In the fall of 2004, writer/musician Ned Sublette got a fellowship from Tulane and moved from New York City to New Orleans. The product of his year here is The World that Made New Orleans, his2008 book examining the role of slavery in shaping New Orleans. Sublette immersed himself in the city’s culture—particularly its second line culture—while here, and he chronicles his attempts to understand New Orleans in his new book, The Year Before the Flood. Race relations are central to his story, starting with his own upbringing as a child in Natchitoches. He writes with a keen eye for the subtleties and complexities, and can summon unapologetic outrage when the moment calls for it.
In a sense, the book’s title is misleading. While Sublette deals with the flood, the majority of the book documents a year in the life of the city. In this passage, he recounts an event on the run-up to Mardi Gras.—ED.
Before the 2005 Mardi Gras season could really get under way, there was one more Sunday afternoon second line to go on, the only one that happens during Mardi Gras season: the Bayou Steppers. It’s a unique Social Aid and Pleasure Club, founded in 2002 as a biracial organization with both a black president and a white president. Its anniversary parade is one of only a few second lines to take in both uptown and downtown.
Their four-hour march began at the Purple Rain at Washington and Saratoga, uptown, and ended at the Mother-in-Law Lounge on North Claiborne downtown in the Treme, right under the trestles of I-10. In between, the Steppers made their customary rest stops. (In Louis Armstrong’s day, when these stops were at members’ houses, they were called “punches.”) They stopped at the New Look at La Salle and Washington; at Donna’s, the music bar at St. Ann and Rampart, across from Congo Square, where I joined the parading party in progress; at Little Peoples Place on Barracks near Treme; and at Dumaine St. Gang at N. Robertson and Dumaine. At each one, there was plenty of time to have a beer and a pork chop sandwich with my friends before rolling on again. There was Joel Dinerstein—he never misses a second line. There was Garnette, and Vicki.
The Bayou Steppers were decked out in purple from head to toe, with hats and sashes. Antoinette K-Doe was a queen up front riding in her pink Cadillac convertible. Al Johnson, whose song “Carnival Time” (1960) is a Mardi Gras perennial with oddly unpredictable numbers of measures, was an honoree as well. Elder drummer “Uncle” Lionel Batiste was there. It was a fine second line on a beautiful day, with lots of high stepping and no small amount of reefer smoke wafting through the air.
The good feeling stopped, however, when we reached the endpoint, under the dank shadow of I-10, at the door to the Mother-in-Law. The parade had run slightly overtime—like five minutes—against a very strict clock. I had just snapped a picture of Bayou Stepper Michael “Aldo” Andrews, as his nephew James (“Twelve”) Andrews and the New Birth Brass Band tore into what was obviously their finale from the front doorstep of the Mother-in-Law.
It was overtime, and the cops were not inclined to let the band finish their last few bars. The law must be obeyed to the letter in New Orleans, at least if you’re black. The cops turned a number, maybe seven, of their car sirens on at full blast, right in the assembled crowd’s face, drowning out the band completely. It’s the rudest thing you can do to a musician aside from physical assault. It was loud enough to be deafening, and the effect was intentional. Cherry tops were spinning like it was a drug bust or a terrorist swat. You must disperse!
Uh, I was supposed to hook up with my friends here who have a car, mine is back by Donna’s, and it’s too loud to use my cell phone, the Mother-in-Law’s already full, where am I supposed to go around here?
The cops in New Orleans had been calling time on Sunday—that’s enough outta you—all the way back to the Congo Square days, when they dispersed the dancers with cutlasses at the appointed hour. The people were used to it. Refusing to be baited by the provocation, they just took it—not only the physical insult to their hearing from the piercing, ultra-loud sirens, but the blatant disrespect to their culture. The same blatant disrespect that in 1968 put up those trestles we were all standing under, when North Claiborne was replaced with I-10 running overhead all down its length. Well, if I were to catalog the disrespect, it would be a long litany.
The police in New Orleans know very well that there’s a thin line between a parade and a riot. They also know, or should know, that the most notorious riots in New Orleans history—and there have been a few—were by white people.
I never saw the police close down a white folks’ parade like that.