The Endangered Black Bars of New Orleans

L. Kasimu Harris walked into Art’s, one of the oldest still-living African-American bars in Pittsburgh, with the hope of photographing some of its patrons, but he knew it wouldn’t be that simple. For one, he didn’t look like anyone in there. Harris, an artist and writer, donned none of the black-and-gold Steelers gear that is standard dress code around these parts. The burgundy beret on his head suggested that he might have just flown in from Paris or some other artsy-fartsy place. But Harris had already penetrated Pittsburgh’s black bar scene, having shot at the Black Beauty Lounge and Jay’s in the city’s historic Hill District, both of which he approached without advanced notice, and dressed just as boldly.

The half-dozen or so barflies sitting in Art’s this brisk late-February afternoon didn’t initially absorb him into their chuckling circle, but in less than an hour, Harris was huddled with Art’s owner, Caren Miller, who at first addressed his photography requests cautiously. But Harris was able to break the ice. Soon, he was taking in story after story from Miller about her own family’s black bar ownership lineage, which stretched back generations.

Harris honed his skill in navigating these kinds of not-always-inviting spaces while studying the history and landscape of black bars in his native New Orleans home. Over the last two years, he watched as several black-owned bars in his neighborhood shuttered, owing to various factors — Hurricane Katrina, gentrification, aging out, or some hybrid of all of the above.

He began shooting some of the bars that were still in business, which became the grist of his photo art series “Vanishing Black Bars & Lounges.” The series was inspired by the photographic journey that Birney Imes took through the Mississippi Delta to capture the quickly fading landscape of blues bars for his book Juke Joint. Harris debuted his “Vanishing Black Bars” exhibit at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center in Pittsburgh in January. His thesis is that the closing of black bars in New Orleans is fostering an erasure of the “ancestral DNA” of black New Orleanian culture that dwells within these dark often unassuming buildings.

Benny’s Sandpiper Lounge, New Orleans,  2019. (L. Kasimu Harris)

“But as these bars shutter, culture is displaced, and in New Orleans, that has come with a rising fear that venerable traditions could be subject to new restrictions,” wrote Harris in an essay for The New York Times on his photo series.

CityLab spoke with Harris during his most recent visit to Pittsburgh, where he hopes to expand his purview of vanishing black bars beyond New Orleans and the Deep South. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

CityLab: I think some people are probably wondering how black bars are vanishing in a black city like New Orleans.

L. Kasimu Harris: I don’t think New Orleans is so black anymore to be honest with you, and I definitely don’t think we own as many businesses as people would think. We might have the population, but we’re not the biggest economic force in the city. And even within black communities, this culture is not important for everyone. If your parents did well and you lived in the suburbs, or you live really far uptown, this is not something that you probably would have participated in.

In Nelson George’s book The Death of Rhythm and Blues, he talked about that divide among black people from years ago, where instead of teaching your black kids the blues, you taught them classical piano because you were trying to ascend and be acclimated to a higher social status among white folk. I think if people could look at it for the genius that it is, in the stories that are told and the culture that pours out from these places—if you can look at it like that, we would have a much higher appreciation for it, and perhaps a more united front to serve and protect and preserve and promote this culture.

So you see black bars as being an essential part of the “ancestral DNA” of black New Orleanian culture that includes the second lines, jazz music…

And Black Masking Indians—yes. All of that is encompassed in these black bars. All communities need to be with their own kind at some point. That’s why you have Jewish community centers and Chinatowns, or why you have a gay bar. It’ not that you can’t be with anyone else, but it’s nice to be with your own sometimes, for a certain commonality. It’s a certain safe space that you have. And for black folks you need all of the safe spaces you can get.  

Benny’s Sandpiper Lounge, New Orleans, 2019. (L. Kasimu Harris)

Talk about the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the disappearance of black bars.

A lot of people didn’t come back, and 80% of the city was devastated. A lot of the people who did come back were dealing with so much trauma while trying to rebuild amidst so much uncertainty, and city government didn’t always help people out. The diminished population really helped to shutter some black bars. Then you had some older bar owners who were like my mother: She owned a floral shop and was probably about 65 when Katrina happened. Katrina was the thing that took her out. Her health was already declining. But after Katrina, she just didn’t have the strength to reopen.

So, you come back from Katrina and you are trying to rebuild, but now you have all these laws in place or ordinances that don’t really make it easy for a small business. Katrina was a confluence of things happening for bars to not reopen, and, if you didn’t own your building, then you were at the expense of someone else who may be ready to let it go.  

How does the history of black bars in New Orleans inform how and where black people gather and socialize today?

You have to go back to like the late 1800s, way before desegregation, when there were a lot of black spaces. One of the oldest on record is Economy Hall. You had a lot of these mutual aid societies, and these were groups that made sure that black people had proper burials. Basically it was like joining a co-op or joining an organization where you pool resources and pay dues. A lot of them owned buildings that had spaces where black people could meet to socialize, dance, and have a sip. Economy Hall dates back to about 1857 and then there was Pythian Temple, and San Jacinto Hall. These were black spaces because those were the only places where they could go. They couldn’t go to Bourbon Street or somewhere else. Those were the precursors to black bars. I think going to the neighborhood bar today is kind of like a return to going back to when there were mutual aid clubs.

Benny’s Sandpiper Lounge, New Orleans, 2019. (L. Kasimu Harris)

What about the political currency rumored to circulate throughout New Orleans black bars?

I can’t talk about that, I mean I just don’t know. But you hear about people meeting up at Pampy’s or how you can go into Sweet Lorraine’s and see movers and shakers of the city, sitting and having drinks and socializing, but doing a lot of business too. For a lot of those things, if you didn’t have the social capital to move in those spaces, that was a large population of votes that you probably wouldn’t get if you were running for office.

How else has the city been complicit in black bars’ disappearance, beyond Katrina?

New Orleans makes its money off the backs of black folk, but they don’t reinvest it in black people. They almost have a zone of where tourists can and can’t go, like stick to the Quarter, but don’t go to this black bar or that black neighborhood. They know that people are coming down here for the Second Lines and for the food that a lot of black people are making. But black folk are not receiving any return on that investment. It’s almost like a bait and switch: Come down here for the black folk, but just don’t spend any money with them. So then a lot of your interactions with black people might be either as entertainment or as the help. We’ve got to get past that.

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#WealthInColor: Disparities in New Orleans’ Entrepreneurial Ecosystem [INFOGRAPHIC]

The goal of this project was to ensure that entrepreneurs of color, particularly those with businesses poised to scale, could access the capital and community resources they need to grow their enterprises – resources that technical assistance providers, capital providers, anchor institutions and others have often denied them.

In New Orleans, the entrepreneurial ecosystem (in this case, the network of institutions, organizations, individuals and other supports available to develop and grow the city’s business community) is not currently meeting the needs of its majority Black population, despite a long history of entrepreneurship among the Black community in New Orleans. As the SU(3) cohort lead and venture capitalist Monique Woodard wrote recently, and based on the New Orleans Business Alliance (NOLABA) research, “New Orleans has a 60% majority Black population but Black entrepreneurs have been underrepresented in the city’s emerging entrepreneur community of local accelerators, incubators, and angel investor networks. Of the $41 million of local angel investment in entrepreneurs, only $1.3 million was invested in entrepreneurs of color.”

To better understand the barriers and lack of access that entrepreneurs in New Orleans face, Living Cities and our local SU(3) partner, NOLABA, set out to map the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. By identifying all players present, their programmatic or financial focus, their relationships to one another, and whether they served entrepreneurs of color, we could begin to see both the gaps and redundancies in the ecosystem and its supports.

Living Cities was able to leverage ample NOLABA research developed for its website. We also conducted additional research into which organizations explicitly commit to serving entrepreneurs of color in their mission, vision, annual reports or other foundational materials. Some of the gaps we found include:

  • An abundant but disconnected technical assistance landscape, with weak relationships between technical assistance providers and lack of cohesion in service
  • Disparities in access to ecosystem supports, especially to technical assistance providers, by race
  • Need for focused capital for high-growth entrepreneurs
  • Lack of access to large contracts for entrepreneurs of color
  • Lack of peer networks and mentorship for entrepreneurs of color

Our intent with this graphic is to provide a visual representation of how entrepreneurs in New Orleans experience the ecosystem based on their race so that ecosystem players consider the consequences of how they serve entrepreneurs of color. We are not suggesting a “separate but equal” approach, but we do believe that in a majority Black city, it takes intent, understanding and commitment to overcome the systemic barriers that prevent businesses owned by people of color from thriving.

As you browse the graphic and see the ecosystem from the perspective of both a white male entrepreneur and a male entrepreneur of color, understand that the experiences of women entrepreneurs, particularly women of color, are even more stark. The position of women entrepreneurs of color within the ecosystem not only has implications for the women themselves, but it also disproportionately affects their families and communities considering the outsized role that Black women, in particular, play as heads of households.

After you click through the various types of support, view the experience of the ecosystem from the two different entrepreneurs’ perspectives, and better understand the challenges they do or don’t face, we recommend going to our SU(3) Medium publication to learn more about how New Orleans is tackling these issues.

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The Slave Revolt Reenactment Taking Over New Orleans

A recent report on attitudes toward racism in the South found that many white and even some Latino and African Americans in New Orleans said they were uninterested in dredging up the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial segregation. Nonetheless, that history will be confronting them this weekend, when hundreds of African Americans band together to reenact the German Coast Uprising of 1811, considered the largest slave revolt in U.S. history.

Under the direction of performance artist Dread Scott, the actors will walk the exact same route as the revolters of 1811, a 26-mile trek along the Mississippi River that will begin near LaPlace, Louisiana, in an area that was known as the “German Coast,” named for the German colonists who settled it in the 1700s. They will cross through parts of “Cancer Alley” and end in Congo Square in New Orleans. The actors will be costumed in 19th-century garb and armed with period-era machetes, muskets, and drums, like the enslaved revolters they’re emulating.

(Slave-Revolt.com/Dread Scott)

The optics will be “jarringly out of place,” reads the website slave-revolt.com, explaining their journey through the strip malls and oil refineries that stand in the places where sugar plantations and slave-labor camps existed in the 1800s.

The performance will disrupt current discussion of the South’s history of racism, which is usually detailed in terms of black oppression, Confederate monuments, and other symbols of white supremacy spread across the region. Instead, Scott’s slave rebellion reenactment commemorates African resistance and liberation, showing how the enslaved employed agency to bring down white supremacy on their own terms. The performance will take place on November 8 and 9.

CityLab spoke with Scott about what he hopes to stir up with the performance and how it might reshape the Southern landscape.

CityLab: Why did you choose to take this performance directly to  public spaces and roads, as opposed to a more dedicated theater or performance space?

Dread Scott: I think it’s important for people to have access to contemporary art. But the main reason is that this is a community-engaged performance. There’s this history that’s there and it’s important for people to see freedom fighters from the past, or people in outdated clothing, but embodying the spirit of freedom and emancipation in the spaces that have this particular history.

Is part of the mission for this performance to engage the new landscape of strip malls, oil refineries, and corporate spaces that once were labor camps for the enslaved?  

Visually, yes, and with audio, yes, but not directly. It’s not a demonstration. We’re not going to be saying, ‘Well, this is Shell Oil, and it plowed under graves of black people,’ or anything like that. It’s not going to be confronting it that way. But there will be a jarring disconnect seeing hundreds of black people with machetes and muskets dressed in 19th-century clothing with a backdrop of a grain elevator, or with a backdrop of Bayou Steel, or with a backdrop of modern homes. People could do just the minimal amount of research and find that in the early 1800s, that this was all sugar plantations. In all of these towns, they reflect the fact that they were all plantations that needed access to the river. So the history of enslavement is very prevalent even in the landscape. And we are walking across it.

Why is it just as important to celebrate historical moments of African resistance as it is bringing down Confederate statues?

It’s a very good thing that activists in this city have shined a light on. These racist monuments that litter the South, and in some cases even the North, and the fact that people fought for years to get these monuments taken down, and launched a whole movement around that is great. TakeEmDownNOLA changed and re-centered a debate that wasn’t happening broadly, and then made it front and center.

This project is looking at black resistance. In 1811, the most radical ideas of freedom and emancipation existed in the heads of enslaved people, and they launched this rebellion to try and seize Orleans territory to try and create an African Republic in the new world, where slavery would have been eliminated. It would’ve been a sanctuary for Africans and people of African descent. That is very radical and bold and should be not only known about, but celebrated.

These people are heroes, and this artwork is highlighting and bringing that past back to life. It is also a project about the present. This project has taken place at a time when 1.1 million black people are in prison, where police, even on a welfare call, walk up to a black woman’s house in Texas and murder her. This is not directly responding to any of that, but it’s actually highlighting the spirit of resistance that existed in 1811 that many people could learn from and apply today in various ways.

The city of New Orleans has one of the highest incarceration rates in a state that has had the highest incarceration rate in the world [Although by some counts, in 2018, Oklahoma unseated Louisiana as world incarceration capital]. Do you think there’s a direct connection between that and the 1811 revolt, the largest slave rebellion in the nation’s history?

You don’t get a modern-day America without slavery. And one of the legacies of slavery is how it both criminalized black people and also literally built a prison system to to warehouse us. A lot of the carceral controls were set up around the time of slavery and after slavery was legally abolished. Here, Angola in particular, is a place where 75 percent, I believe, of the people that are incarcerated there will die there. And it also had some really important resistance fighters, like the Angola Three: Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox, and Robert King were symbols of the resistance to the new Jim Crow.

And so this project does actually talk about people fighting to get free from enslavement. It’s not about mass incarceration, but mass incarceration is part of a society that for hundreds of years profited off extracting the labor of Africans and people of African descent.

A recent report found that many people throughout the South aren’t interested in dredging up these historical events concerning racism. What do you hope this performance conveys to them?

Well, I think how people see the past affects how they see themselves in the present and how they look into the future. I think it’s important for people to know the history of slavery, but this is actually not a project about slavery. This is a project about freedom and emancipation. People should look back at people like Harriet Tubman or Toussaint L’Overture who fought slavery in different ways. People should be like Charles Deslondes who was one of the key leaders of this rebellion. There’s a lot to learn from that as opposed to just learning from the horrors and brutality of slavery— how people actually had a vision of getting free from it.

In 1811, people had a vision for abolishing, not just escaping, but actually abolishing enslavement by setting up an African Republic. That’s something that should be celebrated. And then how people move in the present, you know, how do people look at ending mass incarceration? How do they look at ending murder by police? Or how do they look at changing the profound disparities in wealth and thinking about the reparations of extracted labor.

Those are important questions. How do people get to a world where people are not held down and degraded from the time they were born, or a situation where now one in three black men will spend some time of their life in prison? How can we get to a world where that’s not the defining nature of existence for millions and millions of people. And how people look at this past has a lot to do with how people think about that question.

Explain the connection between these rebellions and Second Line culture in New Orleans today.

Well, I mean, as far as Second Line culture, this is a very different, dynamic, exciting type of Second Line. It is like a parade and it will be kind of amazing for people to rethink what Second Lines and what parades are in that context, and how people follow along them. We are ending in Congo Square, and without Congo Square, and a couple of places like it, you don’t get modern American culture. You don’t get modern American music. You don’t get jazz, blues, rock and roll, hip hop, bounce, R&B, trap, trance disco, funk.

This is the reason why we’re ending there. In 1811, there was an advanced detachment of enslaved people who were trying to seize Fort St. Charles, which is where the U.S. Mint was, or I mean, where the U.S. Mint is. And so that’s why we’re sort of coming to the city, almost as if the rebellion was victorious. But then we’re ending up in Congo Square to both lift up the name of the rebels that participated, as well as to celebrate the culture that is preserved in places like Congo Square. And we hope that that connection to the history of both Africans and resistance is something that is brought out in this reenactment, so that people can flip the military campaign into a cultural celebration, and place this culture in the context of people who were trying to be free.

When the Lee Circle Confederate monument was being taken down, people—both black and white—lined up and armed up around it in defense, to uphold it. How do you think your performance will be received, especially given it will feature hundreds of armed black people?

Well, I think that we’re using the specter of violence to take on real violence. There is real violence being done to the black community. The weapons that we’re using are prop machetes and prop muskets, and it is not actual violence. But I do think that the vision of black people armed in a military sort of campaign, for some people that will be really inspiring and liberating, and for other people that would be challenging.

For those who are challenged by this, why is it that they don’t raise these questions when there are white Civil War re-enactors who do this all the time? Why is that not threatening? Why is it that the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers or the people who were in New Orleans walking around with their guns out, intimidating people trying to take down racist monuments—why aren’t people challenging that? This should be inspiring because it is about people who were fighting to abolish enslavement. Why shouldn’t that be something that people view as amazing?

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