We didn’t have much difficulty deciding where to go in Louisiana. Even though one might imagine the slow creep of rural Louisiana- gators, bayous, and swamps, heavy trees and sticky weather- the draw of New Orleans was too irresistible to pass up. Carl had been there a couple of times before, for work and a wedding, and wasn’t too keen on it. He felt the trappings of ‘French! Cajun! Old South!’ were too over-the-top, commodified for tourist consumption with little reality to back them up. I think it’s safe to say that he changed his mind over the course of the few days we were there.
There aren’t too many places in the US with more tourist appeal than “The Big Easy”. Mardi Gras. Jovial trumpet players toot-tooting as they meander down the narrow streets. Fleur de Lis on every street corner. King cakes and frosting and plastic babies and beads. Beignets and coffee. Fairy gardens and ferns and linen suits. Blanche DuBois dramatically hanging off of a balcony with her hand to her brow. So much has been said and written about New Orleans, it’s hard to imagine it having enough to back up those strong images. What we found, though, was that it kind of did!
Although it can feel a little Disney, we spent a good chunk of time in the French Quarter. We found that if you put on your tourist blinders, the elegance of the architecture is enough to charm even the most cynical of critics (Carl). We had fun browsing the art galleries on Royal St, window shopping at Faulkner House Books and stuffing our faces with beignets. We even ran into Carl’s cousin Kaela on the street (neither knew the other was in NOLA), and spent the night drinking with their birthday party, which took us through the Marigny neighborhood and into the Bywater.
I noticed that the local kids were drinking slushies out of silly little chartreuse flutes, complete with smiling, alienesque grenades at the bottom- the kind of souvenir you might get at an arcade. I had to have one! Gimme! After locating the source, a neon, tropical bar, Carl and I were carded on the way in despite being the oldest patrons in the joint by a decade. I happily forked over the cash for one of these frozen concoctions. On that steamy hot day, I was elated to get that cool, frosty alien in my grubby mitts. Sadly, it had a taste that can only be described as noxious banana poison. Neither Carl or I could stomach more than a sip, despite my unusual love of gross things and Carl’s inability to let anything go to waste. We tossed it in the garbage and looked upon each subsequent drinker with mild horror. I was alarmed to learn, while trying to Google the ingredients of the Grenade, that people try to replicate the recipe at home! Maybe it’s meant for hazing? We were too preoccupied to capture the event on camera, so you’ll have to settle for this image of the beverage (and take our word for it):
We later paid a visit to the Backstreet Cultural Museum, which focuses on African-American culture in New Orleans. A major focus of the museum is a group we weren’t previously aware of- Mardi Gras Indians. This group dates back to the 1800’s, when former slaves and Native Americans met and influenced one another in New Orleans- today, African Americans don elaborate, Native American-inspired costumes and celebrate among ‘tribes’ during the Mardi Gras parade. This tradition manifests in some of the most intricate and beautiful costumes we’ve ever seen.
We also paid a visit to some family friends who live in a historic home (though they didn’t know it when they purchased it in the 1970’s- the house’s roots were a later discovery!) They have since rehabbed it to resemble its original look when built in the 1800’s, and we were lucky enough to get a tour. A few gothic-feeling cemeteries, mansions and record stores later, we were pleasantly surprised by all that NOLA had to offer (aside from the alcoholic slushies).
Later in the week, we were stoked to visit a new museum a couple of hours west of the city. The Whitney Plantation is just what it sounds like- a plantation-turned museum that we’d heard about before the trip. Most plantations that are open to the public allow people to tour the main plantation home (usually an elaborate estate), with cursory reference to slaves and their experiences. The goal of the Whitney Plantation is to turn this notion on its head and devote itself completely to the slave experience in the US. Supposedly, many visitors are shocked to find that the organization is so matter-of-fact about its subject. As the woman who sold us our tickets emphasized with a meaningful look, “this tour focuses on slavery.” We were surprised to learn that it is currently the only museum in the US devoted solely to slavery, though we imagine that the new African-American History museum in D.C. will include a lot on the subject.
The Whitney Plantation gets a lot right. As a feminist and a scholar of gender studies, I was impressed by the sensitivity and diligence put towards telling honest narratives from the slaves’ point of view. In the opening video guests are shown, the voiceover states that “the only people with the right to tell the story of slavery is the slaves themselves”- as such, the museum tries to use direct quotes and firsthand narratives as much as possible. The whole museum revolves around this core principle, with several memorials naming the slaves that lived at Whitney and walls full of quotes. The museum draws heavily from the Federal Writer’s Project, a branch of Roosevelt’s WPA in the 1930’s. One branch of this project connected writers with former slaves to record their memories and experiences. Artist Woodrow Nash has created several statues for the museum, each representing a person who lent their story to the project; they are represented at the age when they would have been slaves (as children). Any slaves older than this would have passed away by the 1930’s. We found the presence of the statues very affecting. You can learn more about the museum on their website or via this short video put out by The Atlantic.
Shreveport / Northern LA
We headed up north for the remainder of the week, just as historic rains swept the area. Of course, we’d made hotel reservations in Shreveport in order to receive some packages (which ended up being the eye of the storm, so to speak). The town made national news with some unprecedented and dramatic flooding. For better or for worse, we made it there intact. Needless to say, we experienced some pretty extreme weather in the process. We waited out the remainder of the storms in a hotel casino, relieved to finally move on at week’s end.
US Anywhere is a year-long, cross-country documentary project by newlyweds Carl and Anna. They are taking the 52 weeks of 2016 and are using them to travel the country and make short films about all 50 states (plus Washington, D.C.). The project will seek to illuminate the states and the hugely diverse urban and natural landscapes of the US. They hope to inspire others to dream, travel, explore, and connect with the United States.