I swore in 2007, after a column on the murder of Helen Hill, that I wouldn’t attempt any more analyses of New Orleans’ trenchant murder problem. A year after that, my wife felt compelled to write on the issue, when one of her former students, Lance Zarders, the focus of an eight-part series in The Times-Picayune was shot to death on Frenchmen Street, a couple of blocks away from Sunday’s Mother’s Day mayhem.
It’s easy to be fatalistic about murder, to see it as almost a side effect of the climate down here, like hurricanes and flooding. Such fatalism is only affirmed when you peel back the layers of history and find that the unjustly dead have been profuse in every era of the city’s past. This last shooting isn’t particularly remarkable except for the number of injuries. Happily, it resulted in no deaths, but that’s really a matter of luck, fatalism’s divine arbiter.
This particular instance of gunplay is attracting so much attention for a couple of reasons: because it took place at a second line and because a least one of the victims, blogger and videographer Deb Cotton, has been a champion of second-line culture and a voice against violence.
Cynics will be tempted to emphasize that the public hand-wringing over this latest of routine outrages is due to the recent marketing of neighborhood second-line parades through “Follow Your NOLA” and similar tourism campaigns.
On a deeper level, the relationship between distinctive New Orleans cultural practices and the city’s high level of violent crime touches a perpetually sore nerve. Mainstream America has long insinuated that our culture is a fundamental cause of our murderousness and associated social pathologies.
Linking New Orleans culture with crime and political corruption is nothing new. It made Herbert Asbury’s lurid, voyeuristic French Quarter: an Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld, a 1936 bestseller. Asbury and others portray the city’s laissez-faire approach to life as a stew of spiritual corruption spiced with murder and tinctured by racial difference.
In Jim Crow times, the city’s large black population was equated with crime and poverty, as demonstrated in Kevin Fox Gotham’s examination of how New Orleans lost the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition to San Francisco. Or just glance at comments on today’s nola.com to sample an updated expression of the same general attitude.
In the post-Civil Rights era, it became more common to link crime in New Orleans to a culture of racism rather than to blame it on its victims. But doing so required a ridiculous intellectual contortion: you had to remove black people from our indigenous customs — even when those customs are rooted in African-American tradition. Thus Bishop T.D. Jakes, after Hurricane Katrina, excoriated New Orleans for a culture that “overlooks the poor and the suffering and continues past the ghetto on our way to the Mardi Gras” — as if Mardi Gras doesn’t happen in the “ghetto” and the poor don’t participate.
Indeed, in the national shouting match about New Orleans after Katrina, a jolt of American racial anxiety sufficed to transform the mainstream view of New Orleans from the Big Easy (the city that care forgot) to what Fox’s Bill O’Reilly calls the “Big Sleazy” (the city that forgot to care) — the very emblem (along with Detroit) of the nightmare that ensues when blacks are allowed to slip their traces and run out of control.
The insidious conflation of race, moral laxity, and New Orleans street culture dates back to the Louisiana Purchase, when large numbers of free blacks and a perception of unchecked interracial sex alarmed the “Americans” newly arrived from points north. In this regard, the overrepresentation of Storyville brothels in the history of jazz is telling, the insinuation being that the city’s distinctive culture is rooted in moral turpitude. Movies like 1947’s New Orleans and 1958’s King Creole emphasize indelible bonds between music and criminal activity. The taboo is what makes the mix so titillating.
Let’s not mince words: The city’s voluminous history of violence forms a great part of its national appeal. The gothic imagination comes alive in New Orleans, as the several ghost tours, horror movies, and, yes, my own 2002 ghost apocalypse novel, Soul Resin, attest. These cultural expressions repackage the worst, most frightening aspects of the city’s cultural gestalt as pleasurable aesthetic experiences.
But the key to enjoying aestheticized violence is that it be safely in the past — not captured in screaming headlines as was the Mother’s Day rampage. I don’t need to remind readers that the cultural producers behind second-line parades — the clubs, the dancers, musicians, and members of the high-stepping, tagalong public — are not the ones pulling triggers. Cotton (a.k.a. Big Red) and a host of others, including Tamara Jackson, spokesman for the anti-crime group Silence Is Violence, have forcefully made this case already.
What I’d rather do is point out a silver lining, if it’s not too early to do so. The post-Katrina era has led to a newly uncontroversial approbation of exceptional features of New Orleans culture, especially our black culture.
The mayor and others have vowed that explosions of violence will not put a damper on second-lining. And indeed no one really expects that street-level parading will vanish from the city’s “urban wasteland” — Bill O’Reilly’s term for everywhere outside the French Quarter. Second lines in New Orleans have become as uncontroversial as going to the movies in Colorado or running in the Boston marathon.
According to police Superintendent Ronal Serpas, his officers are now partners with social aid and pleasure clubs and Mardi Gras Indian organizations, not their antagonists, as they have been perceived for decades, if not forever. I’ve never heard a New Orleans mayor, much less the police chief, so piously bow toward one of the more outré aspects of New Orleans culture.
We need to recognize that this has everything to do with the expanded interest in such practices, not only by white people and tourism interests but by African-American transplants like Cotton. In combination, they have been celebrating and preserving cultural practices that native-born New Orleanians often ignore or dismiss.
The mayor’s emphasis on the cultural economy, whatever its shortcomings, does provide an incentive for the city to protect and foster these traditions. Fears that the smothering embrace of commerce will make them less authentic should probably be set aside, especially if the brass bands and social clubs stand to gain more money and more safety in the bargain.
But the key will continue to be untangling the peripheral murderousness from a culture that undeniably was birthed amid violence. (As confirmation of that matrix, check out the lyrics of “Didn’t He Ramble,” and many another trad-jazz standard.)
No, the crime isn’t new, and neither is the culture. What is new is mainstream embrace of customs once confined to the city’s back streets. But this convergence of cultures — of New Orleans idiosyncrasy with the all-American mainstream — appears to work two ways. As we lament the Sunday bloodshed, bear in mind this incontrovertible fact: While pervasive public parading is unique to New Orleans, shooting people is a venerable American tradition.
C.W. Cannon teaches English and New Orleans Studies at Loyola University.