Tribeca Film Festival
New York, NY
There are certain elements of the human experience that define our awareness. These “accidents” of birth hold immense power over our beliefs, understandings, and interests. Some of the factors that define us, like gender, are genetically determined. Others, like poverty, are determined by sociology and family membership. Still others, like physical ability, are determined by an array of circumstances ranging from external causes (such as medical, automotive, or chemical accident) or happenstance (such as the unfortunate formation of oddly-functioning genes). All of these factors create unique—virtually unrelatable—experiences that are specific to one particular group. No matter how loudly these groups yell about their experience, they are often unable to communicate their struggles to those who don’t share the same traits.
For whatever reason, humanity has made race one of those damningly determining factors of human experience. Racial and ethnic identity is determined and defined in many different ways across the globe. Wherever it is encountered, it manages to stir up profound incidents of inequality, suffering, discrimination, and self hatred. A Bob Marley song lyric states that identity-based squabbles and murderous race wars will die down when “the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes.” Yet, among people of the same color skin, the color of the eyes does manage to hold significance. We are, it seems, hierarchical beings, seeking from childhood to name ourselves as the best, the smartest, the fastest, often at the expense of whichever person stands out as different. Whether it’s a group of blonde haired women on reality tv kicking the brown-haired, brown-eyed women of their own race off the show, or a kinky haired traveler being singled out for sexual harassment by people who share her skin-color, race and its attendant physical manifestations are the focal point of some of humanity’s most predatory activities.
The fact that the act of discrimination itself is interpreted as a show of power reveals the disturbingly feral roots of human behavior. In many societies’ eyes, to be discriminated against is to be put down, debased, or shamed. The shame of discrimination is so pervasive that the values of those who discriminate infect the psyche of those who are discriminated against. It is not only the bigot who believes that certain groups are “less than, ” those certain groups often end up identifying themselves as less than. When there are massively obvious societal inequalities, the person on the bottom can’t help but ask, “Why me?—Why others who look like me?”
If all this sounds like a mouthful of marbles, let me speak more plainly. I recently went to see the very excellent documentary Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans. The New Orleans Tribune called Faubourg Tremé “flat out brilliant” for its “storytelling, filmmaking and testifying. ” The film brilliantly provides hard-nosed history, archival footage and factual information within the parameters of a moving, gratifying documentary experience. The filmmakers (a duo that crosses racial and gender lines) manage, in a very engaging way, to relate significant elements of American history—specifically pre-Civil War to post-Reconstruction—without making anyone’s eyes glaze over.
Americans have long been accused of having short attention spans. As such, we often take a very fragmented view of history. The Civil War over here, the Civil Rights movement over there, and Hurricane Katrina in yet another space. The narrative of Faubourg Tremé takes a huge needle and weaves together a linear storyline from the very earliest moments of the black presence in the city of New Orleans to the contemporary post-Katrina reality. (For a thorough write-up, visit: http://www.newsreel.org/nav/title.asp?tc=CN0213&s=)
For me Faubourg Tremé was an emotional experience that was damning as well as enlightening. The documentary uses wonderful archival resources to reveal the history of civil rights struggle going way back before the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement is widely regarded as the first major push for people of color to gain the full benefit of American citizenship. So naturally, if I told you the film dissected a case of national significance regarding a person of color integrating the public transportation system, what time period would you think of? If I told you that the film documented a time when people of color held governmental positions in record numbers, what era would you think that happened in?
Faubourg Tremé is about so many things: the restoration of an old house, the stories our neighbors have to tell, the history of a culturally-rich New Orleans neighborhood, the history of resistance against discrimination, the fight for black American citizenship, the destruction of an interracial neighborhood, hurricane Katrina, jazz, the pain of losing your hometown, survival against incredible odds, and, very centrally, the second line: both the music and the dance. But the thread that stands out most to me, months after seeing the film, is the story of Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896.
I’ve always known Plessy v. Ferguson to be the case that upheld segregation. I knew that the Plessy v. Ferguson decision decreed that “separate but equal” facilities of all kinds were sanctioned under American law. What I have never bothered to remember is the details of the case. After seeing Faubourg Tremé, I will never forget. Plessy was a New Orleanian of mixed descent, a man who identified himself as black and looked white. Backed by an interracial coalition of concerned citizens, he entered a white car on public transportation in post-Reconstruction New Orleans. When he refused to move to the colored section, he was arrested and he (along with his backing coalition) took the case to court. Sound familiar?
The film’s statement about how deflating and damaging the Plessy v. Ferguson decision was to the residents of Treme was revelatory for me. People who had seen the tides of discrimination turn; people who had elected govorners and senators, who had held public office, bought land and opened businesses had just been told, by their government, that the time for equality was over. Black children would no longer be educated beyond early elementary school, there would be no more black politicians, businessmen would become sharecroppers, and blacks would have to sit in assigned areas on the trolleys.
There was an audible gasp in the film audience when these post-Reconstruction losses were delineated. Most of us—I assume—could not fathom the loss of liberties that black Americans weathered with the advent of Jim Crow. I suppose I’d always assumed we went straight from slavery to Jim Crow. I knew about Reconstruction, I knew we’d had governors and business owners, but it seemed like a blip on the screen of a story that ran contrary to liberty and equality. The film gave me a glimmer of understanding of what it might feel like to believe, fervently, that my nation had a real intention of equality. To believe that the lynchings and the resegregation around me was a localized—rather than governmentally sanctioned—discrimination. Having already desegregated the transportation system once before (back when public transportation was horses and buggies), these fighters for liberty took the Plessy v. Ferguson case to the Supreme Court because they believed they’d be supported by the laws of democracy. The decision of the Supreme Court showed them how wrong they were. With that one judgment, the Supreme Court gave federal authority to the proponents of Jim Crow and smothered the voices of everyone who protested the dissolution of equality.
The fact that the audience was shocked by this information shows the depth of our collective ignorance about the true history of America. Envisioning Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement as the third desegregation of public transportation for the people of New Orleans brought me to a new understanding of the unspoken history/burden/uphill battle of black American citizenship. [Note: one reviewer of the film, read these historic details as defensiveness. He writes: “ ‘Almost a century before Rosa Parks,’ we’re told, the transit system of Faubourg Treme was desegregated, and while this is fascinating, it also serves to somehow dismiss Parks. The sense is that the filmmakers feel a good offense is a good defense, and they’re more than a little defensive.”]
For me, the narrative of Faubourg Tremé peels back so many layers of repressive falsehoods. I discovered, after the credits were rolling, that some of those repressive falsehoods are firmly lodged in my own psyche. The documentary features jubilant footage of second line parades (a tradition that may become a historical relic with the rate that New Orleans street musicians are being arrested for parading without a permit). As I watched the dancers buckjumping with abandon, I could see from the set of their faces and the glare in their eyes that many of them were damaged in spirit, survivors of hard hard lives. They were the type of people I judge as I return home to my working class neighborhood. Self-medicating people who are hanging on to life by a thread. Seeing them dance while hearing the story of Treme’s history put a completely different narrative to the question: What’s wrong with these people? Why can’t they get it together?
After the film, I remember a startling thought shooting across my brain. I thought, fortified by the history I had just been fed: “I am right! We are human. There’s nothing wrong with us.” The idea that I—a child who had been BRED to love black people from birth—was walking around feeling that there is a “wrongness” about black people troubled me. Not only because I don’t want to harbor such thoughts, but also because I wonder what other black people are thinking about us, about themselves. Those who have no uplifting chants that speak positively about race, who didn’t grow up with black dolls, who don’t have any positive role models in and around their lives. What do they feel about themselves, their history, their legacy, their place in this nation?
I saw the film sort of like a jazz funeral (a jazz funeral is featured in the film). In a jazz funeral, the walk to the burial ground is slow, plodding, heavy, sad. Then when the body is placed in the ground (or in the wall), the body is “cut loose” and the music becomes rousing, celebratory, and vibrant. The film ends with one Treme resident saying she believes the city, and the neighborhood, can come back from destruction. Her words are like a promise of rebirth and resurrection. Ending on that note made me feel as if all the history I had viewed, the struggles, the setbacks, the orchestrated obliteration of advances, was like the beginning of a jazz funeral: sad, and full of pain and sorrow; while the future is the moment in which the rousing celebration will begin. By ending on hope, the film seems to be wishing for a tomorrow of strength, of equality, of possibility, and of a continuing richness of culture.
Faubourg Tremé is widely relevant. It goes down smoothly and is very appealing. I think it has something important to say to students, teachers, parents, and American citizens. The filmmakers did a lot with this little documentary, subtle and intelligently presenting rich and important moments of American and New Orleanian history. The film is available for purchase (for individual use) and for leasing (for educational use) at www.tremedoc.com. Post-Katrina, it seems, people have new eyes and ears for what’s happening in the city of New Orleans—Faubourg Tremé is the story of what came before.
Be well, be love(d),
Kiini Ibura Salaam