Space, Time, Congo Square

I took a vacation last week to New Orleans, which was a lot of fun. One morning I spent some time in Congo Square, in the Treme neighborhood bordering the French Quarter. Congo Square is where African slaves were permitted to gather in the nineteenth century on Sundays. There they danced and performed music, combining African traditions, incorporating American instruments and forms, and drawing upon the iconography of Native Americans. Over time, they created jazz in that square.

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Congo Square now features the additional title of Louis Armstrong Park. It’s a beautiful place to visit, and scattered throughout the park are sculptures that tell just a few bits and pieces of the story of African American jazz in its earliest forms. Walking around this sculpture garden I unexpectedly felt a kind of weight of history. The reason, I think, was a random confluence of events.

First, as I was walking by one of the sculptures, I sidled next to a tour guide. He was talking about this:

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The tour guide was animated and excited. He was explaining how Congo Square served as a place where slaves could perform and preserve their own cultures and traditions in spite of their masters’ desires to “convert” to their own ways. Now we can open a can of worms here by debating whether or not agency necessarily constitutes resistance. But more important, I think, is the need to discuss the way in which this tour guide’s telling was itself a certain kind of act, one of history, of politics, and power. The park served as a means by which a counter-hegemonic discourse could be focused and made intelligible.

And seeing this made me think about an experience I had a day before, when I was privileged to see Delfeayo Marsalis lead an incredible sixteen piece brass band on a large stage in Jackson Square Park, just a few blocks away from Congo Square. Marsalis didn’t provide too much commentary between songs, but he did take a moment to let the audience know about his thoughts on Confederate war hero monuments, in no uncertain terms. It also occurred to me that at that very moment, the stage on which Marsalis played was positioned such that behind the crowd, squarely in his view, was a statue of Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans whose rise to wealth, fame, and status would have been a great deal less probable had he not benefitted from the labor of chattel slaves.

In short, I suppose I was suddenly reminded that public history matters. Representations of history speak to people in powerful ways. They can inspire and welcome but they can also goad, taunt, and reject. For example, I noticed that a number of people didn’t look too happy when they walked by this place:

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But walking around Congo Square I saw the kinds of narratives that are lacking in so much of the country, not just the South, ones that celebrate humanism and collective struggles rather than wars and personal glories. My favorite sculpture in the park was one of Buddy Bolden, a cornet player who helped birth modern New Orleans jazz:

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It’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on with this statue in any one picture, but in person it’s incredible. Like a futurist painting, the work seeks to represent movement, and in doing so, challenges our perceptions of time and space. Buddy Bolden is fractured, suggesting perhaps the fractured nature of the self, but also the fractured nature of objective reality. This statue welcomes the visitor to interact with it; instead of presenting a figure for us to behold or worship, it asks us to engage, and it asks us to question.

Personally, I don’t see much of a purpose in old memorials and monuments that lionize and dictate in austere and authoritative ways. In various conversations I’ve had with people over the past few months, I’ve glibly proposed that maybe the solution to the problem lies in adding question marks to every title and plaque that adorns statues and memorial buildings. Instead of “Andrew Jackson, Great American”, that statute in Jackson Square could say “Andrew Jackson, Great American?” In all seriousness, turning our historical statements into questions would require more work. But I think postmodern sculptures could be a good place to draw inspiration.

In fact, I’d love it if we started in Asheville, North Carolina, where the center of a town known as a center of progressive politics and hippie culture is decorated by an obelisk dedicated to a Confederate war hero and North Carolina governor. What if we could replace this horribly outdated monument with our own sculpture garden, one that offers the diverse visitors and inhabitants of Asheville an experience that celebrates the multiplicity of lifestyles and perspectives now under attack by another North Carolina governor?

If, as James Baldwin says, “history is literally present in all that we do,” it seems to be that we deserve a kind of public discourse that honors that very idea, one that refuses to cordon off the past from conversation, contention, and revision, that is, one that refuses linearity itself. [1]

Notes:

[1] James Baldwin, “The White Man’s Guilt,” in Collected Essays (New York: Library of America, 1998), 723.