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The Legacy of Congo Square: Culture and Economic Empowerment

The beats of a thousand drums echo endlessly in the cobblestone pattern firmly laid out in

undulating semi-concentric circles over what is considered by some to be sacred ground. Congo Square has such a vividly rich history that the very air, trees, and earth seem to reverberate with stories; Stories that pulse with life even hundreds of years later, humming eternal a song of music, dance, art, craft, local commerce, and cross cultural kinship. The song of Congo Square evokes mystical stirrings of long-ago, and may rouse latent yens hidden within the modern soul. Yearnings for unity, culture and community, the pride of craftsmanship or true art, human-handed trade and the welcoming buzz of a traditional local marketplace. In a time where most people’s social spheres are contrived in a hollow cyber-world of narcissistic avatars and unreal reality, digging up a bit of United States history may reveal a few clues to lead us toward curing some of the current ills in society.

What is missing today is organic interaction between people off all ages in a community setting. No longer are children and elders happily participating together with the economically active adults to shape ways of life and new modes of expression. No longer is the co-creation of culture happening naturally among all people, incorporating the sage wisdom of experience with the wide-eyed genius of youth. No longer do we have “village” places to gather regularly and freely, to brush up against new ideas, new voices, new movement, new sounds, and new ways of living. Our daily life and culture today is unreal and inauthentic. Today “culture” is pop culture, socially constructed predominantly by corporate interests, specifically designed to be a consumer-based matrix for existence. From infancy on, the desires, needs, and behavior of people are manipulated via ceaseless advertisements flooding the human psyche. The images that inundate most folks’ daily lives send messages that in order to be happy one must conform to the expectations of society dictated by consumerism, to blindly follow the stereotypical “American Dream” and to ignore all deeper inquiries in life.

Society is faced with rapidly declining standards of journalism, the internet gushing with misinformation, impoverished education, lowbrow content in mainstream art, exploitative reality television, and a collective psyche riddled with repressed natural urges that degenerate into trends for twisted behavior. The parasitic viral memes of pop culture seem to be designed in an advertising laboratory to infect world with bad taste. It could be easily inferred that humanity is in deep trouble and becoming culturally bankrupt. This statement is simply referring to and focusing on societal expression, not war, famine, human trafficking, global warming or any of the undeniably huge issues the world faces. Artistic and structural genius Frank Lloyd Wright told us long ago, “Noble life demands a noble architecture for noble uses of noble men. Lack of culture means what it has always meant: ignoble civilization and therefore imminent downfall.”

The question begs, “ What can be done? How did people live and thrive culturally before the advent of television and industrialized consumerism?” A parable embedded in a tiny slice of American life long ago can be found in the inspirational history of Congo Square, which contains a moral to the story with which to impart to modern man. To unravel these yarns, one must go back hundreds of years to the settlement and colonization of Louisiana and the powerful international port city of New Orleans.

The land that later became New Orleans was originally inhabited by several indigenous tribes. Although the tribal names come from various translations, the original people were the Houma, Chitimacha, Washa, Quinipissa and many others that came to the area throughout colonial times. French explorers and fur traders began settling the area in the late sixteen hundreds, and the city Nouvelle-Orleans was founded in 1718 by the French. A period of Spanish rule followed, as territories were being traded and distributed among the British, French and Spanish, but the French took over again before the famed Louisiana purchase in 1803 by Napoleon. The slave trade established a central port in New Orleans, and people were kidnapped from many West African nations to be transported and sold there. The Haitian revolution in 1804 brought an influx of people from that island, while simultaneously French planters from Cuba also arrived in numbers. By 1840 New Orleans was the fourth largest city in the United States, and the merging of all of the various cultures was readily apparent.

A few laws or codes set Louisiana apart from the other southern states that participated in slavery: One, the slaves were forced to convert to Catholicism, and therefore had to rest on Sundays, having either the whole or partial day off from forced labor. Also, the drum and songs that were an integral part of the spirituality of the West African people were not made illegal as they were everywhere else. Thirdly and most important, legal provisions allowed enslaved people to buy their own freedom. The combination of these unusual liberties (for the era) with the merging of diverse cultures, ultimately set the scene for the legend of Congo Square. Esteemed jazz musician Wynton Marsalis has stated, “The bloodlines of all important modern American music can be traced to Congo Square.” Not only the great American heritage of jazz music was conceived in this small plot of land just outside the French Quarter, so was a blueprint for community empowerment under the most severe limitations as literal slavery.

As early as the 18th century, enslaved Africans, Native Americans, and “gens de couleur libre” or free people of color, began gathering in Congo Plains, as it was first called, to play the drums, dance, and trade wares on Sunday afternoons. The popularity increased, and the square became the main marketplace for slaves to sell the crafts that they sacrificed precious stolen moments throughout the week to create. The drum circle and dances that ensued drew people from all over, and soon the French, Spanish, and Creole folks joined in as well as tourists from all over the world. The irresistible rhythms in the singing, music, dance and craft created a flourishing community, and a fostered a transcendent cross-cultural kinship among the people who participated or even witnesses who stood by to watch. A New Orleans legend says that one onlooker stopped to ask, “Just what kind of music is this?” to the reply “ What kind of music? Why, it’s jus’ music!” With the drawl that has come to be associated with New Orleans, “jus’” sounded like “jaz” and became the word jazz. That legend has never been confirmed, but is a great example of how culture can organically evolve with random happenstance, even linguistically.

The beauty found in the illustration of this tiny slice of American history is that when people come together with music and art, common ground is inevitably found, and can cultivate thriving creative community and commerce. There are many documented cases of people from that time period being able to literally buy their freedom from the few hours of liberty allowed for human expression and trade. The entire history of America has been indelibly transformed by that acre of land, which has endured slave auctions, war, and yearly hurricanes for hundreds of years, yet stands strong and eternal in the souls of everyone it has touched. Music alone has grown in countless branches from these deep roots of the early inkling of jazz, yet culture today finds itself at a standstill facing a void. A void that may be filled with human-scale culture in local gathering places of young and old, and people of all walks of life. Gatherings filled with music, dance, art, free expression and trade. Now, in this modern era of “wage slavery”, class war, intolerance and prejudice, and rampant commercial oppression, where are the peoples’ Congo Squares, or how shall they be created?

A view of my old oak tree friend, a friend to many, and the rhythmic patterns of the paving stones of Congo Square

Works Cited:

“A Brief History of New Orleans” The Institute for New

Orleans History and Culture at Gwynedd-Mercy College, n.d. Web. 11 October 2012

DeBerry, Jarvis. 1859 Congo Square was the Only Gathering Spot for Black People in New.

Orleans. Times-Picayune. 26 April 2011. Newspaper

Evans, Freddi Williams. Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans. University of Louisiana

Lafayette Press. 19 April 2011. Print

Turner, Frederick. Congo Square: An Inquiry into the Origins of Jazz American Heritage

Magazine. February/March 1982. Volume 33, Issue 2.

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