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  • “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”:Jazz Funerals, Second Lines, and Laying Hurricane Katrina to Rest
  • J. David Maxson (bio)

Animated by a “joyful noise,” supported in many instances by the testimony of deep, spirit-world faith, the dead seem to remain more closely present to the living in New Orleans than they do elsewhere—and not only because they are traditionally interred in tombs above ground. Walking in the city makes this audible.

—Joseph Roach (Cities of the Dead)

Unlike the cool and stationary cement, glass, and stone memorials of endowed buildings, the tactical memorials of New Orleans second liners are moving monuments made of flesh and blood.

—Helen A. Regis (“Blackness and the Politics of Memory”)

On the night of September 15, 2005, two and a half weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, President George W. Bush addressed survivors of the storm and a concerned nation in a nationally televised speech. Standing in front of Jackson Square with St. Louis Cathedral and the statue of Andrew Jackson looming over him, President Bush struggled to frame the devastation in a way that could make sense of the combined catastrophic effect of the storm and the failure of the city’s protective levee system. In the weeks leading up to the president’s address, the nation was inundated by mediated images of roughly 800,000 displaced residents [End Page 185] of the metropolitan area (Colton xv), they saw aerial footage of the Crescent City 80% underwater (Lacy and Haspel 22), and listened as Mayor Ray Nagin and Eddie Compass, police chief of the New Orleans Police Department, wildly speculated about the “hundreds of armed gang members” who had regressed into an “almost animalistic state,” roaming the streets of the city and terrorizing those stranded in the Superdome and the Convention Center (Harris and Carbado 99). Against this backdrop of hyper-mediated environmental destruction, institutionalized failure, and racialized fear, President Bush turned to New Orleans’ own cultural traditions to orient the audience toward a hopeful future even in the midst of calamity:1

In this place, there’s a custom for the funerals of jazz musicians. The funeral procession parades slowly through the streets, followed by a band playing a mournful dirge as it moves to the cemetery. Once the casket has been laid in place, the band breaks into a joyful ‘second line’–symbolizing the triumph of the spirit over death. Tonight the Gulf Coast is still coming through the dirge—yet we will live to see the second line.

(qtd. in Sothern 184)

President Bush’s rhetorical decision to tap New Orleans’ cultural traditions as a way of making sense of Katrina is not surprising given the city’s long and complex history with environmental disaster and human-induced trauma. New Orleans is no stranger to trauma, and it is partially because of the interlocking history of oppression and resistance wrapped up in a profoundly diverse population that New Orleans has been able to cultivate such deeply powerful cultural traditions for coping with catastrophes. Considering the impact of the interweaving of diverse populations in New Orleans, American studies scholar Eric Porter writes,

And with these people came intertwined histories of, among other things, conquest, militarism, empire building, enslavement and slave trading, revolution, institutionalized religion, the rise and fall of King Cotton, urbanization, war, racial terrorism, Jim Crow, industrialization, deindustrialization, political corruption, the development of the Keynesian state in its abridged southern form, unemployment, urban blight, white (and black) flight, urban ‘renewal’ and post-Jim Crow urban segregation, criminal and state violence, neoliberal social and economic policies (cuts in education, health care, and welfare), and levee breaks. But also histories of rebellion, emancipation, syncretic religious practices, labor and [End Page 186] union activism, mass civil rights movements, grassroots activism, community building, and thousands upon thousands of unrecorded but no less important instances of small individual and collective struggles for dignity and happiness. And with these histories came a profoundly complicated mix of cultural expressions that have spoken, first, to the ways in which a lot of different people with roots in many different places have influenced one another in these multiple contexts of power and, second, to the...


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pp. 185-203
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