There is a long, proud history of street culture in New Orleans. In particular, there is a “network of grassroots, working class African American organizations called Mardi Gras Indians.”* I started learning about all of this a couple of weeks ago when I bought a book about the history of New Orleans, which starts back in 1965 when Hurricane Betsy devastated the city and continuing through Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The book, Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death, and Life in New Orleans, covers the lives of nine people who lived through those years, each with a unique and unexpected perspective. One character, Tootie, is the man who changed the Mardi Gras Indian culture from one of street fighting to one of pageantry and pride, sewing incredibly elaborate beaded and feathered costumes that were so intricate and lovely that no one would want to destroy it with fist fighting — thus the only way to “fight” back was to create an even more elaborate costume of your own the next year. The designs were kept secret all year, only to be dramatically revealed when it was time to parade through the streets on Fat Tuesday.
Another man in the book, Ronald Lewis, grew up in the Lower 9th Ward (which I wrote about yesterday). The book describes his childhood in the wake of Betsy, and moves on to his young adult life, then his married life. It touches on his advocacy for the black community when he worked on the streetcar rail lines, standing up for fair wages and intimidating his white bosses with a flashy gold grille of teeth. He, too, became ultimately involved with the Mardi Gras Indian street culture, creating those elaborate beaded costumes for his son.
But I didn’t learn that last part by reading the book. I’ve only gotten as far as 1983.
In yesterday’s entry, I talked about how our group volunteered to help the Lower Ninth Ward Village by going out into the neighborhood and talking to folks, asking them to come to the candidate forum and advocate on their own behalf so that their elected officials would finally get around to allocating money to rebuild their homes. My partner and I chatted with a group of men on the corner, one of whom had previously served on the New Orleans police force starting in 1975.
Well, that conversation went on for about half an hour. My partner and I looked at the time and figured we could probably finish the block if we didn’t dawdle too much. The next house on the street we’d been assigned was abandoned and rotting. The one after that was surrounded by a chain link fence with a padlock; while there appeared to be repairs in progress, no one seemed to be home. So we moved on to the next door.
It was a little cottage house, neatly maintained with a nice paving stone walkway up to the clean front door. The driveway led to some sort of elaborate shed in the back yard with a raised wooden boardwalk wrapping around it.
We rang the bell, but we heard nothing. Just as we were about to go, the door gently swung open, and a kindly face peered out at us with a patient smile.
After explaining to this gentleman why we were standing on his front porch, we asked if he was aware of the situation in the Lower 9th Ward. “Oh, yes,” he assured us, laughing at some personal joke, “I’ve had my finger on the pulse of the city for quite some time now. My whole back yard is a museum dedicated to the history of New Orleans, you know. Did you see it on your way to my door? Why don’t you come on back, and I’ll let you take a look.”
I agreed with enthusiasm, and we ventured off his front porch to head around the side of the house to the back. The boardwalk connected his back porch to the elaborate shed — which, we could now see, had signs advertising it as the “House of Dance and Feathers.” Not sure what I’d just dragged us into, my partner and I waited as this soft-spoken man unlocked the door and turned on the lights.
We entered a long, narrow room covered in feathers — hanging on the walls, fluttering from the ceiling. There were photographs and statues, neatly piled books and sparkling masks, more things than we could possibly examine in the few minutes we had remaining before we had to meet back up with the rest of our group.
My eye was drawn to the photograph up at the top of this entry — an African American man dancing in an elaborate Native American outfit. I asked our host about how such a thing had started, and he said, “Well, if you want the real answer, I wrote the book on it.” He picked up a large book, its cover dominated by colorful beaded stitching depicting a Native American face in profile. The title explained how the museum had gotten its name — The House of Dance and Feathers. “I even sent President Obama a copy when it got published. See this right here? This is the letter he sent me, thanking me for the book.”
As I glanced the book and the letter, I commented offhandedly that I’d only just learned about the Mardi Gras Indians when I started reading Nine Lives, and did he by chance know about that book?
“Know about that book?” he exclaimed. “Of course I know about that book! I’m Ronald Lewis!” He pointed at the book he had authored. My startled gaze followed his finger, and sure enough, there was his byline, plain as day.
Ronald Lewis. He was a character in the book I was reading, and here I was standing in his backyard museum because I’d rung his doorbell because the volunteer group I was traveling with had handed me a map marked with an X and told me to go talk to the people who lived there.
I reacted like a total fangirl.
I felt my eyes widen, and I sputtered for words, pointing at him, pointing at his book, shaking his hand, asking if I could buy the book he’d written, and would he be so kind as to autograph it for me?
He laughed, and I laughed, and he asked my name and signed his book for me. I took a few more pictures, but sadly it was time for us to rejoin the rest of our group. He gave us his business cards, mentioning that he opens his museum to groups and is happy to talk about whatever New Orleans history folks want to hear about. I promised to spread the word, and if I ever get to lead a group to New Orleans, you can bet we’re going to be making a stop at a little backyard museum in the Lower 9th Ward.
It’s days like this when I really love my life. What a day!
*quote from The House of Dance and Feathers: A Museum by Ronald W. Lewis, published 2009 by Neighborhood Story Project, New Orleans, LA.