While watching “No Reservations” on Monday night (clips here) and seeing Haiti, a place I hold very dear, Anthony Bourdain’s comment about the Ra-Ra Parade being echoed in New Orleans’ Second Line brought a lot to mind. Surely the Second Line, like so many other NOLA traditions, came to the city with wave after wave of Haitian refugees. Starting in 1800, those escaping the turmoil in what was once a French colony found a place in the soon-to-be-American city and its surrounding area. Black and white and every combination thereof, free and slave, they came and made New Orleans home. How fortunate for my mother city.
Another tradition that was certainly expanded on by the refugees – those who came unwillingly as slaves – was the Sunday dancing in what was then known as Congo Place and is now Congo Square. Located between St. Peter and St. Ann on North Rampart, as it always has been, Congo is a park with a rich and ongoing history. I could go on about the cultural and social issues swirling around the dancing – which was probably very much like a combination of Voudon celebration and Mardi Gras parade – but I think Liliane Crete’s description from her book Daily Life in Louisiana 1815-1830 does it far more justice than I ever could:
In New Orleans, Sunday was a day of relaxation, even for the slaves. Dressed in their finest, they gathered by the hundreds under the sycamores in Congo Place, and from early afternoon until nightfall they danced to the rhythm of tom-toms and crude string instruments. The dances were lively and fast paced, with quick steps and many pirouettes…
The slaves danced barefoot on the grass, as the civic guard looked on from a discreet distance and a horde of white spectators pressed around the gates of the square, their faces registering a mixture of amusement, astonishment, shock, scorn and indulgence. The African rhythms and dances were obviously not to everyone’s taste, and some of the Americans in the crowd must have looked on the scene as a display of savagery that no one but a black – or a Creole – could either savor or condone…
According to contemporary accounts, the great majority of the dancers in Congo Square were of pure African extraction. Latrobe* saw “hardly a dozen café-au-lait faces in the crowd.” Quadroons, mulattoes, and most of the Creole blacks regarded these Sunday revels as beneath them, and American blacks were rarely in evidence – partially out of deference to the opinion of the Creole blacks, partially out of fear of their Protestant masters’ disapproval. From the Protestant point of view, it was a sin to dance on the Lord’s Day or to sing anything other than hymns.
* Benjamin H. Latrobe was an architect from the east coast who visited New Orleans between 1818 and 1820. He later wrote a heavy-on-the-snark memoire of his experience entitled Impressions Respecting New Orleans: Diary and Sketches
And I will leave you with that, mes amis. Bon Mardi Gras ~
Header: Congo Square in 2006