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A City of the Dead

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
May 09, 2008

Most people remember where they were when the levees broke in New Orleans. I was in Trinidad at the time. My daughter who lives in Dallas, Texas, called a few days later to say that many of her cousins were trapped on their way out of Texas a few days later when many parts of Texas were threatened by another violent storm. Apart from very long lines of traffic along the highway for several hours (it seemed as though it were a gigantic parking lot) they escaped the fury of this natural force.

Last weekend Louis Lee Sing and Tony Lee, two of my dearest friends and I attended the New Orleans Jazz Fest. Although I went to hear jazz I took the time out to explore the city. I was amazed by the beauty and mystery of the city.

After I arrived at Louis Armstrong Airport, I took a cab to Crown Plaza Astor where I stayed. In the cab, I was assailed by Johnny Horton's rendition of Jimmy Driftwood's "The Battle of New Orleans." It is a song with which I was familiar. Recorded in 1958, it became a hit at the end of the nineteen fifties. It re-imagined the Battle of New Orleans, the final battle in the War of 1812.

Listening to the lyrics, I could well imagine what the battle felt like. The lyrics proclaimed: "Well, in eighteen and fourteen we took a little trip/along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip./ We took a little bacon and we took a little beans,/ And we caught the bloody British near the town of New Orleans./ We fired our guns and the British kept a'comin./ There wasn't nigh as many as there was a while ago./We fired once more and they began to runnin'/ down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico."

And running some of them did all the way to Trinidad where they settled in Princes Town, Trinidad. In fact, between 1815 and 1816, over seven hundred free Black Americans who fought on the British side of the war were given refuge in Trinidad. These free Blacks became the first inhabitants of the company villages. If I am not mistaken, Prime Minister Patrick Manning may be a descendant of these Free Blacks.

New Orleans looked like any other West Indian town. With its mixtures of people and its zest for life Bourbon Street resembled any Port of Spain street on Carnival Monday night. There were more live bands on this street that anywhere I know about and the liquor flowed copiously. A friend remarked: "You can regard New Orleans as the most northerly city of the Caribbean; Port of Spain as the most southerly." It represented the coming together of explorers and pirates, Voodoo Queens and Carnival (Mardi Gras) Kings, African slaves and European aristocrats.

I was interested in the Voudou aspect of things. It was introduced into New Orleans by slaves from the West Indies. As fate would have it, on Friday evening we went out to Red Fish Grill on Bourbon Street to get a taste of New Orleans' Creole cuisine. To my amazement one of the waiters at the restaurant was a direct descendant Marie Laveau, a Voudou Priestess, of New Orleans fame. One account described her as having a combination of "spiritual power, clairvoyance, healing abilities, beauty, chrisma, showmanship, intimidation, and shrewd business sense that enabled her to assume leadership of a multicultural religious community and accumulate wealth and property."

Such a description reminded me of our own Mother Gerald in Tacarigua, a Shango priestess, who claimed to have mystical powers. All of us in the village paid her the necessary respects and my grandmother was one of her faithful followers. Whether in New Orleans or in Tacarigua, these seer-women played an important role in keeping the community together and aspect of our African tradition alive.

No visit to New Orleans would be complete without a visit to a "City of the Dead," the cemeteries of New Orleans. Since parts of the city are actually below sea level, New Orleans had to construct a system of tombs above the ground to honor their dead. These tombs looked like live vaults that sough to maintain the sanctity of those who passed away. They resembled miniature cities with family tombs arranged very neatly and walkways to match.

A visit to the city of the dead prepared me for my visit to the 9th Ward where Hurricane Katrina had struck with all of her fury. That expanse of land lay abandoned. No one seemed to care for the people who had lost all of their worldly possessions. A federal government that had spent over 500 billion dollars on a War in Iraq seemed indifferent to victims of Katrina whose belongings (or what was left of them) were strewn all over the place.

The 9th War reminded one of the cities of the dead. Somehow the city of the dead looked as though it were better cared for than the abandoned remains of Ward 9. Maybe only God that can put a hand to assist these abandoned victims of Hurricane Katrina. I hope it does not take too long.

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