DAY OF THE DEAD... A Radio Drama Essays

New Orleans: Gateway to America, Gateway to the Underworld

By Frederick Greenhalgh

It is tempting, especially in light of tragedy, to romanticize New Orleans, to be bewitched by the sensual images—the croon of a street trumpeter, the bold and savory tastes of a hot bowl of gumbo, the fragrance of magnolias, the lush greens of the live oak trees lining St. Charles and Esplanade Avenues. And indeed, New Orleans is that place, spiced generously by French, Spanish, African, and Caribbean influences, by the unique culture of its Creole people, as well as by the rough, untidy hands of Americans. But it is also not that place, or at least... not entirely. It was the artery of the slave trade, a fetid swamp-city subject to frequent epidemics, and a place of Jim Crowe segregation with a legacy that continues into the economic segregation of today, its implications made poignantly clear by the effects of Hurricane Katrina. As much of New Orleans’s identity is shaped by this undertow as it by the romance, and indeed, the precarious celebrations of the city, its very spirit, is tied up in these life-death dualities. Certainly, all places have their angels and their demons, but in New Orleans they seem to be more pronounced, more imminent, and some days, even corporate. For a setting of the underworld, no other time and place seemed more appropriate than the Day of the Dead, the most liminal moment of the year, when the borders between the realms of the dead and living—already thinner in New Orleans—almost touch.

It is important to understand what’s literally beneath the surface of New Orleans, and how the powerful forces of water and the malleable mud of the Mississippi Delta forged a tract of land unlike any other on Earth. With a significant portion of the landscape set below sea level, water encroaching on all sides, and prone to floods and hurricanes, the bend in the Mississippi River where New Orleans sits seems an unlikely, even idiotic, place to build a city. Yet, as Peirce Lewis states in his book New Orleans: Making of an Urban Landscape, New Orleans is an “impossible but inevitable city” (17). Impossible, because “the Mississippi Delta is a fearsome place ... [and] the site guaranteed that the city would be plagued by incessant trouble—yellow fever, floods, and unbearable summer heat” (17). Inevitable, because the site that would become New Orleans “occupied an extraordinarily important geographic location ... Her command of the entrance to the Mississippi was like Quebec’s command of the St. Lawrence, and both cities were seen as gatekeepers to the continental interior” (7).

There was no perfect site for New Orleans. As Lewis describes, the Mississippi River is unique in having a lowland Delta, an ever-shifting surface of mud, sediment, and silt that provides minimal solid ground and little drainage (18). The river mouths are difficult to detect, and the first 120 miles of river are twisting and deadly, filled with shallow water and ever-shifting sandbars. The southernmost floodless part of the river is in Baton Rouge, but that site is almost 200 miles from the mouth of the Gulf, an inconvenient distance for ocean-going vessels (28). A compromise, then, seemed to be needed, between sanity and convenience, between access to the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi. That place, the place that would become New Orleans, was at a peculiar bend in the river, a site “shown to Bienville and Iberville in 1699 by the Choctaws” (28), with a two-mile portage from the southernmost tip of from the riverbank to Bayou St. John, which connected to Lake Pontchartrain, which connected to the Gulf. A precarious city was born.

The early New Orleans was “a place which was miserably connected with its immediate surroundings, and superbly connected with the rest of the world” (30). The low, wet, swampy backlands made land transportation challenging, and the powerful Mississippi flowed predominantly north-south, with no major east-west distributaries. Rather than facilitating intercourse with its local neighbors, New Orleans was instead populated by “explorers, exiles, settlers, and investors of France, Spain, Germany, and the states of the Atlantic seaboard, plus Caribbean islanders, Latin American colonizers, enslaved Africans, and immigrants from the world over,” as described by Richard Campanella in his photographic history, New Orleans Then and Now (1999, 10). It took a peculiar kind of person to want to live in a swamp, and New Orleans was soon full of them .

One of the many implications of the turbid underlayer of New Orleans was the challenge of dealing with the dead, an issue discussed by Martha Ward in her text Voodoo Queen (2001). The shifting mud and high water table made burial unsuitable, as early settlers discovered when the buried caskets popped up to the surface following heavy rainstorms (94). Ward describes the adaptation people made to this inappropriate burial ground:

The Creole citizens of New Orleans came to be infatuated with tales of open graves, gruesome deaths, and skeletons or ghosts who led independent lives along the avenues of the cities of the dead. They stopped digging holes for burials below the fluid surface and began to erect tombs above the ground. Burial or benevolent societies based on ethnicity or other shared social histories built massive communal tombs for their members; they guaranteed the living a place of death with their own kind (95).

Social stratifications became permanent after death, and sometimes an elegant crypt was “the most valuable property the inhabitants of the city owned” (95). At the very least, the cities of the dead, as they came to be called, were built on some of the highest land in the city. These cities are beautiful, architectural masterpieces, frequently visited by tourists and family members alike. New Orleans is a city that reveres, cherishes, and honors its dead, a value most observable on the tradition of honoring All Saint’s Day, also known as the Day of the Dead.

The 19th century Day of the Dead was a celebrated and community-wide event. On Halloween, the day prior to the holiday, families would make visits to the graves of their ancestors and clean them in preparation for the holiday. Then, as Martha Ward describes, “in the early morning hours of the first day of November, families ... made the rounds of the cemeteries and greeted their loved ones.” (Voodoo Queen 96). Outside the cemeteries, the “market women sold pralines, peanuts, rich cakes, sausages, bread, and treats for children ... Relatives arranged offerings at their families tombs—gumbo, coffee, sweet potato pie, or canned goods... Today, their descendants bring potted plants and plastic flowers” (96). This holiday, Catholic in origin, bears more than a little resemblance to the tradition of ancestor worship in West Africa and practices by Christians in the Congo (96). The Creoles, unlike the Greeks, felt that communication was possible with those on the other side of the breach. And for the Voodoos, none would set off like Orpheus to visit the underworld; instead, on the Day of the Dead, the most important day in the Voodoo tradition, the spirits would be invited to visit them.

The history of Voodoo is rooted in slavery and the African Diaspora. Essentially, it is a synergistic religion between Catholicism and the African traditions which survived the trans-Atlantic voyage intact. It started as a shared community experience between slaves who did not have a common language; though their languages differed, they could still communicate through dance and spiritual practices, which were remarkably consistent. And, despite their sub-human status as slaves, they were allowed to congregate weekly in Congo Square to dance.

Congo Square, as a piece of ground, has its own very interesting history. Originally a sacred site for Native-American spiritual practices, it became a place where on Sundays the slaves were allowed an open market and drumming, and later, it would be the site of the Treme neighborhood that saw the birth of the most romping, raucous, and radical jazz jukejoints (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treme). At the turn of the 19th century it was a place shrouded in an aura of mystery and confusion from the white authorities, who began to look at the open, free-gathering of slaves as dangerous. The practices confused and terrified them; Martha Ward describes the inimitable Marie Laveau, legendary Creole Voodoo queen, as she approaches the square:

Marie Laveau crossed Rampart Street and neared Congo Square ... [she] had left the corsets, petticoats, and heavy undergarments she wore to church that Sunday morning at home. In their stead, she chose a loose low-necked cotton dress that permitted easy movement in the subtropical humidity and allowed the Great Serpent Spirit to enter and use her body. Her gold earrings and bracelets flashed in the sun, and her tignon—a vividly colored madras handkerchief wound as a turban—stood high in seven points (Voodoo Queen 3).

It may be obvious why such a woman would intimidate the 19th century observer. The dancing was lugubrious, erotic, provocative; its “Danse Calinda, boudoum, boudoum!” mocked the “cannons fired at sunset, scorned slavery and paid tribute to the delicious dangers of the music and dancing in Congo Square on Sunday afternoons” (9). The spirits who visited the dancers brought encouragement and hope to a beleaguered group of people. And for the white authority, the ancient mystery, encoded in the rhythms of West Africa and flavored by the climate of South Louisiana, was terrifying.

Martha Ward describes at great length the attempts of police, reporters, and religious figures to shut down the mass-gatherings of Voodoo practitioners in 19th century New Orleans—attempts that were all unsuccessful. The peculiar majesty and magic of Voodoo lay more in its reinforcement of community despite forces of fragmentation, and in the cunning of Creole women who defied law and convention of their time. All of these battles, however, couldn’t stop a disaster that was coming to New Orleans, and would fundamentally change the city forever—Jim Crowe. The failure of reconstruction was, in many ways, the end of New Orleans’s early grandeur, and not even the spiritual power of Voodoo could prevent it.

Like Voodoo, the origin of Jazz lies in a troubled history. This time, it was the laws and customs of segregation that caused the artists to suffer, not slavery. But the two beasts had roots from the same tree, and the defiant, satirical, and spiritual elements of jazz borrowed much from Voodoo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jazz). Voodoo persisted, of course, but in a lesser state than the widely visible public performances of Marie Laveau’s time. The unifying community of Voodoo instead changed to the clubs and bars that hosted jazz musicians most nights, and the churches that hosted them on Sundays.

The musical and cultural legacy of New Orleans, then, is one constructed out of great, shared suffering. The injustices of displaced Africans spurred the emotional need to create something, and the rich cultural traditions of their natives lands were incorporated into the culture that grew in New Orleans. This tradition continued through the 19th and 20th centuries, and even survives today. The music, the rhythms, the songs, and the stories are all tied to tragedy, all borne by a people who feel more rooted to the dead than most of the rest of Americans.

I should note that my approach to this subject matter is not without its share of reservations, cautions, and humility. With so much of New Orleans’s cultural history emerging out of a history of expropriation, murder, slavery, and rape, among other evils, the last thing I want to be guilty of is making light of the source material, or twisting it to my own ends either deliberately or inadvertently. Voodoo has especially been demonized; in the 19th century, by journalist-sensationalists who either could not or would not observe Voodoo gatherings with an unbiased eye, and in the modern day, by feckless Hollywood films that have latched onto “Voodoo” as some kind of buzzword for primitive, cannibalistic, and demonic. A quick Google search for Voodoo brings up, among relatively factual articles, pages with titles such as “IS THERE A CONNECTION BETWEEN ROCK MUSIC AND VOODOO OR AFRICAN PAGANISM?” Such articles, written by authors of dubious scholarly background, are intentionally hurtful and distort what little facts they have to prove their own means. By and large, the rich, healing tradition of the mysteries of Voodoo have been ignored, in favor of caricatures of reality and utter, baseless fantasy. Sallie Ann Glassman, in her book Vodou Visions (2000), outlines her interpretation of the roots of these biases:

Through sensationalized versions of Vodou, Westerners give a face to their own darkest fears of the shadow. We fear what seems like a loss of control, which is embodied by Vodou’s possession experience... While Western culture tends to honor and respect the scientific, the rational, and the technological ... perceptions concerning the nature of reality cannot be proved by empirical science ... That which is not understood, that which challenges restricted psyches, is called unsophisticated or primal or superstitious (6-7).

In some ways, Glassman’s view sums up my interpretation of the biased view of New Orleans as a whole, not just its Voodoo tradition. New Orleans embodies elements that fall outside the paradigm of America’s status quo—things like local social networks, bacchanal celebrations and revelry, imminent contact with the divine, and liberal, urban politics in the South. Even Jazz music, recognized as a great gift to American culture by New Orleans, was not always acceptable and even today is often presented in a sanitized context— electrified, cleaned up, smoothed, rather than retaining the grimy Delta grit that sounded in the poor black neighborhoods of New Orleans.

And so, my goal in approaching New Orleans was to tell the whole tale, not omitting or distorting undesirable elements or exaggerating positive ones. With a city as complex and inconsistent as New Orleans, however, such a task was daunting even if I my heart was in the right place. Not being a native New Orleanian, I could not speak with that authenticity, but instead, with that of a traveler’s, one who had spent the time and energy trying to learn something from the city (and what lessons did she teach!). I wanted to express New Orleans as I experienced it—a place of many faces, ugly and beautiful, but all unique, important, and part of the overall picture. I wanted to show the uncut version—raw, unedited, real, a place that embodied the shadow denied by most of American culture.

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