We usually start off at the sidelines of the second line, us black transplants who didn’t grow up with the taste of brass in our bloods. The smoke plumes rising from the homemade food trucks enticing anyone within a mile radius to steak sandwiches, hot sausage po boys, Cajun fried chicken, corn on the cob and everything else that does your soul some good while your waistline graduates to the looser hole on your belt.
We watch the children running around, in colorful double-breasted suits and beautiful dresses, practicing their footwork, buck jumps, and high steps that the crowd dances as they tag along behind the bands. We have called friends and family back in our hometowns, excitedly talking about this Sunday parade until their questions make us realize we don’t really know what we were talking about.
Why this Sunday? What do you mean it happens every Sunday? You mean hundreds of black people gather and block traffic with a party and the police don’t shut it down? Is this the same “parade” that people got shot at on Mother’s Day last year? Who pays for these parades? What the hell is a Social Aid and Pleasure Club?
We try to explain the imperative, both politically and spiritually, of taking over the streets of New Orleans, for a tradition that dates back into the 1860s and sustained itself despite the brutality of the Antebellum and Jim Crow eras. The second line is a love chile (certainly not a child) of the jazz funeral. It is born out of the union of West African burial traditions carried across the Atlantic in the soul pockets of slaves, and the mastery of classical brass instruments by free people of color (Creoles), who suddenly found themselves on the dark side of the tracks after one seminal afternoon in New Orleans in 1892. A Creole man named Homer Plessy boarded a “Whites Only” coach that later bore the Plessy v. Ferguson United States Supreme Court decision in 1896, effectively stamping the one-drop theory into the American consciousness, and inadvertently, the birth of jazz.
Now we stand about, sticking out in that sweetly naive way that all transplants do, either over or underdressed for the occasion. We eavesdrop on conversations that spilled over from the previous weekend, births and deaths, joys and sorrows, the ennui of workdays, what we did last night, vendors haggling over week old tabs, and we wonder; how did collective trust and accountability for each other become a natural currency amongst people who are depicted by mass media and census data as backwater, trigger-happy thugs and unwed, teenage mothers?
The second line is where transplants really cut their teeth on New Orleans. A Minnesotan musician who used to live here recently moved to New York and came back for a weekend visit to tell me, “I first came here on vacation and went to a second line. I decided on the spot that this was my new home.”
The deeply transformative nature of second lines, especially for African-American transplants, is not something tourist manuals and Trip Advisor reviews prepare us for. We had heard about all the festivals and parties that New Orleans is world-famous for, but no one gives you the heads-up on the most important aspect of rooting yourself in over 300 years of African and Creole influence. No one tells you that second lines are weekly spiritual cleanses where the black community comes together to shed in some form of way.
In New Orleans, “to shed” means to practice your craft. To hole away and face your demons, to isolate with your art and face your ego, your hang-ups. For native NOLA musicians, the shed is the second line, away from the prying eyes of the uninitiated, those who mistake symbiotic joy for base hedonism. As they wind through the backstreets and historic neighborhoods that tourists seldom wander off to, one cannot help but feel the distinction of spaces, and what bodies occupy them, is imperative to preserve the sanctity of the second line.
This is where musicians test out their swingin’ brass tunes to the most brutally honest crowd before they head out to the tourist thoroughfares and bars to earn a livelihood. For transplant musicians, this is where they have to sit in and prove their worth if they want to break into the tightly woven brass band community. Ultimately, through all that shedding, we gain that higher ground.
This topsy-turvy underwater city is a place where, despite the population of African-Americans topping the demographic charts at 59.4 percent in a 2012 federal census, “majority rules” is a misnomer. I’ve experienced the different nuances of loneliness that one encounters when resettling elsewhere as a black person. I have felt alone by myself, I have felt alone in crowds, but I have never felt alone WITH a crowd until I moved to New Orleans.
Walking up the hump of an overpass in the Ninth Ward, a trans-national freight train idling on the tracks by the side blasts its horn. Over eight years have passed since Katrina’s almost total devastation of one of the poorest neighborhoods in America. The remnants of systemic neglect on all levels of government lie stark on the waysides, a study on life after people in real time. A succession of abandoned lots overgrown with vegetation, the only reminders of human presence being the stumps of concrete front porch stairs that now stand bereft, leading to nowhere. The few family homes that hadn’t collapsed during Hurricane Katrina are mostly broken, empty shells that are slowly crumbling to pieces. Burned-out cars dot severely potholed and cracked streets that struggle to keep the encroaching vegetation at bay.
Just as suddenly as the decrepitude overwhelms, there appears a glimmer of hope in the few newly redeveloped streets with the odd stretch of homes. They boast fresh paint, avant garde architecture, and a well-meaning Hollywood liberal’s idea of fixing an amputated leg with monkey glue and a pedicure. The ongoing socio-economical saga of the city smacks you right in the face. The second line is a mass exorcism of the very real stressors of structural violence, entrenched poverty, and systemic racism that New Orleanians face daily.
If Bourbon and Frenchmen streets are the man cave and living room of NOLA respectively, then second lines are the kitchen. New Orleans makes her living on tourist dollars, raking in $6 billion in revenue in 2013, according to the New Orleans Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. Yet there is a clear distinction between tourist and local venues and events, a distinction guarded ferociously by true locals against the encroachment of tourism into certain spheres of local life. The kitchen, as in any family home, is where we work out all our differences, air our dirty laundry, lament our losses, and celebrate our victories. However, this particular kitchen’s cupboards seem to hold more sinister skeletons than is comfortable for the average tourist looking for a light, good time.
There are real consequences and precursors for why the second line call-outs are footnoted with “Leave your guns and foolishness at home.” There have been one too many instances of shootings into the crowd. Valued and revered community members like journalist Deborah Cotton are still dealing with the aftermath of the senseless violence (please visit her website for updates and opportunity to support her on her path to recovery) that comes part and parcel with the racialized struggle that bears fruit to the ethereal music and art that millions flock to New Orleans for.
These heinous acts by individuals are depicted implicitly as a usual happenstance in New Orleans. While this type of reporting is endemic to New Orleans (one need only look at how images of Katrina were captioned depending on the race of the subjects) or any other predominantly black city in America, perhaps it is just what is needed to keep the daytime-drunk tourists and their cultural appropriation at bay. New Orleanians welcome your slightly racist trepidation of being “outnumbered," as one white second-line attendee put it, with a devilish grin and a gratefulness that lets us carry on with our main business at hand.
Beneath the tourist attractions is an underbelly of crime, political corruption, and poverty that give the city a distinct edge that titillates the sense of safety of all that do dare to visit. This underbelly may be why major investors and entrepreneurs who might be successful in commodifying local, black culture in other cities but struggle to achieve the same returns in New Orleans.
This is not for a lack of trying, as there have been attempts at capitalizing on the second line by municipal officials, like mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office enforcing a $25 licensure for all liquor and food vendors at the parade back in 2012. Where and how this money is being funneled back into serving the communities it takes from is still a mystery. Or the most recent attempt at installing noise ordinances on public spaces and bars, which was met with the deafening uproar of the city’s musicians and their supporters taking over city council chambers with an impromptu jazz funeral for the ridiculous measure.
The questions that keep coming up are double-edged. Can black culture thrive without gun violence, poverty, and racism tagging along for the ride? Can we rest assured that we can practice our art, our music and the love we have for our communities without inflicting harm on each other? The resounding yes lies in the hundreds of Sundays gone by without a hitch at the second line. The yes is in the dedication of the thousands of unnamed Social Aid and Pleasure Club members who diligently pay into club coffers from their personal income that keeps the community afloat, from weddings to hospital bills to hurricane relief to funerals.
Yet, we only need to look at the fate of local minority culture in other major North American cities to understand the lurking violence of neo-capitalism that is barking at our collective heels. Toronto sold the largest Carribean festival in the world outside of the Carribean, Caribana, to Scotiabank, after years of over-intensified policing and the creation of racialized fear by right-wing news outlets framing unrelated instances of gun violence as part the festival. It is now re-dubbed the Scotiabank Carribean Festival and many local Torontonians, including previous organizers of Caribana, have spoken at length of the desiccation of the original festival’s mission.
Shortly after, the other black festival in Toronto, Afrofest, was unceremoniously moved from the subway-accessible center of the city, where it had been easy for low income families to attend, to Woodbine Park, a large dusty space on the far east edges of town, on the premise that festivalgoers had been trampling the grass. New Yorkers are also too familiar with the co-opting of the Puerto Rican Day and the Chinese New Year’s parades for advertising and promotional spaces.
New Orleans is succumbing to the forces of gentrification at a relatively slower rate. Frenchmen St.‘s newest tenant is a Dat Dog currently under construction and threatening the livelihood of the brass bands that hold court across the street. Yet New Orleans has an organic answer to gentrification, in that her social currency is not in her locales, but in her people. The intangible cultural force is in the musicians, and where the musicians go, the people will follow. Second-liners to the core.
One can argue that crime, whether perceived or real, is no solution for a city that, for all her soulful beauty, just cannot seem to get over the natural and man-made catastrophes that are inherent in her geographical and sociological makeup. Playing at the second line doesn’t just refer to regurgitating sheet music in tandem, it means negotiating walking on potholed roads with brass dangerously pressed to flesh in beat to an undulating wave of people dancing and pushing from all four corners. It means knowing where the energy of the crowd is ebbing and flowing and adjusting your festive vibe accordingly. It means knowing how to pick your solo so it resonates over the beasts of burden, the tuba players and base drummers. It means thinking on your feet, as your sobriety slowly gets away from you. If this entire endeavor is not a metaphor for what it means to be black in America, what it means to push on ahead with a kick in your step as the whole world tells you no, then I don’t know what is.
Sol Goshu is a New Orleans based writer, community organizer, and mental health educator. You can reach her on Twitter @girlinthetank.
[Photos via Getty]