OPINION | Black culture vital to New Orleans, Tulane

Lily Mae Lazarus, Views Editor

With each year, the ebb and flow of Tulane University students filters through New Orleans. Graduating seniors march alongside a second line parade as they receive their diplomas in a festival unique to the local community. During a typical semester, incoming and returning students eat, drink and experience all that the city has to offer. From Tipitina’s to the French Quarter, Tulanians have the privilege to indulge in New Orleans culture, the vast majority of which comes from the Black community.

Ashley Chen | Art Director

  People of African ancestry first arrived in New Orleans in 1719, after being forcibly removed from their homes into the institution of slavery. Enslaved Africans during the colonial era built the city that Tulane University calls home. Despite decades of slavery, racism and segregation, Black culture in New Orleans perservered in the face of homogenizing forces. 

Although the Black community in New Orleans built and sustained the city, segregation, racism and gentrification eroded the Black majority. In the 1830s, the city was 57% Black. However, as the city expanded, Black people were forced into neighborhoods on the outskirts of the French Quarter, such as Tremé and the 7th Ward. By 1865, the Black population dwindled to 14%. Despite this drastic Black exodus, Black culture survived and continued to flourish. 

The preservation of Black culture occured in a plethora of locations, one of which being Congo Square, now a part of Armstrong Park. Hundreds of enslaved individuals gathered here to play music, dance, socialize and exchange goods. The history of Congo Square helps contextualize the role of African Americans in developing and diversifying New Orleans and its culture. This is the very same culture from which the Tulane community benefits.

Of Black culture’s many contributions to New Orleans, some of the most notable are music and entertainment. In the Big Easy, nightlife is integral to all that is New Orleans. Tulane’s party culture reiterates the constant access to alcohol and a good time. Without Black culture, so much of what students love about their evenings out on the town out would not exist. 

New Orleans has always been one of America’s most musical cities. The music of New Orleans, as we know it, originated in Congo Square and interacted with European genres. David Kunian, curator of the New Orleans Jazz Museum writes, “Even before there was jazz, there was music everywhere, dancing everywhere.”

The rise of the Jazz movement is responsible for the popularity of New Orleans as an entertainment destination. New Orleans is not only the home of Jazz but also rhythm and blues, certain styles of funk music and bounce hip-hop. These melodies define the music scene in New Orleans, contributing greatly to its position as a cultural hub.

Tulanians witness the scope of Jazz more often than not. Brass bands play behind Mardi Gras floats, musicians perform on the street corners of the French Quarter, and, when the Saints score a touchdown, the Superdome blasts a jazz tune in celebration.

Around the city, the sound of brass instruments and percussion echo through the streets signaling an incoming second line. Second lines are social aid parades offering celebration, services or paying respect to those who have passed. Second lines date back to the 19th century from the local African American community. These parades march in tune with a New Orleans style brass band, with steppers often sporting bright colors, emanating pride and paying homage to what is arguably a celebration of life and the spirit of New Orleans. Without Black culture’s contribution to local festivities, Tulane would not have the ability to incorporate second lines in its convocation and commencement ceremonies. 

Keeping with tradition, every year, students flock to Mardi Gras parade routes in hopes of catching special throws. Amidst the chaotic festivities, Tulanians overlook the vibrance of Black culture found in the Carnival spirit. All of the Mardi Gras anthems were made by Black artists. Apart from the musical influence in parades, the Mardi Gras Indians and the Krewe of Zulu are prime examples of Black culture’s impact on the holiday. 

The Krewe of Zulu began as a foot parade, often satirizing white Mardi Gras traditions. Today, Zulu coconuts are among one of the most prized catches during the Carnival season. Similarly, the Carnival season would not be the same without the Mardi Gras Indians. These Black Carnival groups are famous for their feather suits and beadwork. Usually formed by members of low-income Black neighborhoods in New Orleans, the Mardi Gras Indian tribes are icons of the preservation of Black history in the city.

Although music and entertainment are profoundly important to the city, the history of food in the local community has immense ties to Black culture. There is truly nothing like the flavors of New Orleans cuisine. For on-campus students, the university attempts to broaden palettes by offering local dishes in the Commons. What many may not realize is the extent of African influence on New Orleans cooking. Traditional food in New Orleans, from red beans and rice to fried chicken, came from the culinary skills of the Black community dating back prior to the Louisiana Purchase. Without this influence, these tried and true dishes would not exist.

Black culture, cuisine and the community are intertwined in the city. Dooky Chase, the paramount of Creole cooking, is a world renowned Black-owned restaurant. However, the establishment serves a purpose beyond food, acting as a meeting place for Civil Rights leaders in the 1960s and being one of the first fine dining experiences open to African Americans in the South. 

As a university and member of the community, Tulane markets itself as a patron of local traditions by carefully incorporating specific occult experiences into the school year. However, so much of what Tulane appropriates is in fact Black culture. Whether it be the university-sponsored second line parades or the dining hall food, the reach of Black culture is inescapable. Thus, as a prominent local institution, students and the administration must recognize that Black culture lives in all things New Orleans.

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