A few images from a wild second line parade I attended in April, 2013 in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans.
Second line parades are one of the most visible, colorful parts of the real New Orleans experience. For the black communities they bring together, they are first and foremost a celebration of an old clamorous African spirit that imbues the city and its history. They are also living reminders of the resilience and persistence of African-descended culture, which carries even more weight after the trials and tribulations of the post-Katrina mayhem.
In a way, second lines are also the most natural, necessary thing in the world. Parade organizations like the Ole & Nu Style Fellas Social Aid & Pleasure Club (est. 1997–98) have been stepping in and fulfilling the role of organizing aid and providing pleasure for many decades. In that sense, they are simply fulfilling a function that all communities ought to have.
Parade organizations like the Ole & Nu Style Fellas Social Aid & Pleasure Club (est. 1997–98) have been stepping in and fulfilling the role of organizing aid and providing pleasure for many decades. In that sense, they are simply fulfilling a function that all communities ought to have.
For a non-native observer like me, it’s a strange and wonderful cultural manifestation that doesn’t exist anywhere else. But to black New Orleanians, it’s not “strange” at all. The fact that New Orleans is the only U.S. city to have them is what probably seems more strange. New Orleanians must wonder about the rest of the country: “How do y’all manage to put up with life without throwing parades all the time? How miserable!”
Of course, I’m still on the beginner’s end of understanding what second lines really mean. I know that the Ole & Nu Style Fellas, headed up by the delightfully friendly Sue Press (not a “fella” at all) is primarily a neighborhood organization that serves the needs of its own community. In its relatively short history, it’s already become a legendary group, known for its resplendent, home-made costumes and its strong hand in guiding young men (and a few women) to adulthood. It’s not really meant to be a spectacle for tourists or observers from afar. It’s mainly meant for local consumption, to give people a vivid reminder of their culture and to show them what is important about it.
That doesn’t mean that outsiders are unwelcome, however. The funny thing about New Orleans is that it has always been a city that welcomes people from all over. It’s still a port city, in that sense. It still open for someone like me to come experience its deeper currents, without need for explanation or introduction. “It’s a parade, and everyone’s invited.”
But it’s true, given the city’s testy relationship to water (the controlling of it, and the losing control over it), the image of “currents” is painfully apt. To me, stopping by a second line is just another step in my many years of being interested in the cultural manifestations of displaced Africans, whether it be Oscar Micheaux, Detroit Techno, blues, or Brazilian Capoeira. Adding second lines seemed like a natural fit.
And it is these insights that have allowed me access to some of the more hidden undercurrents behind second lines. For example, I understand something about losing irreplaceable personal archives, as happened to me in early 2012. Mine were lost to neglect and bad timing; those in New Orleans were lost to ten feet of water rushing into the city in ten minutes flat. But as disconcerting and comprehensive as that loss was (with 80% of the city flooded), there was an even bigger risk: losing the living history of the people themselves. A culture that thrives in the doing simply cannot function without the people themselves.
In that sense, it’s no good sitting around talking about what second lines really mean, or to get too caught up in the history. For the organizations, such things are secondary to the doing. The day after they’ve finished one year’s parade, for example, they’re already starting to plan next year’s costumes. As Sue Press and other heads of Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs know all too well, the best way to keep people in your community intact is to keep them busy, working on something together. This is also how you keep history alive, by making it about the stories of the individuals involved, not by relying on impersonal institutions that tend to stagnate (or let you down), or by trying to set it down in books (that can be so easily lost in a flood). When your story is enmeshed in living, breathing people, it is always relevant, immediate, and awake.
I’ll say it bluntly for the moment (knowing it may ruffle some feathers—or ostrich plumes, as they case may be), but white Americans simply do not understand or have access to this kind of understanding (at least, not very often). There are reasons for this, and there are reasons why cultural manifestations like second line parades have often been marginalized or threatened by suppression. There’s a back and forth between the dominant and subaltern cultures, and nowhere is this more obvious than a place like New Orleans.
There’s a back and forth between the dominant and subaltern cultures, and nowhere is this more obvious than a place like New Orleans.
And even as someone who is mostly an outsider, I can say it pretty unequivocally: dominant (read: “white,” default, mainstream) American culture has something to learn about how to welcome people into the fold, in the way I have often been welcomed into the fold of black culture.
For now, it’s just an instinct, but something tells me that this is more than Southern hospitality; it’s a true remnant of African hospitality. It’s probably an oversimplification to say it like this, but it reflects one important theme in the African worldview: to think of society as a whole entity, like a body. Society as such is not just a collection of singular beings who are reluctantly forced to coexist—it’s a real community. The health of the body therefore depends on the health of all its parts. With that mindset, it’s incumbent upon all of us to welcome the stranger, or to help the person who is most at risk of falling. It’s up to the community to reassure every member that we’re all here together. Everyone is welcome, and no one will be left behind, or allowed to suffer.
For me, examining cultural manifestations like second lines inevitably raises painful issues like race, class, segregation, hatred, loss, tragedy, violence, and so on, that gurgle like snakes just under the surface. Of these things, much more can be said. But we don’t have to go there quite yet, because in the end, it’s about celebration. These vibrant images therefore speak for themselves. They speak to me of a pride and presence, a simple sentiment of “this is who we are” that rings through, with or without my generous heaping of words.