In Congo Square: Colonial New Orleans | The Nation


In Congo Square: Colonial New Orleans

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Under the Purchase Treaty, Louisiana's white inhabitants were to be granted the full rights of US citizenship. For a new nation founded on the idea that government by a distant power violated natural law, taking a colony of its own was vexing. The prospect of actually granting representation to the polyglot populace near the Mississippi's mouth--French- and Spanish-speaking rather than English-; Catholic rather than Protestant; many of its "whites" of evidently mixed descent--proved more vexing still. The city's Creoles, Jefferson wrote, were "as incapable of self-government as children"; for nine years Louisiana was governed by a colonial administrator appointed by the president. While New Orleans's "foreign" culture was troublesome, perhaps most unsettling of all was the density and relative freedom of its blacks. Its free people of color were far greater in number than those in Anglo-American cities like Charleston, South Carolina. Moreover, under the Spanish, its slaves enjoyed comparatively far greater rights than they would be accorded under the Anglo-American system. And it is this combination of factors, as Sublette writes, by which the city provided "an alternative path of development for African-American culture."

About the Author

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
Joshua Jelly-Schapiro teaches geography and literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

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In French New Orleans, a code noir had nominally regulated the treatment of slaves and allowed them the right to assemble on the Sabbath for worship and market. Under the Spanish, all slaves were permitted to request contracts to buy their freedom, to own property and--most critical for the development of its culture--to continue to socialize en masse each weekend. The place where New Orleans's slaves came to meet, from the mid-1700s until the 1840s (when their gatherings were banned by the Americans), was a grassy square at the edge of the old city, which came to be known as Place Congo, later Congo Square.

The importance of what happened in Congo Square, not only to the history of New Orleans but to American culture at large, is neatly caught in a phrase that becomes a leitmotif of Sublette's book. "On sabbath evening," recorded the writer H.C. Knight on visiting the city in 1819, "the African slaves meet on the green, by the swamp, and rock the city with their Congo dances." According to Sublette, this is the first use of "rock," as verb and metaphor, in the manner that would a century and a half later become common to the idioms of pop music and youth culture worldwide. Tales of those "Congo dances" are not limited to the domain of scholars alone; they are rich in the oral lore of a city that claims to have invented not only jazz but funk (whose name perhaps derives from the Kikongo lufuki, for strong body odor) and where, as Sublette notes, in a rudimentary studio not one block from Congo Square in 1947, Roy Brown recorded "Good Rockin' Tonight," a tune with as much claim as any to being the first rock 'n' roll song.

Of course, one can no more pinpoint the birth of rock 'n' roll--as Sublette acknowledges--than definitively trace the many African strands that inform the black cultures of the New World. This doesn't stop Sublette, whose energized, digressive style evokes a brashly erudite bar stool raconteur, from doing his part for early New Orleans. As in his previous book, Cuba and Its Music (2004), a widely praised account of that island's history "from the first drums to the mambo," music here becomes a means to trace the movement of peoples and the evolution of place. While the general reader is well served by Sublette's synoptic account of New Orleans's history within the broader context of the eighteenth-century Atlantic, what most distinguishes his book is its original research into the timbre and effect of the rhythms that filled the muddy streets and Creole dance halls of libertine New Orleans from the start.

Sublette is a sonic sleuth charting the successive waves of Africans who shaped this black city's culture: from the first arrival, in Nouvelle-Orléans, of two slave ships from Benin carrying the Ardra people, from whose foddun spiritual practice derives the core of Louisiana voodoo; to the influx during the early French period of Wolof and Bambara people from the Senegal River in West Africa, whose melismatic singing and stringed instruments were crucial forerunners of blues and the banjo; to the Spanish era's preponderance of slaves from the Central African forest culture of Kongo, whose hand-drummed polyrhythms came to undergird dance rhythms from Havana to Harlem. Drawing on travelers' sketches and his wide knowledge of Afro-Caribbean music, Sublette conjures up a vivid picture of what these scenes in Congo Square may have looked and sounded like.

As with all work of this kind--and all writing about music that exists neither in recording nor notation--these genealogies involve much conjecture and guesswork. Sins of overenthusiasm are here easily forgiven, however. Even if the veins and streams from Congo Square to today are best understood to be as much metaphoric as empirical, it is not hard to credit that in Sabbath-day gatherings there, important seeds were sown for the growth of the astonishing musics with which New Orleans and the United States are so lovingly identified today.

Sublette's account ends decades before the advent of jazz--that quintessence of African-America born on European instruments in the late 1800s--though not before he explicates how the neighborhood with which jazz is most closely associated "became French." As with that slippery term "Creole," the meaning and source of the French Quarter's "Frenchness" has changed over time. Its street plan comes from its French founders, but its oldest buildings were erected during the Spanish era. And as Sublette writes, the bulk of its "French" character dates from the influx, following the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, of thousands of Francophone planters and "Creoles of color" fleeing the blood-soaked Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue--especially the arrival, in 1809, of some 9,000 refugees who had a spent a decade-plus in eastern Cuba before being expelled by the island's Spanish governor. Not only did the Haitian Revolution help precipitate New Orleans's becoming a part of the United States (with some help, as it happens, from Jefferson, who, despite his hostility to Toussaint's cause, covertly supplied his troops with arms to weaken Napoleon's hand); so too did its aftermath ensure that New Orleans remained a "foreign" place for its first decades in the country.

Today the Louisiana Purchase is recalled as the great achievement of Jefferson's presidency. At the time, his acquisition enjoyed wide popular support. Jefferson himself--a Republican who'd spent the nation's infancy arguing for a weak executive and strict constructionism--hesitated over constitutional scruples. In Congress, he was opposed by Federalists who sought to weaken his administration by questioning the legality and wisdom of a president's annexing a "vast wilderness unpeopled with any beings except wolves and wandering Indians." He pressed on, though, convinced of the vital interest served by preventing a foreign power from occupying the nation's western edge and seduced by the opportunity to extend an "empire of liberty" halfway across the continent.

In the eyes of many Congressmen in 1803--and, as Sublette rightly argues, in the eyes of history as well--acquiring Louisiana was equaled in importance by the decision to allow slavery on its soil. Reopening a question that had embroiled the nation from its founding--and whose nonresolution made a dent in the federal idea, slavery begging national consensus rather than sectional understanding--abolitionists pointed to the incommensurability of human bondage with republican ideals; Northern Congressmen, hostile to slavery or not, were determined to prevent the expansion of the "slave power" (the favored term for the notorious "three-fifths clause" of the Constitution, which granted slaveholding states extra electoral votes in proportion to three-fifths of their black populace, and upon which those states had insisted as a condition of joining the Union). In the end, Jefferson and his Congressional allies won out; no provision against slavery's spread was included in the final bill of annexation. The tensions thereby exacerbated, however, would not be resolved until the Civil War.

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