition in New Orleans that was billed as the largest temporary street art exhibit in the south and transformed the Katrina-ruined DeGaulle Manor/Woodlands Apartments into a five-story piece of collective community resistance and art. (Members of Axiom Arts Collective also contributed murals to the event.) ExhibitBe’s visionary and feature artist, Brandan “B-mike” Odums, has taken the concept of ExhibitBe on the road, putting pieces up everywhere from New York City to the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona.

Black artists in New Orleans, then, are still making art, as they always have, forming new relationships with the diaspora and continuing the trinity of performance, ceremony, and record-keeping that has long been a bedrock of the culture of Black New Orleans. At the same time, a simmering tension exists between those who practice and those who profit from this culture, a dynamic also addressed by Spirit House. It is precisely this dynamic that has made collectivity a necessary strategy, but also one difficult to navigate for artists of color in the city.

Spirit House connects the displacement of Black New Orleanians to the historical pattern of removal and land grab that occurred throughout the United States’ expansion. The home that is the central setting of Spirit House is a family home occupied by Mama Celeste, Joe, and a cadre of temporary and long-term boarders all affected by the housing squeeze in New Orleans. The play’s primary contemporary tension is the imminent eviction of Celeste and Joe due to back property taxes. The ironies that overlay this dilemma are brutal. Katrina has displaced and fractured the economy of the Tremé, the nation’s oldest Black neighborhood, constructed and settled by free people of color and later emancipated Black people. Joe is a Mardi Gras Indian with a lineage tying him to the indigenous inhabitants of Louisiana. Despite this history, this tie to the land and our country’s history of oppression, theirs is a debt that cannot be forgiven.

We are memorializing the dead and living big in their shadow, asserting ourselves in an age where the murders of our people aren’t mourned.

Spirit House overlays these losses with joy drawn from the preservation of community ritual and the knowledge that, though the people may be moved, they will not die. It takes a village to reinvigorate and create again after such utter devastation, but it is happening in New Orleans. Resistance, ceremony, history, and beauty are not incompatible in the work that is being produced. They are not strangers to one another and neither are we. We are working in community to see that a record is kept of the New Orleans that we know. Black artists have declared a right to live and experience joy outside of pathology. This desire for joy and grasping its radical potential is a potent part of the work being done by Black artists in this city. We are memorializing the dead and living big in their shadow, asserting ourselves in an age where the murders of our people aren’t mourned. It’s a radical choice we are making to press on because we are from New Orleans—a place where we survive and persist for no other reason than that it is tradition.

Kristina Kay Robinson is a poet and fiction writer from New Orleans. She is the co-editor of Mixed Company, a collection of short fiction by women of color. Her work also appears in The Baffler, Xavier Review, and (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race.

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