I’ve always felt connected to New Orleans through my mother. As a young adult, she spent several years at the Sisters of the Holy Family convent in New Orleans East. The order, which was founded in 1842 by Henriette Delille to provide a home for Black women with spiritual vocation, was only the second order of Black nuns in the country, and it is still around today. New Orleans shaped my mother — her cooking, her politics — and, in turn, it shaped me. Because my biological father was born to a native New Orleanian, I’ve always assumed that I might one day run into a long-lost cousin on its streets.
That’s why, even though it is not my home, I nevertheless feel like a jealous guardian of its reputation. People alternately call New Orleans the most African and the most European of American cities. There is a persistent fascination with its complex of cultural influences. Métissage! Between Black and white, ambiguous, tragic and beautiful, that’s the fantasy of New Orleans. But it is also the most Southern of American cities, and the evidence of this is right underneath the pleasure. If we are to tell the truth about that history, we have to tell its tragedies as well as its miracles. That is where its mysticism lies, how the conflict sits up against itself, never fully releasing its tension even in the moments of revelry and bacchanal.
If you’ve been to New Orleans, you’ve seen the fleur-de-lis. It is a stencil version of a white and fragrant lily with soft petals. It is a signature feature of French heraldry. It makes the city pretty. And in the early 18th century, it had a particular purpose: If a slave ran away and was not found until more than a month later, his or her ears would be sliced off and the fleur-de-lis permanently branded on one shoulder with a hot iron. Another infraction would require the runaway to be hamstrung, and thus disabled from ever running again, and the other shoulder would get the black lily burn as well.
If in other cities it is hard to locate the sites of human trafficking, in New Orleans one can’t avoid them. There were auction blocks in parks and sometimes aboard the docked ships. A Black person suited for labor — skilled or manual, childbearing or sexual exploitation — could be bought at a luxury hotel designed in the Spanish or French style. Slave pens were rapidly hammered up and filled with people. Auctioneers, brokers and buyers gathered around everywhere.
Growing up, my mother and I went to New Orleans annually. I do not remember which visit it was when she took me to the Bourbon Orleans Hotel, but I remember her finger, slender with heavy knuckles, like mine have become, pointing at the plaque “Former Site of Holy Family Sisters’ Convent.”
Historically, the ballroom had served as a social center for the extralegal system of plaçage, in which white men entered into domestic unions with women of African, Indigenous or mixed-race descent. Most frequently, women of one-fourth-African ancestry, or less, would meet white gentlemen there. The white gentlemen wouldn’t marry the women — they’d usually have white wives — but they’d put the women of color up in houses, provide for their care and that of their children, including the provision of an inheritance. It was an arrangement that was less violent than plantation rape but wholly predicated on white supremacy and patriarchy.
For the Holy Family nuns, the ballroom was a symbol of domination and sin. In 1881, they bought the building in honor of the women who had been sold in those rooms. Black women for much of U.S. history, particularly in the South, were property who produced property. Their reproduction was a source of wealth. Their love for children, desperately nurturing them under a condition of dispossession and duress, had the perverse effect of sustaining slavery. Care kept the property intact.
Plaçage was a step above slavery, but it was humiliating and unjust, and the Holy Family convent provided an alternative to it, a refuge from the kinds of labor that Black women performed within the structures of white supremacy and patriarchy. They controlled their labor and bodies in a property of their own. The nuns occupied the old Bourbon Orleans Hotel until 1964, when the convent was relocated to Chef Menteur Highway in New Orleans East. Now the hotel is often said to be the home of ghosts who roam the hallways. Sometimes guests report seeing white men and golden-hued women.
Everywhere in New Orleans there are remnants of the trade in human flesh and the transport of unfree Black people. And they are not just architectural. They are also sociological. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the United States. The prison system is 66 percent Black, twice the state’s Black population overall. It is a harrowing inheritance.
Maybe that’s why New Orleans is a place to drink oneself to distraction, to lean over the smell of rye, absinthe and bitters, a grown musty scent to slip oneself into. Grief and pleasure are twins. When you watch the street dancer’s masterful footwork, hear the music in which wailing horns merge into up-tempo rhythms, it is evidence of a discipline exercised for human survival. You have to be able to work around the pain. Dancing is cathartic, and so is song. They sweat it out.
I would venture to guess that horror is also part of why New Orleans food is so delicious. Food is the blues here. All the tragedies of the slave ports brought together on the tongue in slaughtered meats, flesh cooked to falling-off-the-bone tenderness and smothered in sauces. There is some improvisation, but there is also a stringent tradition. Ask someone how they make their gumbo, and they will tell you both how and why it matters to do it that way.
In 2019, I went to New Orleans to participate in the IdeasCity festival. The program was a culmination of a five-day residency for artists that took place in Treme, the neighborhood where Storyville, New Orleans’s former red-light district, once sat. I knew “recovery” was a word that had encroached on the city in the years following Hurricane Katrina. I also knew it didn’t fit what had happened. In the post-Katrina period, “theft” better captured what was happening to the place where Black people had built tradition.
So I decided to do my lecture about Bras-Coupé, who was, according to the stories, an African king enslaved in New Orleans in the antebellum era. He was striking and heroic. On weekends, he danced in Congo Square along with many other enslaved people. Everyone, from all points on the color line, admired his grace and beauty. But once he fled the plantation, his captivating movement and dignified posture were deemed dangerous rather than entertaining. The fugitive was apprehended, and his arm was amputated. Hence his storied name: Bras-Coupé, Cut Arm.
I was trying to make a point in this lecture about what it means to hold on after some fundamental part of your being had been stolen from you. That is what New Orleans people have done time and again, after the theft of family, body and home.
In Choctaw, the original name for New Orleans was Balbancha, meaning land of many tongues. Its cosmopolitanism predates European conquest, competition, immigration and migration. Africans, enslaved and free, from the continent, the upper South and the Caribbean have also been coming and going for hundreds of years now. New Orleans is a crossroads, and a cruel one. Waves of disaster and displacement — from chattel slavery to gentrification, from lynching to incarceration, and from one terrible storm to the next, have made it a fugitive’s place. I’ve noticed that people carry New Orleans on their person, in their gait, laughter, accent and local knowledge. “Where did your people live?” they ask me, and they mean my address.
After my talk, a group of Mardi Gras Indians blessed the gathering with a performance. The Mardi Gras Indians are Black people who have been participating in Mardi Gras parades for over a century. They honor the Indigenous people who assisted enslaved folks who ran to freedom, while participating in the rituals of European carnival merged with African cultural practices. I sang along, stood and danced. We all swayed and clapped.
That night, I went with a friend to one of the places that is most familiar to me in New Orleans: Café du Monde. It’s a tourist spot, but also a local institution. Café du Monde has been on Decatur Street in the Quarter since 1862. Back then it was part of the French Market. Despite that name, the French Market was initially an Indigenous trading post and is said to be the oldest continuous open-air market in the country. Now Café du Monde is a simple open-air restaurant where people drink chicory coffee and eat beignets.
The treats, a light pastry dusted with confectioners’ sugar, as with many Southern delicacies, owe something to Black folks. Norbert Rillieux, a cousin of the painter Edgar Degas and an homme de couleur (man of color) offspring of a white planter, earned a place in history by creating what is termed the multiple-effect evaporator for sugar cane. Rillieux created a machine to harness steam from boiling cane syrup, putting it through three chambers. At the end of the process, he was left with refined sugar crystals. Rillieux’s invention led to a sugar boom. Suddenly, sweetness was available everywhere. His methods were adopted in Cuba, Mexico, France, Egypt and, of course, throughout the U.S. South in the 1830s. By the time Café du Monde came along, sugar and confectionaries were flourishing.
Rillieux couldn’t have eaten at Café du Monde despite his prestige as one of the earliest chemical engineers and his distinguished lineage. Though the color line in New Orleans was perhaps more porous than in much of the South, it existed. Café du Monde didn’t knowingly serve Black patrons until July 1964, in response to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
It’s one of those stark reminders that New Orleans was and is very much the U.S. South. If you look around, though there is always a wonderful motley of people in New Orleans, you can see the differences. Between Black and white, between tourists and locals. The locals are Blacker, often a bit rounder, frequently with tired eyes. The tourists drink the surroundings hungrily. The locals smile at them, but their faces blanch when the tourists turn away.
Riding back to the hotel, full of beignets, we passed a graveyard. I didn’t know in the darkness which it was: No. 1, 2 or 3. In St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, Homer Adolph Plessy, the plaintiff in Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision that upheld segregation, is buried. This is also the burial site of Marie Laveau, the mythologized Black woman voodoo queen, who was such a shape-shifter that I can hardly imagine how to tell you a story about her that I know is true beyond the fact that she was once a real person. The first mayor of New Orleans, Jean Étienne de Boré, is interred there as well. He is the man who first granulated sugar in the United States, under the tutelage of two Cubans, meaning that every time you sprinkle it over your cereal or in your coffee, you might consider how he, like Rillieux, made the national addiction much more palatable.
I cannot help thinking about sweetness born of the violence of slavery as a metaphor for New Orleans, which is a cradle holding together the South and its strands at the root. Like its native drink, a Sazerac, it’s sweet and strong enough to knock you out. And, of course, as often as people try to cut it off from the rest of the South, it functions like a phantom limb, one that we feel everywhere even when we don’t see it right there on us. The graves in New Orleans sit above ground because of potential flooding. And so the dead are raised, and decorated with stunningly bright mausoleums and abundant flowers. The spirits hear the music and might be swaying, too.
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