Text and photos by Ned Sublette
March 28, 2006
“The majority of the city's African American population is still living in exile,” said Helen Regis, a resident of New Orleans’s Seventh Ward, an anthropologist, and a perceptive observer of New Orleans culture when I interviewed her for Afropop Worldwide’s Hip Deep "Living in New Orleans - After the Failure."
Exile – that’s a word we haven’t seen in the national media. But it’s perfectly appropriate. The awareness of exile, together with the devastated character of the city - downed trees everywhere, 75% of the city’s stoplights dysfunctional, more than 80% of the city’s public schools still closed, vast tracts of destroyed housing looking much as they did the week after the flood six months before - hung heavy over Mardi Gras 2006, celebrated on February 28.
But every Mardi Gras Indian who could manage to go out masking represented 200%, defending their community with sacred street art.
We started out at 7 a.m. in the Tremé, the oldest African American residential neighborhood. It was damaged, but not destroyed, in what some New Orleanians are calling “Army Corps-trina.” St. Augustine’s, the oldest black Catholic church in the United States, was not flooded but its steeple was damaged by wind. Established in 1841, it’s of central importance to the spiritual life of the Tremé. Since 1990 their priest has been Father Jerome Ledoux, who’s made it an African American cultural celebration. Inside the church, between the stained glass windows of the saints, there were pictures of Mardi Gras Indians on the walls. The archdiocese, citing the expense of maintaining this great cultural center, announced in February that it would close the parish down. Though the church will stay open, Father LeDoux has been replaced. This brought an angry response from the community .
Outside the church is a remarkable artwork: the Tomb of the Unknown Slave.
A big cross of rusted iron links, set in the ground, with manacles and weights dangling from it.
A plaque explains:
While a young woman knelt outside the church to pray at the Tomb of the Unknown Slave, Big Chief Donald Harrison was inside the church, putting on his suit and preparing to go forth:
This would be his flag
It took four people to carry it. The visual effect was intense. Rolling with him was the image of his father, Donald Harrison, Sr., deceased Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame. In the background is the damaged steeple of St. Augustine.
As his gang rolled down the street, with their powerful chant: Congoooooooo . . . . Congo Nation, they were challenged by Sunpie (Bruce Barnes), leader of the Northside Skull and Bones Ga
Congo Nation responded with a volley of drums and rolled on. Later, Big Chief Donald Harrison greeted Big Chief Alfred Doucette and there was a jam
It was almost 80 degrees that day, unusual for Mardi Gras but perfect for a street party. Antoinette K-Doe, leader of the Baby Dolls and a pillar of the community, turned up:
Late in the afternoon, Victor Harris, Spirit of Fi-Yi-Yi, appeared, in a spectacular suit, which he and his team had begun work on in October, shortly after the disaster that devastated New Orleans.
Accompanied by a suited tribe, he danced his way through the adoring revelers, who added their voices to the chant: Fi-Yi-Yi . . . Fi-Yi-Yi . . .
Fi-Yi-Yi lifted his visor and spoke to the crowd assembled at the Backstreet Cultural Museum, across the street from St. Augustine on St. Claude Avenue.
And at sundown Mardi Gras was over and in the ruined but defiant city of New Orleans there was once again...