[One of my favorite cultural works of the last year was Small Axe, filmmaker Steve McQueen’s anthology film series about the West Indian community in England from the 1960s through the 1980s. I’m not an EnglandStudier, but I think there are plenty of ways to apply the five wonderful films to AmericanStudying. So this week I’ll highlight a handful, leading up to a Guest Post on McQueen’s prior films!]
On how New Orleans helps us better engage America’s defining creolizations.
I’ve written a good bit about New Orleans in this space: from this early city-centric post inspired by Mardi Gras and my first visit to the city; to this one from the same blog era on one of my favorite American novels and a book that’s as much about New Orleans as it is about its huge, multi-generational cast of characters, George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes (1881). Those posts illustrate a few of the many reasons why I believe New Orleans is so distinctly and powerfully American, as I hope have this week’s posts in their own ways, despite the specific focus on Katrina. And indeed, the responses to and aftermaths of that horrific storm likewise reveal some of the worst as well as the best of American history, society, culture, and art; on that final note, I should highlight one more time a text I could definitely have featured in the week’s series and one of my favorite 21st century American novels, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (2011).
To say much more eloquently than I ever could a bit more about why I’d define New Orleans as so deeply American, here’s one of the central characters from Treme that I didn’t get to analyze in this post, Steve Zahn’s DJ Davis McAlary. As a radio DJ, and a highly opinionated person to boot, Davis is often ranting, much of it about the best and worst of his beloved New Orleans (and all of it a combination of communal and self-aggrandizing, convincing and frustrating). But my favorite Davis monologue, in the opening scene of the Season 4 episode “Dippermouth Blues,” is far quieter and more thoughtful. Coming out of playing a hugely cross-cultural song, Davis calls it, “A stellar example of McAlary’s theory of creolization. Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, the Great American Songbook meet African American musical genius. And that’s what America’s all about…‘Basin Street, is the street, where all the dark and light folks meet.’ That’s how culture gets made in this country. That’s how we do. We’re a Creole nation, whether you like it or not. And in three weeks, America inaugurates its first Creole president. Get used to it.”
Those of us who loved that aspect of Obama and even called him “the first American president” as a result didn’t have to “get used to” anything, of course. And as for those whom Davis is addressing more directly in those closing lines, well to say that they seem not to have gotten used to it is to significantly understate the case (which of course David Simon and his co-creators knew all too well, as that final-season episode of Treme may have been set around New Year’s 2008 but was made and aired in late 2013). Indeed, when I was asked by audiences during my book talks for We the People about why we’ve seen such an upsurge in exclusionary rhetoric and violence over the last decade, I’ve frequently argued that backlash to Obama—as a representation of so many perceived national “changes”—has been a central cause. Which is to say, it’s not just that we need to “get over” the reality of our creolized history, culture, and identity—first the we who love those elements need to do a better job making the case for them, both as valuable and as foundationally American. There’s no place and no community through which we can do so more potently than New Orleans.
Next Axe application tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other takes on Caribbean American connections?