Writing is often a solitary and tedious process with innumerable hours tapping on a keyboard. But the journey to create Freedom’s Dance: Social, Aid and Pleasure Clubs in New Orleans was a joyous purpose. I was driven to tell the truth with Eric Waters (photographer) about an African-American ritual and that both of us loved and knew well. The energy of SAPC members kept us working for years as we pored over thousands of photos to capture the beauty and communal joy of a Second Line parade. We pursued culture-bearers for interviews so that their voices could be heard.
The work was necessary because people from across the U.S. and around the world have witnessed or participated in a Second Line but didn’t know the rich and stunning history. A Second Line is so much more than Black residents dancing in New Orleans streets just for kicks but is a direct line back to Africa; tribal memory by generations of those who have endured enslavement in America. The color and movement through neighborhoods are about maintaining a cellular connection – communitas – that bolsters people enduring the ‘new Jim Crow’ through systemic oppression, low-paying jobs and mass incarceration. It might be only a few hours on a designated Sunday parading with fellow club members, but this cultural phenomenon feeds psyches to face another day. It is truly a dance that is freeing for SAPC members and the community.
Here are seven books that will assist bibliophiles interested in gaining more insight on SAPCs in New Orleans, one of the most African-retentive cultures in the United States.
Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans by Freddi Williams Evans (2011, University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press). This area just outside New Orleans’ famed French Quarter – now designated as a historic location – is where slaves would gather every Sunday to meet, dance and sell their wares. It is the place where the precursor to the Second Line occurred, a showcase for African tribal dances. Congo Square details the resilience of those who were enslaved, determined to maintain Africa’s rituals in a foreign land and keep a sense of ‘self.’ Evans is a featured essayist in Freedom’s Dance.
Black Skin, White Masks (Peau Noire, Masques Blancs) by Frantz Fanon (1967, Grove Press). I read this book when I was in junior high in the early 1970s. As a child of integration raised on the East Coast by Southern parents, Black Skin illuminated some of the racial issues I faced at a critical point in my development. I witnessed segregation traveling south in the 1960s and when I saw my first Second Line in the mid-1970s, there was an immediate sense of belonging and being ‘home.’
From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans by John Hope Franklin (1970, Knopf). Franklin created this comprehensive, academic view of being Black in America. The book outlined what it took for a race of people to rise above being treated as less than human and battle to thrive in a country that needed their bodies for economic development. An eye-opener read in my freshman year of college.
Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall (1992, LSU Press). Hall detailed every aspect of an African’s life in the ‘New World’ but ensured that the enslaved weren’t nameless or faceless, toiling in a field picking cotton or cutting sugar cane. She offered a list of tribes, their origins in Africa, their tribal attributes and how that became the fabric of New Orleans and Louisiana.
Black Rage in New Orleans: Police Brutality and African American Activism from World War II to Hurricane Katrina by Leonard N. Moore (2010, LSU Press). Moore’s book shows the continuum of resistance that began in Congo Square and continued unabated into the disaster that nearly wiped out New Orleans. African Americans in the city were never collectively docile or accepting of mistreatment. The warrior spirit from African tribes lives on in the city’s Black citizens.
Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster by Michael Eric Dyson (2005, Basic Civitas-Perseus Books). Dyson was one of the first nationally recognized academics to look at the decimation of a predominately African-American city. He delved into issues of class, caste and culture, and these same issues are explored in Freedom’s Dance.
Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans by Matt Sakakeeny (2013, Duke University Press). Sakakeeny focused on a specific aspect of the Second Line culture – music delivered by brass bands. There cannot be an SAPC without the driving beat of a band comprised of – at minimum – a snare drum, trumpet, saxophone and tuba. It is a comprehensive look at a music culture that could only have been born and nurtured in New Orleans.
Freedom’s Dance offers a holistic view of a beloved ritual that screams ‘you are in New Orleans!’ The book honors a pure demonstration of dedication, pride and spirit.
Karen Celestan is executive writer and editor in University Advancement and adjunct professor of English at Texas Southern University in Houston. She is the co-author and editor of unfinished blues: Memories of New Orleans Music Man with Harold Battiste, Jr. (2010, Historic New Orleans Collection). unfinished received a BCALA Literary Award (Black Caucus of the American Library Association) for Contribution to Publishing. Celestan’s work has appeared in Carve Magazine, New Orleans Advocate, The Times-Picayune, Gambit Newsweekly and other publications.