New Orleans Negritude and the Second Line:
Stankness, Stupidity and Doofus Overload in the Streets of the Big Easy
By J.B. Borders
NON. New Orleans Negritude. That’s shorthand for our local black cultural patrimony. It manifests as the funk in our step, the jazz in our speech, the gumbo in our veins, the daiquiris on our breath, the euphoria beaming out of our eyes, the tout ensemble of “the way we be in the place we at.” Négritude à la Nouvelle-Orléans. It permeates every corner of the city but there’s no better place to experience its full panoply, its multisensory richness (good, bad and ugly) than at a second line. We are at our best – and sometimes our worst – on these occasions.
First, though, a note on the proper pronunciation of the acronym NON. You have options. Our culture is post-modernist, after all. NON. You can say it like all French-speaking people when they mean “no.” You can also sound out each letter and say “in oh in.” With a slight Creole accent that becomes an elided version of “ain’t no in.”
If you want to go the hip-hop route, however, you can pronounce it more like “no in” or, more subtly, “know-in’,” depending on the company you keep or your attitude about the particular aspect of the culture you are referencing. “Non, absolument.” Or “No to the In (or end), my friend.” Or “That’s Know-in’, bruh (G, OG, dawg, dude, cat, man, blood, black, bleak, falley, podna, shorty, child, baby, bay, boo, girrrlll, lil mama, lil daddy), Know-in’. Ya heard me?”
Unless you are among the very, very hip – the sly hip – the term NON will be completely unfamiliar to you, even if you’re immersed in second-line culture. And that’s okay, too. Some modes of self-reflection and analysis are less necessary than others. “A tiger doesn’t proclaim its tigerness; it pounces,” Wole Soyinka wrote in 1960 at a moment when the African independence movement was on the verge of sweeping triumph over European colonialism. That, too, is NON, cher (dawlin, dear, honey, pudding, sweety-weety, chum, champ, chief, cap, boss, jim, jack, son, homey, my nig, my nerve, my jelly preserve), NON, absolument.
Our contemporary Congolese brethren have coined a term that also is an apt description of the organizations, people and sensibilities propelling second-line culture. Ambianceurs, they call them – atmosphere setters, scene creators. That’s what our social, aid & pleasure clubs (SAPCs) are; that’s what all the second-liners are: ambianceurs. And the ambiance they create has all the essential qualities that comprise New Orleans Negritude – intoxicating joviality, unpretentiousness, clannishness, tribalness, and, paradoxically, the privileging of public celebrations over private ones.
Interestingly, the Congolese ambianceurs seem far more sybaritic than their New Orleans counterparts – and a lot less epicurean, even though both cohorts are drawn predominately from working-class and underclass segments of society. The Congolese (in both countries, Congo-Brazzaville and Congo-Kinshasa) dress up in fine threads on the weekends. And that’s almost the whole point. They have competitions to decide who is wearing the best outfit, who is most creatively stylish, who is most authentically Euro-fashionable, head to toe, accessories included. The more expensive the outfit, the better. The more luxurious the get-up, the more it invokes a state of peace, they say.
And who can blame them? With all the brutality and barbarity Congolese people have endured at the hands of Europeans and each other, who can blame them for fantasizing about living lives of peace and prosperity? For making exquisite, unsullied fetishes of themselves and being the change, if only on Sunday, they want to see in the world? Who would dare fault them for that?
In New Orleans second-line culture, however, transcendence is achieved by celebrating and being merry despite the way you may be dressed, not because of it. SAPC members also like to get dressed in expensive, colorful garb that costs far more than they can afford or should afford. But that doesn’t stop them from dancing and cavorting until they are dripping in sweat and reeking of alcohol and tobacco and whatnot. When our splendid outfits are no longer pristine and unsullied, it’s a sign that we have achieved our goal. When we have wasted our money in the pursuit of pleasure, we have done our duty. Nothing can stop us from having a grand, good time. Nothing. Not clothes or weather or the police. When we party, we party hearty.
What else would you expect from people who, like our Congo cousins, have been on such intimate terms with tragedy? Not just periodic storms and plagues, but persistent oppression and soul-killing socio-economic constraints. Who would begrudge us a few hours of release, relief and suspension of the otherwise unrelenting pressure of being downtrodden in a place that used to be the biggest slave market in the country? Who would begrudge you a few hours a week, a Sunday afternoon, to get some stuff off your chest? Certainly not me.
The year I was born, Satchmo was the Zulu King. My mother, seven months pregnant with me, her first child, went out to catch the parade. She waited for the Zulus at the corner of South Rampart and Thalia Streets. Thalia Street, of course, is named for the Muse of Comedy.
My earnest young mother, a college librarian at the time, waited hours on that corner for the Zulu parade to pass. She wanted to see Louis Armstrong in the flesh. She wanted to report the sighting to my father. He was a trumpet player, a former GI, working on his bachelor’s degree in musical performance at Bethune-Cookman College in Florida. Unfortunately, he couldn’t take off from his studies that year to come to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Even though he much preferred Miles to Armstrong, he would not have passed up any opportunity to see Satchmo, even vicariously.
And so my mother waited patiently – as much for my father as for herself. Since she was seven months pregnant, she couldn’t walk very far or very fast anyway. So she stayed put. Back then, Zulu’s route was known only on the grapevine and the grapevine had made it known that the parade would definitely roll down Rampart past all the streets named in honor of the mythological Greek Muses.
So she stayed put even when others lining the street began dispersing. Finally, an older gentleman approached her. “Are you waiting for the Zulus?” he asked. “Yes,” she replied. “Well, they’re not gonna come. One of the floats broke down. Armstrong got tired of waiting for it to get fixed. He said he was going back to his hotel to get some sleep since he has a gig to play later tonight.”
Disappointed, my mother returned to her parents’ home. She never did see Louis Armstrong. And she never made much of an effort ever again to see the Zulu parade.
I mention that story as a possible explanation for why I never had any innate desire to be in or to run after parades and second lines. It was crushed in the womb, I suppose. I have never had any interest in joining Carnival krewes or SAPCs either – not that any of them would have me – though I deeply appreciate what they do and what it contributes to our culture. But growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was marches and demonstrations for such issues as civil rights, black power, and African liberation that captivated my attention. Second lines seemed pointless, senseless, jive, retarded even.
As a younger teen, I greatly preferred to spend my Sunday afternoons shooting hoops or playing razzle-dazzle, our peculiar Crescent City version of touch football in which players can throw unlimited numbers of forward passes until they either score or get stopped. Though parades were good for girl-watching if you weren’t mesmerized by the music and movement, it was public dances at the International Longshoremen Association (ILA) Hall that were best for meeting members of the opposite sex. Those dances gave guys like me the chance to slow drag occasionally with unfamiliar pretty young things (if I didn’t come with a date), to hold them in my arms, to gradually press them as close as possible and attempt to become better acquainted, you might say – something that could never happen at a second line. And when the Royal Dukes of Rhythm were headlining those Saturday night ILA gigs, they played lots of popular New Orleans R&B, always closing out the night with that great blues grinder “Driving Wheel” followed by the “Second Line”, which allowed our posse to buck-jump down the stairs, out the door and into the thick night air with hopes of being able to slip into some barroom later for a nightcap without being carded. Why bother with a ratty parade the next day? The music wouldn’t be nearly as popping as the Royal Dukes.
My feelings wouldn’t change until the late ‘70s. That’s when the Dirty Dozen Brass Band revolutionized New Orleans brass band music and brought hot-paced heavy-duty funk to the streets. In late 1977, Ernest “Dutch” Morial was elected the first African-American mayor of New Orleans. Black people in the city started standing taller and straighter. Around the same time, the Dirty Dozen began playing Monday nights at a hole-in-the-wall joint called the Glass House on South Saratoga. It was located near the Magnolia Housing Projects and the fabled intersection of Washington Avenue and LaSalle Street, just down the block from the Dew Drop Inn, the legendary American music club. The Glass House was so tiny and decrepit people routinely spilled out into the street outside the club to listen to the music. The sound was infectious, however, and you couldn’t help but move your body to the beat whether you were inside the shack or out. Some nights, being in that crowd was magical, otherworldly. It seemed everyone would lock on to the same groove but keep doing their own thing. People would start gravitating toward each other and tightening the dance space. There would be no room to pop a Gator (these were pre-Worm days). And so, out of the blue, some sweat-drenched manchild would start jumping straight up and down like a Masai warrior. And it would spread, becoming manic almost. And there was no telling where this energy might lead, what spirits it might invoke, what consciousness it might raise. At which point the band would stop playing, catch their breath, and let the crowd chill out a bit.
The steps these Dirty Dozen bop-inflected, funk-drenched rhythms compelled were hot, pure second lining and buck jumping improvisation, as opposed to the coolness of the Popeye and New Orleans Swing-Out. The Popeye was a short-lived dance fad everywhere in the country except New Orleans, where it reigned for years. Nevertheless, it and Swing-Out – which is a cross between hand-holding Cha-Cha-Cha and Chicago-style Stepping – like traditional brass band music, had been on the wane since James Brown dropped “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” in 1965 and Boogaloo exploded a year later.
Boogaloo, like the second line, encouraged terpsichorean individuality and creativity. But the bigger point to be emphasized here is that when Dutch Morial was elected mayor and the Dirty Dozen started hyping up the crowds outside the Glass House and, increasingly, at Sunday second lines, at that point in the late 1970s the new New Orleans was born and New Orleans Negritude (our beloved NON) was reinvigorated. It was pure, unadulterated stankness, one hundred years in the making. And the second lines found a way to embody that new spirit. There was good reason to dance in the streets again. It was a glorious moment. The question was: could it last? The short answer is…non.
At one point in the 19th century when Europeans were still obsessed with cataloguing and categorizing everything in the world, some anthropologists formalized the observation that all the peoples in the world could be slotted into three groups according to the texture of their hair and they coined terms to describe these characteristics: ulotrichous (nappy/wooly), cymotrichous (wavy/curly), and lissotrichous (straight). Lots of black folk are hyperconscious of these physiological typologies, though not the scientific terminology, and assign all kinds of bogus values to them – i.e., good hair, bad hair, which are also supposed to be subtle keys to whether the people themselves are good or bad. It’s total B.S. but some fools apparently subscribe to it.
What I do consider useful, however, is attempting to understand the psychological essence of people. For me also, there are only three kinds of people: rulers, rebels and retainers. Most of us, of course, are not rulers and have no overwhelming need to constantly dominate others. Some of us are rebels, though, and refuse to accept being bossed or dictated to on any level. But the vast majority of us are retainers. We crave someone to lead us, someone to work for, someone to follow, someone to tell us what to do and when, to make the big decisions about our welfare, to take much of the worry out of our lives.
In a very practical sense, slaves are the ultimate retainers. And because New Orleans was such a large slave market for so many years, one would presume that the overarching characteristic of its people of color would be their docility, their obsequiousness, their retainer-tude. After all, so many black folk continued to occupy menial positions in the workforce long after jubilee. It should not be surprising, then, that by the middle of the 20th century, in some circles (mine included), New Orleans had acquired a reputation as the Handkerchief-Head Capital of America.
There were many factors that led to this sorry state of affairs, including a sustained pacification campaign that lasted from the dismantling of Reconstruction in the late 1870s to the end of Jim Crow in the 1960s. The effects of that Negro Pacification Program could be seen in Louis Armstrong‘s grinnin’ and skinnin’ performance style and his many imitators throughout the city in various walks of life. These individuals and their behavior were/are flat-out embarrassing to anyone committed to racial uplift.
But this wasn’t always the case. Throughout the 18th century New Orleans was notorious for its “rowdy rebel niggers,” to borrow Brenda Marie Osbey’s term. Enslaved folk were always running away, defying the legal establishment, raiding plantations, setting up their own encampments, killing their enslavers when forced to. And free black folk were frequently allies in this cause, though some earned their freedom by betraying their brethren.
One morning when I was pondering what had become of us from 1877 to 1977 and from 1977 to today, I came across a couple of passages on delanceyplace.com taken from Ian Buruma’s book, Inventing Japan: 1853-1964 that shed light on our situation. When the U.S. Navy showed up in one of their harbors in 1853, it made the Japanese realize “how far behind the world their technology had fallen – they had nothing but swords to counter the cannons and guns of the Americans. The Japanese acquiesced to a treaty with the Americans, but the outrage and humiliation resulting from this treaty led to 15 years of civil war, brutal murder and assassinations within Japan. During these times, “mobs gathered in the large cities… visiting shrines, dancing half-naked in the streets, having sex in public, and raiding wealthy houses, while shouting in a state of quasi-religious ecstasy: ‘It’s okay, it’s okay, anything we do is okay.’ “
It’s okay, it’s okay. Anything we do is okay. It’s an attitude that seems to have infected nearly a whole generation of young black people in New Orleans. It’s an attitude that contributes to our being a perennial winner/contender for Murder Capital of America. It’s like the whole world has told these youngsters, has told us that we are not only a defeated people, we are also a despised one. Why wouldn’t the outrage and humiliation of coming to terms with those realizations lead to violence and destructiveness? And whom to inflict it on most readily if not those in closest proximity.
It’s no secret: in this world power is acquired and maintained primarily by military force. Political power can be illusory. If you have no military, you have no real, sustainable power. If you are powerless, you suffer. The only way to escape suffering is to die, get high or suck up to the powerful – to hope to be their faithful retainer. And if your suffering (or your selling out) doesn’t kill you, it will likely drive you crazy. So if you’re powerless and crazy, you’re liable to do anything. By that line of reasoning, anything we do is okay.
That is the kind of defeatism permeating much of our society these days. So it should be no surprise that it pops up occasionally at second lines and other public gatherings. Maybe the wonder is that more people aren’t showing up loaded on all kinds of drugs, dressed like sluts and nuts, acting like they have completely lost their minds – dancing funny, singing wrong and even trying to settle beefs with gun play in the crowds. It’s part of the human comedy, sure. But it’s also nihilistic and way stupid (which I mean in the conventional, verbally abusive connotation, not the cool, hip “stoopid” usage).
In the May 7, 1881, edition of the New Orleans Louisianian, an editorial commented on the frequency of parades by the city’s black benevolent societies, the precursors of today’s SAPCs. Their overall comportment and organization also were praised and the paper observed that “in this direction, at least, the colored people are silently but effectually building up a reputation which will go far to refute many of the slanderous reports relative to their imbecility.”
I wonder what the paper would say about second lines today?
As I read more of Ian Buruma’s Inventing Japan, I came across something else that really resonated. “Overconfidence, fanaticism, a shrill sense of inferiority, and a sometimes obsessive preoccupation with national status – these have all played their parts in the history of modern Japan,” he notes in the book’s prologue, “But one quality has stood out to make Japan better than any other place: the grace to make the best of defeat.”
Substitute “racial status” for “national status” and “Black New Orleans” for “Japan” and you have an apt summary of our situation in the Big Easy.
The grace to make the best of defeat. That phrase also sums up what second lines represent to our psyches and souls: We are poor, ignorant, diseased. And yet we party. Excessively. We are, it seems, working very hard to make the best of our defeat as gracefully as we can.
So the next time some perfectly sober, perfectly rational individual asks almost rhetorically, “How in the hell can a bunch of broke-assed New Orleans muhfukkas afford to waste so much money on a parade/party/ball/funeral like this?” You will have an answer.
The Ugly, the Very Ugly
Looking at film and photos of second lines in the 1970s and 1908s, it seems we were more attractive then, more ulotrichous and proud of it. Go to a parade today and our psychological weakness is on full display – droves of black women and girls in weaves and wigs that are supposed to render their manes attractive because they are straight or wavy. Forget the crazy colors and dye jobs for a second and focus solely on the textures. Anything but nappy is preferred. And so we display our sickness outwardly, openly. It’s an ugly scene, very ugly.
Second lines didn’t start or cause the current craze for weaves, extensions and wigs, they just reflect the tastes of the people, the community. For decades, the fashion sense of the SAPCs has been rooted in the Superfly aesthetic. The aspirations are to appear “sharp” and “clean.” Unfortunately, that aesthetic lost its hold on the young when the gangsta/prisoner look evolved in the late 1980s among the hip-hop generation. Now the goal is to look “hard,” “real” and “strapped (possibly armed and dangerous).” Natty dreads were also part of the look. By that time, perhaps, the young had recognized that black politics alone would not end poverty and dysfunction in our community, our realm; that crooks and shysters come in all colors and both sexes; that without an army of our own we would be merely prisoners in someone else’s empire and that the best we could do in the absence of waging straight-up war would be to become rowdy, rebellious and uncooperative with the ruling regime – which promptly got perverted into self-destructive, internecine beefs. Those who didn’t want to go gangsta opted to bow their heads and cover their natural glories, to try to fit in, perhaps, and find a place as cymotrichous and lissotrichous brunette, blond, or orange-haired retainers.
Our problems and oppression aren’t simply in our heads or on our heads, however. There are economic and material dimensions as well. The ramifications, like everything else in the world, can be both tragic and comic at the same time.
For instance, it seems there have always been one or two homely white folks each year who stumble onto New Orleans Negritude and become captivated by it. Maybe they have problems fitting into their own cultures, their own worlds. They become regulars at the second lines. Many come in with a Columbus Complex – they think they have discovered some colorful, quasi-primitive cultural practices that the whole world needs to know about. They make it their mission to do so.
Some find ways to profit from our cultural patrimony as filmmakers, photographers, anthropologists, musicologists, sociologists, producers of various sorts, directors, curators, journalists, lecturers, artist managers, etc. Some make a love connection and enter into interracial relationships as a result of hanging out at the parades. Others keep their distance romantically but develop “friendships” with people in the second line community. Whatever the case, their presence at the second lines and the neighborhood bar rooms along the routes has changed something in the culture, for better and for worse.
The outsiders, who are generally white but can be yellow, brown and black as well, come in three basic flavors: fawners from abroad, hicks from the heartland of America, and slicksters from the coasts. The slicksters, being what they are, sometimes appear to be fawners or naifs, but that’s just cover for whatever angle they are working to penetrate the inner workings of the culture. Some take up residence in the city after they witness a second line, backstreet Mardi Gras, or Jazz Fest. And, of course, there are native, homegrown varieties of these outsiders as well.
What gives them away, what marks them as outsiders, usually is their inability to dance in the New Orleans tradition, even those who think they have mastered the steps and the attitude of locals. And when the weekly second lines first started being overrun by tourists, college students/teachers and other outsiders in the early 1980s, it turned off a lot of the neighborhood folk.
“White folks fuck up the flow, man. It’s some disgusting.” That was one of the common sentiments muttered in the crowd. Over time, however, accommodations were made. The doofus outsiders learned to form a third line and to give berth to the insiders. And the insiders learned to be more accepting of the guests. “Git in where you fit in,” they began to say aloud to no one in particular, casting knowing glances and slightly sardonic smiles among each other, gesturing to bystanders to jump in the mix and do their thing. That, too, is quintessential NON – generous and supportive.
But since the devil can always find work, as the saying goes, it didn’t take long for some native celebrants to find a useful role for the outsiders, especially those who showed up faithfully week after week at the second lines. “Buy me a drink, a pack of cigarettes, a sandwich, a plate of food. Lemme hold $5, $10, $20.” They became – and remain – marks for petty hustlers, alcoholics, dope fiends. The tacit bargain is that the beggar will provide friendship and protection to the outsider in exchange for a small monetary favor. It’s understandable. It’s what tourism produces in poor countries around the globe. It’s a mini-industry for segments of the underclass – hustling tourists. It’s a venial undertaking in the grand scheme of economic activity but it’s also ugly, very ugly and inexorably soul-crushing on both sides of the exchange.
The Hopeful, the Really Hopeful
What would all the great rowdy rebel heroes of New Orleans – Samba the Bambara, San Malo, Charles Deslonde, Andre Cailloux and the Louisiana Native Guard, Robert Charles, Ernest Wright, Oretha Castle, Dutch Morial, Dorothy Mae Taylor, and the many unknown others – think about the current state of affairs of New Orleans Negritude and second-line culture?
I suspect they would be both encouraged and discouraged. We have come a long way since the first shipment of enslaved Africans arrived in the city in 1719 but we are still much too poor, too ignorant and too diseased to be comfortable with our lot.
The global Black Freedom Struggle has now embarked on its final phase – economic justice and equity. If history is any guide, this fight will consume our energies for most of the 21st century. Remember, it took almost the whole 20th century to win national liberation in Africa and the Caribbean (and first-class citizenship in the U.S.). And it took nearly the whole 19th century to abolish legalized slavery around the globe. Those were herculean tasks but we accomplished them. So no matter how dim our prospects look today, we will prevail eventually if we remain diligent. We will reach a point when black people are no longer disproportionately poor, ignorant and unhealthy. Ya heard me, fam (peeps, soldiers, comrades, ambianceurs, et al, et al)?
New Orleans, tiny as it is, also may play a significant role in this large, messy fight for economic justice and equity. We have oil, natural gas, seafood, shipping, tourism and a burgeoning bio-medical industry. Black folk need to fight for our fair share in all of these sectors. But culture – black culture, NON – is the city’s competitive advantage and we need to seize control of it.
The greater likelihood is that New Orleans’s primary function over the next century and beyond will be to remain a party capital, a respite from the woes and worries of life, a glimpse of the joy that will be permanently inscribed when black folk, when all folk are finally free, self-supporting and prosperous citizens of the world.
Until then, as a global icon of cultural celebrations, we New Orleanians owe it to the rest of the world, I suppose, to continue singing, blowing, beating, eating and dancing our way to freedom and full equality.
But maybe our rowdy rebel spirit can emerge once again and, like the Native Guard of Civil War days, lead the assault on injustice and win the victory on the battlefront as well as in the board rooms and out in the street. And maybe through our steadfast refusal to fall for the same old okey-doke, we can become supreme ambianceurs and set the scene for real and lasting global peace. That, too, would be totally NON, totally. Absolument.
Copyright © 2012, James Buchanan Borders IV