Hearing the Hurricane Coming
From the BLKARTSOUTH literary collective in the 1970s, to public-storytelling-based education and performance forms in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and fiction and nonfiction collections in the years since the storm, this study traces how New Orleans authors, playwrights, educators, and digital media makers concerned with social justice have mirrored the aesthetics and epistemologies of the collaborative African diasporic expressive traditions that began in the antebellum space of Congo Square and continue in the traditions of second-line parading and Mardi Gras Indian performances today. Combining literary analysis, democratic and performance theory, and critical geography with interviews and participant observation, I show how New Orleans authors, theatre makers, and teachers have drawn on "second-line" knowledges and geographies to encourage urban residents to recognize each other as "divided subjects" whose very divisions are the key to keeping our social and political systems from stabilizing and fixing borders and ethics in a way that shuts down possibilities for dissent, flux, and movement. Building on diverse scholarly arguments that make a case both for New Orleans's exceptionalism and its position, especially in recent years, as a model for neoliberal urban reform, this study also shows how the call and response aesthetics of community-based artists in New Orleans have influenced and benefited from the rise of global democratic performance and media forms. This dual focus on local cultures of resistance and New Orleans's role in the production of national and transnational social justice movements enables me to evaluate New Orleans's enduring central role in the production of U.S. and transnational constructs of African diasporic identity and radical democratic politics and aesthetics. Chapter One, "Second Line Knowledges and the Re-Spatialization of Resistance in New Orleans," synthesizes academic and grassroots analyses and descriptions of second lines, Mardi Gras Indian performances, and related practices in New Orleans through the lenses of critical geography and democratic theory to analyze the democratic dreams and blues approaches to history and geography that have been expressed in dynamic ways in the public spaces of New Orleans since the era of Congo Square. My second chapter, "'We Are Black Mind Jockeys': Tom Dent, The Free Southern Theater, and the Search for a Second Line Literary Aesthetic," explores the unique encounter in New Orleans between the city's working-class African American cultural traditions and the national Black Arts movement. I argue that poet and activist Tom Dent's interest in black working-class cultural traditions in New Orleans allowed him to use his three-year directorship of the Free Southern Theater to produce new and lasting interconnections between African American street performances and African American theatre and literature in the city. Chapter Three, "Story Circles, Educational Resistance, and the Students at the Center Program Before and After Hurricane Katrina," outlines how Students at the Center (SAC), a writing and digital media program in the New Orleans public schools, worked in the years just before Hurricane Katrina to re-make public schools as places that facilitated the collaborative sounding and expression of second-line knowledges and geographies and engaged youth and families in dis-privileged local neighborhoods in generating new democratic visions for the city. This chapter contrasts SAC's pre-Katrina work with their post-Katrina struggles to reformulate their philosophies in the face of the privatization of New Orleans's public schools in order to highlight the role that educational organizing in New Orleans has played in rising conversations throughout the US about the impact of neo-liberal school reform on urban social formations, public memory, and possibilities for organized resistance. Chapter Four, "'Running and Jumping to Join the Parade': Race and Gender in Post-Katrina Second Line Literature" shows how authors during the post-Katrina crisis era sought to manipulate mass market publication methods in order to critically reflect on, advocate for, and spread second-line knowledges. My analysis of the fiction of Tom Piazza and Mike Molina, the non-fiction work of Dan Baum, and the grassroots publications of the Neighborhood Story Project asks how these authors' divergent interrogations of the novel and non-fiction book forms with the form of the second line parade enable them to question, with varying degrees of success, the role of white patriarchy on shaping prevailing media and literary forms for imagining and narrating the city. Finally, Chapter Five, "Cross-Racial Storytelling and Second-Line Theatre Making After the Deluge," analyzes how New Orleans's community-based theatre makers have drawn on second-line knowledges and geographies to build a theatre-based racial healing movement in the post-Katrina city. Because they were unable and unwilling, after the Flood, to continue to "do" theatre in privatized sites removed from the lives and daily spatial practices of local residents, the network of theater companies and community centers whose work I describe (such as John O'Neal's Junebug Productions, Mondo Bizarro Productions, ArtSpot Productions, and the Ashé Cultural Arts Center) have made New Orleans's theatrical landscape into a central site for trans-national scholarly and practitioner dialogues about the relationship of community-engaged theatre making to the construction of just and sustainable urban democracies.