Pre-ramble: There is a second-line parade every Sunday for nine months of every year in New Orleans. It is a four-hour, four-mile long rolling block party: a platform for community, music, dance, theater, self-expression, historical memory, public grievance, ethnic customs, and social bonding that speaks to every idealistic impulse we have for art and culture yet remains uncelebrated even in its own city.
The term "second-line" often calls forth the jaunty gestures of buzzed middle-aged JazzFesters getting their New Orleans freak on: men in Hawaiian shirts and women in long skirts pointing flower-print umbrellas at the sky while half-spinning in a muddy-line dance to traditional New Orleans songs played by brass bands in military uniform. I'm still shocked at how many New Orleanians have never been on a Sunday second-line parade.
This knowledge gap is rooted in something I once called "aesthetic racism." I refer to the disrespect of African-American culture, both in and of itself, and its ethnocentric relegation to something less than art or culture, even amongst scholars and intellectuals. Euro-Americans love it, sing it, and dance to it, but consider it -- if they ever do – as fun or as funking it up. Modernist scholars remain vaguely informed of the artistic innovations of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington (as historically contextualized) and such aesthetic racism is prevalent.
This is a class as well as a racial divide. As one veteran second-liner reflects, "Only certain people participated -- it was street people of a lower socioeconomic class. Middle class black people, bourgeois black folks, didn't embrace that. They were trying to emulate the white culture ... so that [second-lining] was too Africanized [for them]. Too uncouth. To see a bunch of black folks out there buck jumping, as we called it, was embarrassing to them."
My intent here is to raise consciousness while shedding light on the failures of multiculturalism, a rubric that continues to allow for the specious magical utterance of "diversity" without requiring any cultural or aesthetic work. This essay takes seriously Kenneth Burke's key phrase about the function of literature – that it is "equipment for living" – since Albert Murray appropriated it as the key objective of African-American music and ritual. Here's how I translate "equipment for living":
What is the psychological gear I put on to get out of bed in the morning? Through what aesthetic and physiological means do I enjoy and affirm my daily existence? With what frameworks do I understand my place in the community and the world? What existential resources do I depend upon? Which aspects come from my community, my ethnic group, my nation, my family, my neighborhood, my self?
So what is a second line? It's a rolling block party, a cultural institution, a community event that carnivalizes and colonizes the public sphere, a weekly celebration of neighborhood or clan, a walkabout for urbanites.
A definition, then. A second-line parade is what I call a "mobile block party" that lasts four hours (by police permit) and travels five miles into and through the streets of black New Orleans. Each one is organized and sponsored by a Social Aid & Pleasure Club (SA & PC) -- there are about sixty, each with dues-paying members – and each one has a certain Sunday reserved between Labor Day and the end of May. "Route sheets" are printed, distributed and e-mailed throughout the city, alerting people to the four or five stops to join the parade. At each, there will be tailgate grills smoking up sausage, chicken, and pork chops; make-shift bars on top of pick-up trucks with alcohol; women circulating with trays of homemade sweet potato pie and brownies. Along the way, coffin-sized coolers are dragged to provide beer, water, and wine-coolers to the weary and sweaty.
Music is provided by a hired brass band, the engine of the second-line. They are out front with the resplendent members of the SA & PC leading the parade, and in front of the band there extends a twenty-yard roped off area in which the members dance with and against each other. When parading, everyone is supposed to dance or, at the very least, roll wid it. As a phrase, this refers both to a certain physiological set of gestures and movement -- a sort of slight head-tilted rolling dance-walk – as well as the philosophical import of maintaining one's spiritual balance in the face of social and economic pressures.
Participation is the rule -- not spectating or just walking. On larger second lines, like The Revolution or Black Men of Labor, the mass of people might extends for a quarter-mile; on smaller ones, for two blocks or so. In any case if you want to near the band, you need to dance or get out of the way.
Here I sketch and analyze the role, function, and experience of second-line parades, a cultural form created by and for working-class African-American New Orleanians. Then I make a case study of a specific second-line parade: the 77th annual Prince of Wales Social Aid and Pleasure Club on Dec. 18, 2005. This is an old-school essay in the participant/observer tradition.
Link to full PDF of article. (XX pages, opens in new window)