A beautiful Mississippi sunrise this morning as I still try to process the events of yesterday. I suspect my students’ journal entries for the day will be chock-a-block full.
We got a rather leisurely start yesterday with a modest breakfast at the camp. The UNH groups are staying at a large private home around the corner from Katrina Relief in a large private home that I guess was once a day care center. Probably better than most accomodations, but with nearly 50 people a bit crowded.
Our primary course-related activity was to attend the annual gathering of the Uptown Mardi Gras Indian tribes, which takes place on the Sunday closest to St. Joseph’s Day. I did suggest that we leave early enough to stop by the Lower Ninth Ward to see what progress there is.
It is modest, but compared to the past two years a positive sign. There are new and rebuilt homes, occupied, scattered hear or there. And a couple of neighborhood churches were full and rockin’ on a Palm Sunday morning. I suspect that most of the parishioners have to drive back into the neighborhood to attend church, but in New Orleans old habits are hard to change.
There was a crowd gathered around the intersection of Tennessee and Galvez, which for some reason is my point to stand and survey the neighborhood. I was annoyed until I realized that this was not just a normal crowd of volunteers. A CNN truck was there, as well as trucks from all the local television outlets. We walked down Tennessee and immediately encountered serious-looking volunteer coordinators and unmistakable Secret Service presence: Brad Pitt was giving former President Bill Clinton a tour of his rebuilding effort in the Lower Ninth. We got pretty close to the President and got glimpses of Pitt, but the young volunteers engulfed him and he soon retreated to a large SUV. Clinton, on the other hand, strolled through the muddy streets and greeted people before settling into a chair for a CNN interview. I tried to convince the students that I had it all planned, but they know better.
On to “Super Sunday,” which is a media sobriquet, probably because it is more economical than “gathering of the Uptown Mardi Gras Indians.” There is also a gathering of the downtown tribes, but you can only do one thing at a time. On the way we went along Claiborne Avenue, which prior to the 1960s was the vibrant business and community street in New Orleans. In their infinite wisdom, local and federal authorities picked this vibrant, oak-lined street street as the place to run I-10 across the city. The street remains, covered by the overpasses which make up the lanes of the highway, but many of the people and most of the businesses are gone.
The parade was spectacular: too beautiful; too strange; too much fun to put into words. The students were skeptical of the neighborhood and seemingly randomness at the start, but traditions lasting this long cannot be directed by outsiders. Once it starting coming together with scores of local working-class African-American dressed in tall feathered and beaded costumes; drumming, chanting and engaging in mock combat. You don’t just watch, you participate, and we jumped in headfirst. Most of the students danced second line behind two brass bands, while I drifted back and forth up and down the procession taking pictures.
Conor was invited to dance with one of the local women and he put on such a show that all the other dancing stopped. I suspect he was channeling some ghosts of Congo Square, where the slaves danced. The locals probably gave thought to adopting him; they were clearly impressed. It is interesting that even after seeing Brad Pitt and a former President, all students talked about was the parade.
We then proceeded to the French Quarter, where most of the students stayed well into the evening. I ventured over the Spotted Cat and enjoyed a spirited couple of sets from the “Rites of Swing.” I had seen the singer before as part of the “Pfister Sisters.” A great way to cap off the day, was was the free ribs, fried chicken, and dirty rice in honor of one of my favorite bartender’s birthdays.
It was hard to get up and come back to Waveland, but I did. A full house. A combination of exhausted and wired kids. Cards, snacks, guitar jams — all came to an end before midnight. Now it is time to get to work.