Uh, wait. You're from PORTLAND?

Acculturation is not a privilege, it’s a right; it’s the future

Acculturation, is defined as “The learning of the ideas, values, conventions, and behavior that characterize a social group. Acculturation is also used to describe the results of contact between two or more different cultures: a new composite culture emerges, in which some existing cultural features are combines, some are lost, and new features are generated. Usually one culture is dominant.” (Source: The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition).

Since I’m a person who’s been involved deeply in preserving and promoting our culture for the past 35 years, New Orleans’ and Louisiana’s cultural heritage and fabric fascinates me. What’s also very interesting are the changes that are fast occurring in New Orleans, as people moving in from outside our famously insular culture attempt to understand what makes us so unique, and to adapt our peculiarities into their worlds, which are in most cases, quite difference from what “natives” are used to.

This is bound to cause friction on both sides.

Since I’ve been alive, and for many, many years before me, New Orleans has been an island unto itself, and we know it. Furthermore, we like it that way. We don’t want anyone telling us that our customs are antiquated, silly, backward, ridiculous, quaint, inept, politically incorrect, etc. We like things the way they are, thank you very much. So New Orleanians, and South Louisianans in general, are probably more resistant to change than most. Our island suits us very well indeed, thank you very much, and if you don’t like it: leave.

I think what tends to happen to us is that we all tend to get stuck in the velvet-lined rut that is New Orleans and don’t leave any room for changes. In fact we don’t care much if it changes or not. But when it does, uh oh.

It’s easy to understand that when people who love New Orleans move here from elsewhere, they’re drawn—I’d say almost 100 percent (except those who come for a job)—to the city and area because of our culture and traditions.

Naturally, when they’re immersed in our wonderfulness, they want to participate in it as well. And they are often criticized for it.

Why? Isn’t that the reason why people are drawn to live here? Why shouldn’t a newcomer be shunned or shut out of participating in our traditions? Are we so afraid of change or letting people that we’ll keep others who aren’t local out of our little circle?

I think this mentality is very prevalent here, and it is rather sad.

I’ve been guilty of this myself. Luckily, I am surrounded by many who are not from New Orleans, or people, like me, who born here, left for whatever reason (usually for school or a job), and have returned to stay. So I’m probably a little more flexible than someone who’s never spent much time in the “outside world,” but still have issues (which I have to slap myself mentally for) when I see white hipsters marching in second line parades.

Let me give you an example: a local crafts and fabric store uptown that offers learning classes offered to do a workshop on designing headdresses for Mardi Gras. They caught a ton of flak from some die-hard cultural standard-bearers because the people who own the shop aren’t from New Orleans (I believe they’re from Portland) and they have been accused of co-opting certain Mardi Gras traditions…and to them, that’s just wrong (!).

I do know that there are many cultural traditions that are unique to New Orleans, and some that are regarded as particularly sacred to the African-American community, which guards their traditions closely, so as not to lose their connection to their ancestors and their identity. Understand: Blacks in America have been oppressed since they were brought to this country as slaves. That oppression continues to this day, unfortunately—whether you believe that or not, it’s a fact.

Anyone who feels they own a cultural treasure—they have something of their very own—is going to fight to keep it. This is totally relatable to me. It’s a power issue: “This is ours, this is who we are, and we’re going to fight to keep our traditions.”

The same sort of mentality can be applied to the old-line (all-white) Mardi Gras krewes who want to keep their sacred traditions confined to a certain upper-class elite, to the exclusion of anyone else (it’s easier for them to keep their traditions “pure” because it costs a lot of money to participate in their culture, not so for Mardi Gras Indians, and Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs).

It’s part of the human condition: to want to have something that is yours, and yours alone, and to protect it.

But I am beginning to think this mentality is divisive. It will not bring us all together in harmony. Culture is something to be shared, nurtured, and should be given the opportunity to grow, to educate and to embrace anyone who wants to participate. Otherwise, it’s going to eventually die.

This is broad statement, as it applies to culture in general. But it particularly applies to music. If music doesn’t change and grow, it will die off. If practitioners of a musical format refuse to include others’ ideas and variation, the music form will eventually perish. It will be an antique, something only for the history books.

This is one of the more fabulous things about our musical culture. We have music practitioners who embrace youth and change. Music changes, it grows. Musicians here take the past and uses the foundation of tradition to inform future generations, who then make it their own. Old musicians, natives, play gladly with others from outside. They collaborate. They make music, new music with old roots. And in the process they build something new and vibrant that keeps growing and changing, sometimes in some very interesting ways.

Culture is not exclusive. It’s no person or group’s privilege that excludes anyone else.

It’s not owned or managed by any one group. It’s part of a living, growing tradition that is the foundation for everyone’s future: he who’s not busy being born is busy dying.

Words so true.

What do you think about preserving traditions, but welcoming everyone to participate?

Take the poll and get a chance to win tickets on Mardi Gras weekend (February 25) to go to the Howlin’ Wolf to see Rebirth Brass Band and Sexual Thunder!


  • Jimmy Bassford

    A very well written discourse. I’ve traveled the world and Louisiana for 25 years. There’s no other City like NO. My Mom loved NO and I grew up on her native music. Pete, Armstrong, George Lewis, Prima. I’m from the Chesapeake Bay Area…Crabbing…tongong Oysters. Mom was an adventurous cook and I was the recipient of that gift. I know almost every part of the State. And NO is even unique in her own way to other parts. Long before I moved here I read all the James Lee Burke novels. When I was here on business i already knew the streets…restaurants. I felt her constantly calling me here…my new home. I drank her water and she courses through my soul. Maybe I’m lucky that I was “adopted” almost immediately upon my arrival. I enjoy immense certain doorways open to me in this small City. Albeit, your correct in that I’m not on the family tree here. And I do see and feel a certain “Tu n’es pas d’ic”. But not very often. I can contribute considerably to any conversation with historical or traditional quips. No matter where I go now I see someone I already met. It’s a small town as they say. NO is growing like a weed now. Even I don’t want her to change..ever. I’m truly “Aculterized”.