A Second-Line Revival
Miss Antoinette is a revered figure in New Orleans among musicians of all stripes, from brass bands to indie rockers. In addition to her years as K-Doe's "wife, his manager, his secretary, his bartender, everything," as she described it to me recently, she is also a cousin of Lee Dorsey, the writer and singer of the New Orleans anthem and '60s R&B hit "Ya-Ya," as well as a singer and dancer in her own right.
All of the musicians and dancers stopped to check in with Miss Antoinette, offering condolences for the extensive flood damage that the lounge and K-Doe's old black limo suffered in the storm. She remained smiling, optimistic and proud in all of her exchanges as she sat against the bright-colored murals of musicians on the exterior cinderblock walls of the lounge. In sharp contrast, everyone could easily see past Miss Antoinette, through the doorway, into the gray and gutted lounge. As empress of all of this, Miss Antoinette greeted Spike Lee as she did everyone else, and posed with him for a picture taken by one of his crew, seemingly for him to hang on his office wall.
We got going again, down Columbus Street, a block that three months earlier had been an open-air drug market but that had since been abandoned to flooded cars and garbage, including a flood-darkened Ziploc bag with "pickled lips" handwritten on the white label. On the next block down, in the fenced-in schoolyard of the McDonough 35 High School, the parade approached a group of young black men in orange jumpsuits with "OPP" stenciled in black block letters on the chest. These men, prisoners of the Orleans Parish Prison, which only three months earlier had left hundreds of men to drown in their cells in the rising water, ran to the high, chain-link fence and danced to the rhythm of their home, their neighborhoods, with their fists in the air. Cute women in pigtails and handmade "Make Levees, Not War" T-shirts danced in the sunny street on the other side of the fence, framed against the burned-out shell of an old Creole cottage.
The Hot 8, no strangers to urban criminal justice, stopped and began a special performance for the men behind the fence, playing an impromptu "Let My People Go." This act of solidarity reminded me of the band's own loss when a year earlier, only about five blocks from the schoolyard, The Hot 8's trombone player, "Shotgun" Joe Williams, was killed by police. (Though the media made much of his nickname in justifying the shooting of this unarmed man, anyone familiar with local jazz could explain that "shotgun" is a colloquialism for the trombone.) While the band was scheduled to play to a mostly white, upper-middle-class crowd in the French Quarter later in the day, it is unlikely that audience received the same kind of passionate and personal performance that The Hot 8 gave for the men in the orange jumpsuits.
The parade wrapped up its tour of the Tremé in front of the Back Street Museum, a museum of New Orleans' black cultural history in the shadow of the old Saint Augustine Church, where generations of Tremé musicians were baptized. The staff had made red beans and rice, which they gave to the dancers and musicians, and then to everyone else. Some activists circulated a petition for Category Five hurricane levee protection, and others informed the crowd of a march the following week to protest the city's lack of commitment to rebuild poor neighborhoods. They passed out fliers with the South African antiapartheid anthem "Nothing Without Us Is for Us" providing the details. Everyone seemed optimistic and at home, and unlike almost any other place where New Orleanians congregate, no one talked at all about moving away.
We had, for a moment, lived up to the President's prediction and triumphed over the spirit of death with a second line through a city that had been left to die as he watched from the big house, while his wife no doubt explained to him that what we have down here is "culture."