photo by Alex Lear
SPIRIT FAMILY OF THE STREETS
Sometimes you don't hear them until they come swinging 'round the corner, off St. Philip turning onto Treme headed downtown. Sometimes you be on the telephone and have to cut your conversation short so you can run outside and find out who died or what community event is being celebrated, when and why. Usually it's during the light of day but sometimes it's in the heat of the night when you rise to the occasion, and without a second thought bop down the concrete of your front door steps to slip into the surging sea of revelers streaming joyously down the street. In key parts of New Orleans, seems like sometimes could be any time for the jump up of a second-line. This fertile crescent has got to be the dancing-est city in America.
I cannot ever remember dancing in a second-line and not greeting someone I knew, even if I only knew them by face and not by name. Whether situated next to the bass drum, behind the trombones or in front of the trumpet, or whether prancing on the banquette, you always see someone to greet and smile at (or more likely, smile with) as they squat down and back their thang up, or pogo bounce on one leg carving a sacred circle in the air, or leap like a Masai in time to the syncopated cross rhythms echo-echo-echoing off the wooden faces of dilapidated, but nonetheless brightly painted, shotgun houses built right up close to the sidewalks skirting these narrow streets.
You could live miles away and still find your sister's husband snapping pictures with his trusty Nikon, or your brother's oldest girlchild and her best-est buddy strutting their stuff in those checkered, blue plaid trousers that are the public school uniform. Indeed, isn't that your uncle, your mama's baby brother who got arthritis, tapping his cane in time to the beat while standing on the corner by the sweet shop? And for sure you're in the house of our holy-togetherness if you went to public or Catholic high school with some of these people, or at least danced with the sisters of your former schoolmates at the ILA Hall, the Municipal Auditorium, the State Palace Theatre, or was it on Claiborne and Orleans two Mardi Gras ago? Within this multi-hued gathering of shaking flesh, it's almost a given that someone will greet/touch you with a hug, a kiss, or at the very least an enthusiastic pound of fist atop fist.
Like a primitive two-cell life form, the second-line pulses and throbs, a small band of musicians its nucleus and an ever-shifting enveloping throng of celebrants its connective tissue. Although there are a lot of theories (some very plausible) and no certainties as to the origin of the term second-line, for sure the second-line refers to dancing in the street with a go-for-broke, unabashed shimmy and shake ecstasy. What would make a 38-year-old school teacher get "ratty," hike up her skirt and deftly wave a white handkerchief behind her protruding buttocks with nary an ounce of shame in her game? Nothing but the spirit; and when the spirit say groove, you got to move.
In New Orleans dance traditions are stronger than so-called "social decorum." Here it is customary to prance in the streets while exhibiting a profound interest and demonstrable proficiency in overtly sexually-suggestive body movements. But that's only logical. There can be no family members if there is no sexual activity, therefore, shouldn't we celebrate the creation of family? Even in the midst of grieving over the death of a loved one, a family member, we dance our defiance and celebrate the joy of life. And that is the ultimate strength of the second-line: even at funerals, we literally affirm the ongoing existence of the family. Thus, these jiggling humans are a spirit family of the streets.
What is a spirit family? Well, there is a nuclear family of father, mother and their natural issue. There is an extended family of kin and kind, folk related by circumstance and life struggles. And there is the spirit family, an activity-centered sharing of common cultural values.
What is the nuclear family to ordinary Black people—aka (also know as) the sufferers, the down-pressed workers whose labor has been systematically exploited since our arrival on these shores as chattel, but bka (better, and more truthfully, known as) the transformers and creators of America's most vibrant musical culture, even though seldom officially recognized as such?
What does it mean: father, mother and their 2.5 children under one roof? Coming from traditional African societies built on elaborate, extended linkages between each person, what sense does it make to define one's "family" exclusively in nuclear terms? If you had to deal with masters who treated you with less respect than a bale of cotton or a healthy mule, who regarded you as at best 3/5 human, who bred you like pigs and who callously and methodically separated offspring from parent, how could you maintain the so-called blessed union of man, woman and child?
And yet, there is another dimension. Historical documents indicate that during Reconstruction, Black folk went to extraordinary lengths to identify and find brother, father, sister, mother, husband, wife and all manner of kin. Our interpersonal relationships were always important to us—even when we lacked the social authority to shape and maintain our family structures.
For us family has always been more than the definition of immediate blood. During the first half of the 20th century, the Black family unit included children rescued from the harshness of segregation-enforced poverty, children of relatives and friends taken in and reared inseparably from one's biological brood. Even as adults, it was not uncommon to be adopted cousins, aunts and uncles. Why was this?
We are more than just twisted responses to slavery, more than a limited range of make-do solutions to inhuman social conditions. More of our existence than has been thus far realized is proactive choice and not simply reactive settling for the lesser of two evils. Our insistence on constantly creating family is ideological, not pathological. We bond with each other because we believe in the beauty of community.
The spirit family of the street has many, many expressions in New Orleans. The main folk articulation is the Social Aid & Pleasure Club (SA&PC). Both formally as in dues paying and rule-book following organizations with administrative officers, as well as informally in a grapevine sort of way, at the turn of the century these organically created social formations literally became burial societies and employment agencies, insurance companies and institutions where skills and goods were internally bartered by a money-poor membership who knew that if there was to be a good life for the Black poor in The Big Easy (as New Orleans became known because of its elastic, social safety net that made it damn near impossible to starve to death for lack of either food or pleasure), if we collectively were ever to make any of our dreams real, be those dreams American or otherwise, then we had to pledge allegiance to each other.
The anti-Black, terror campaign which enforced the repeal of Reconstruction and introduced the Jim Crow-era of modern-day Black Codes proved not to be the tomb of Black self-determination as was fervidly hoped for by the racist adherents of American apartheid (which predated South Africa's version). Instead, in its cross-burning fanaticism, hard-line racism actually became a fiery funeral pyre from which our spirit families rose phoenix-like to parade through Black communities declaring that regardless of the strictures of segregation, we could and would take care of ourselves, and would do so with panache.
Plessy vs. Ferguson might ordain that we could not ride first class on public accommodations and that segregation was the way the American South defined equality, but when we strutted up and down our dusty streets, we declared our independence from American conceptions of who and what so-called "Colored people" were. By the twenties, Blacks in New Orleans had reconstructed the course of 20th century American culture. Henceforth, American popular culture could not be definitively defined without referring to jazz and Black-inspired dance—indeed the twenties could not have become the "Jazz Age" had we not created jazz. Moreover this new music, initially spelled "jass," was always accompanied in its home town by body movement, by dancing, by strutting (usually but not exclusively while parading in the streets). Even though in most of America the music became a concert tradition played indoors mainly for listening, in New Orleans the streets remain a natural venue of spiritual expression.
Each of the SA&PCs has an annual celebration of their ongoing existence. At these events, usually held in the autumn, the members step out dressed to the nines in colors that would rival Romare Bearden's celebrated palette. Shoes that can cost more than half the monthly rent. Hats special-ordered from some obscure merchant in a far-off city. And silk shirts dyed a shockingly vibrant hue. I have seen some club members dressed up and standing proudly tall albeit supported by a walker—they ride the route in the club car (a highly waxed, spit-polished maroon Cadillac borrowed from Big Head Willie who run the sandwich shop over on Orleans Avenue), however, their physical infirmities notwithstanding, these stalwarts who have been paid-up club members for twenty-plus years had to be counted in that number of those who were present for the kick-off of the perennial parade.
These are poor people for the most part. Workers who are systematically underpaid their entire lives. Some may ask what they get out of this. But does anyone ask what does a materially empoverished but spiritually empowered mother get out of resplendently dressing her children for church? So what if "Cou-zan Louie" (as cousin Louis is affectionately known in this neighborhood) has been sick, he's part of the family and even though he has to lean on a walker, Louis nevertheless decisively demonstrates where his heart is at when he shifts his once-legendary dance style from the lower extremities of his youth (wild-ass, crossed and uncrossed, angular leg shakes) to the sloping shoulders of his declining years (twitching mischievously in mini-motions which make him look like he has a massive vibrator hidden in the back of his jacket). Louis has metamorphosed his formerly fleet, foot movements into subtle twists and turns of his gray-haired head. His semi-paralyzed but still vigorous dance is all done with a deft aplomb and twinkling eye that outshines the more athletic achievements of countless younger and healthier people. For "Cou-zan Louie" and thousands like him there is no doubt that our music is medicinal and the conviviality of our camaraderie is rejuvenating.
With names that range from the lofty, such as Olympia, to the obviously near sacrilegious, such as Money Wasters, the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans are institutionalized forms of African secret societies developed for the expressed purpose of building community ("social"), offering mutual support ("aid"), and indisputably having a good time ("pleasure").
Beyond internally cementing the community and keeping alive the spirit of music and dance, the SA&PCs of New Orleans also functioned as a cultural calabash which contained Afro-centric aesthetics and philosophy. To this day, New Orleans remains America's most African city. You can not live in New Orleans and go untouched by the spiritual, aesthetic and philosophical power of Blackness. For example, here, even members of the Jewish community use a brass band to accompany the carrying of the sacred Torah during rare, outdoor religious ceremonies.
In addition to the SA&PCs, another Afro-centric spiritual franchise is the Mardi Gras Indians, whose exquisitely-colored, hand-crafted suits explicitly honor a tradition of united Black and Red resistance to genocide. Thus, the Mardi Gras Indians stress that our new family is broader than some mythological blood purity—mixing or (to use the pejorative term favored by those who tried to fuck everybody while at the same time contradictorily declaiming the sanctity of the "great White race") “miscegenation” was no problem for us. If we could be Black and Blue, if some of us could flaunt our "roon-ness" (you know, quadroon, octoroon, and so forth), then certainly we could and, given the realities of our history, we should be Blacks who were not only blue and partially White, but also Red too! Without ever cracking a sociology book or doing a statistical genealogical sampling, the Mardi Gras Indians spelled out the broad definition of family, a definition that goes further than blood, a definition that embraces the spirit of life as it was actually lived rather than mythologically romanticized.
What is most admirable about the spirit family of the streets is that it maintains its sovereignty even when there is a lack of formal structure. There is no government agency directing the second-line; no private sponsorships or aristocratic patrons paying for this out of the treasure chests of their pockets. Moreover, the second-line does not request permission to exist. We do it because we want to, whenever we want to.
It doesn't have to be a warm Sunday when the Treme Sidewalk Steppers are celebrating their anniversary, nor does it have to be Mardi Gras day when the Yellow Pocahontas are outshining the sun, no, it could be an ordinary Wednesday afternoon, partly cloudy and neither hot nor cool in temperature, and here they come horns blaring and drums issuing a clarion, centuries old call: "get your black ass on in these streets!"
(I have not described the indescribable music making that accompanies the second-line because words don't go there. No words, nor musical notes transcribed on a page, can capture the excitement this ancient music generates. Sometimes the musicians be teenagers of less than sterling technical expertise but even amid questionable intonation and fractured song structures, these neophyte musicians are unquenchable in their enthusiasm. Other times it be hobbling elder "musicianeers" (as Bechet called them) who have played these tunes for a thousand times or more but who attack each song with a gusto that makes you giddy.
(I will tell you the ingredients, but like listing a recipte for gumbo, that will not tell you how the music tastes—you’ve got to do that for yourself, so anyway, second-line music has a low-frequency percussive rumble that pulses through the physical frame like a muscle spasm, and a brassy sharpness that arouses like blood engorging a person's privates. At a second-line you will not likely hear anything that is memorable as a musical composition per se, and at the same time the whole atmosphere is unforgettable: the dancing, the singing, the way the musicians shake their horns at the vibrating body parts surrounding them, the songs that seemingly everybody knows—look how the people all shout and jump up at the same time as if this were a well-rehearsed, professionally-choreographed Hollywood dance number, which it isn't because, even though after the third "ta-dannn dant" you too are jumping and shouting in unison with everyone else, the truth is that this is only your second time being in a second-line.
(Some of this music is German, some is Scottish, a couple of airs are English folk songs, most of the riffs are Black melodic inventions thought up in the throes of the moment; however, in its essentials, all of this music is African and American; African in it's polyphonic/polyrhythmic erotic insistent intensity, American in its diverse multi-ethnic sources. Here then is another family secret that we shout in the streets of New Orleans: we got some of everything in us and we don't hesitate to musically celebrate our polyglot personalities and backgrounds. Despite the fact that we look like Southern Negroes and Creoles, blood-wise and, to a great extent, culturally we are literally a world family. Our sound encompasses all human sounds.)
Self-absorbed six year-olds strut on the corners convincing themselves they are dancing just like Big Jake, and everybody know can't nobody jook like Big Jake, except maybe Miss Noonay who got more wicked moves than a Louisiana politician lying under oath, anyway that's how them kids be dancing.
There is no television that can teach this. No computer that can buck jump like this. For, like I said earlier, at the core of this spirit is a healthy enjoyment of human eros—in our communities no one is ashamed to shake their thing: "This butt is mine, God gave it to me and I ain't supposed to just sit on it." And like family always do, we encourage the kids to show off and guffaw uproariously as the elders remind us not only were they young once but, more importantly, they still have some youthful vigor in their aching bones and withered flesh.
The second-line is then a way not only of celebrating life, but of building the future. The second-line gives young people something to look forward to as they try to do the dances the adults do, and gives elders a future to imagine as they teach their grandchildren to carry on after the current generation is gone. And that is why Mr. Al is standing in the intersection as the second-line makes it on down the street.
Sporting a bemused, dimpled smile, Al look like Elegba, a cultural sentry doing his duty at the crossroads. Mr. Al does not go inside until all of the children are safe back on the sidewalks and porches, and the procession has turned another corner.
With a certainty that is unshakable, Al knows that the family that dances together stays together, that music and movement are a form of prayer, that with this spirit in us we will never die, never, and that at moments like this, everything was, is and will continue to be jelly, jelly, jelly cause jam don't shake like that.
Let the congregation respond: aché.
—kalamu ya salaam