Who Dat? New Orleans’ Caribbean connections

When Sharon Millar visited New Orleans, she discovered the delta city has a few supernatural connections with the Caribbean as well

1920 painting of Marie Laveau (1794-1881) by Frank Schneider, based on an 1835 painting (now lost) by George Catlin. Photograph by Louisiana State Museum, New Orleans (Source Wikipedia)Bourbon Street parade at Mardi Gras. Photograph by Comso CondinaSt Louis Cemetery #1, where Marie Laveau’s grave is located. Photograph by Jean-Pual Gisclair and Neworleansonline.comThe French Creole architecture of New Orleans shares and aesthetic with Trinidad’s nineteenth-century buildings. Photograph by Alex Demyan and Neworleansonline.com

When I landed in New Orleans, I began to look for connections, as you do in strange places. Everyone said the city was so much like Trinidad. I expected architectural similarities, I’d been told the food was spectacular, and of course Carnival, one of Trinidad’s cultural benchmarks, has been embraced at the same level only in New Orleans and Brazil.

New Orleans felt Caribbean — even more so, to me, than Miami, which is saying something. But more importantly, New Orleans felt like home territory. The ways in which it reminded me of Trinidad — and I am not accidently excluding Tobago; Trinidad and Tobago have very different histories — went beyond the usual “Caribbean” flags. When I began digging further, I realised the historical parallels between Trinidad and New Orleans explain why things I had thought so uniquely “ours” kept appearing in this American city.

Fortunately for me, I crossed paths with Ina Fandrich, a respected scholar of the reputed nineteenth-century Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. By sheer coincidence, Fandrich happened to be my tour guide on a cemetery walking tour. We visited Marie Laveau’s grave in St Louis #1. There are three St Louis Cemeteries in New Orleans, of which #1 is the oldest and most famous. It was opened in 1789, replacing the older St Peter. Laveau’s tomb is said to be the second most popular gravesite visited in the United States (after Elvis Presley’s). Every year, thousands of people flock to stand before the Glapion family crypt, where it is believed the reputed queen of Voodoo is interred.

Apparently a very beautiful quadroon — the daughter of a free woman of colour and a white planter — Laveau is said to have had a snake named Zombi, after an African god. Fandrich does much to demystify the sensational side of both Laveau and Voodoo, presenting her as a woman who used her resources for healing and to provide spiritual comfort to her clients. The front of the crypt is littered with offerings: jewellery, coins, candles, Mardi Gras beads, and, strangely, a pair of shoes. Not far off, you can find the tomb of Homer Plessy, of the famous Plessy v Ferguson Supreme Court decision that changed the course of civil rights legislation in the United States. Close by are the resting places of Etienne de Boré, New Orleans’s first mayor and a wealthy sugar scion, and Ernest “Dutch” Morial, the city’s first African-American mayor. Further along, you’ll find the dramatic Masonic-style crypt of the (still very much alive) actor Nicolas Cage, who has secured his place in St Louis #1 for when his time comes.

When enslaved Africans were transplanted to the New World, their belief systems travelled with them. This spirituality was vital for the survival of their communities. In the face of unimaginable hardship, a syncretism of West African religions and Roman Catholicism emerged. Catholicism — with its array of saints and colourful, passionate iconography — was a natural template for the spiritual practices of the Africans (and it was the legal religion in most Spanish and French colonies). Catholic saints were “adopted,” and even though the practices were not theologically similar, the method of using lesser spirits or saints to intercede on behalf of human petitions made this syncretism effective. Voodoo devotees — unlike the stereotypes perpetuated by popular culture — believe in an omnipresent creator and the Loa, or Orisha. These Loa interact with people and things to help create and maintain a spiritual balance. This syncretism took place throughout the New World, with each territory or island developing its unique form of the religion — so there is Santería in Cuba; Shango or Orisha in Trinidad; Candomblé in Brazil. And Vodou is the national religion in Haiti, recognised as a separate practice to Louisiana Voodoo.

Before we visited St Louis #1, we stopped across Basin Street at Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel. The church caters to a diverse parish and provides spiritual support to the inner city communities. There are several very beautiful stained glass windows that pay tribute to the Madonna, including one of the Mambisa Virgin of Cuba. But it was in the shrine to St Jude, a small grotto in the back of the church, that I was able to feel the power of both religions working side by side. In the intimate space, presided over by a figure of St Jude, there were handwritten petitions, thank-you notes, coloured candles, and a deep sense of peace and reverence. Was it as it seemed, I asked Fandrich — that Catholicism here was working alongside Voodoo? The church, if not embracing, is certainly open to parishioners who hold allegiance to both religions. Yes, it was as it seemed.

It was through Fandrich that I met Miriam Chamani Williams, the current presiding Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, who was trained by her late husband Priest Oswan Williams, a Belizean native. Together they founded the Voodoo Spiritual Temple on Rampart Street, along the border of the French Quarter. Today Williams gives spiritual consultations and advice to devotees. On the day we met, I saw her give a “reading.” We chatted for a while, and she directed me to the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum on Dumaine Street. There, for an entrance fee of five dollars, I was able to browse through two rooms filled with the odd, the downright scary, the quirky — including so many elements of Trinidad’s traditional mas: skulls with sunglasses, money offerings, effigies, African statues, and baby dolls. There were also a few bones and some whips, and everywhere the eerie sense that death is right there alongside life.

I decided I was already deep in it; I’d have a “reading” with the owner of the museum, John T. Martin. He called me out to a tiny courtyard, typical of the inner courtyards that reflect New Orleans’s Spanish heritage. Martin is a big white man, a druid and a warlock, both supremely calm and very frightening. Which about describes my experience of the reading.

He was spot on in several instances, and very frightening in others. As we began, he leaned forward, his very pale eyes intent on my own, and said: “My Grandma pulled me back from the dead. Dead I was, stiff and ready to be put in the ground. And she pulled me back.” While I could appreciate the level of performance in an experience like this, it did scare me — even though it was only two in the afternoon, and blazing sun outside.
It turns out Martin is a very kind man, and he gave me much insight on certain things that had been bothering me. Then he introduced me to his cats, two of which had meandered up to talk to me. He also lives with several pythons — since in his spirit incarnation, he explained, he is a python. I said I didn’t want to meet the pythons, but thank you anyway.

After my reading, I bought some white sage — burned for ritual cleansing — got lost, bumped into a crystal store, and asked for some clear quartz. And then treated myself to a dozen oysters and a beer. I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering through the French Quarter. As I looked at the wonderful buildings, I was struck by the similarities in an aesthetic I’d always thought to be uniquely Trinidadian. There were the same deep fretworked galleries (if it has supporting pillars underneath it, it is a gallery; if it does not, it is a porch), with lazily spinning ceiling fans, long hanging ferns, pots of caladiums on either side of entrances. Many of the dishes I encountered in restaurants seemed familiar to me from old cookbooks at home, or passed-down recipes: turtle soup with sherry, crab matete.

But most telling was the relationship between those who considered themselves French descendants and the Anglo-descendants. Everywhere in New Orleans I heard stories that resonated with stories I had heard of the French Creoles in Trinidad: resentment at the loss of their estates and plantations to the Anglos, resentment at the changing of the language from French to English, a fierce individuality that is found in the pockets of patois that still survive. I learned there is an dialect called Yat which is dying out, but still epitomises old New Orleans. One of the distinguishing characteristics is the conversion of the th sound into a d. This becomes dis and that becomes dat. The cheering slogan for the New Orleans Saints, the city’s football team, is “Who Dat?” And, of course, there was the ever-present sound of music, joie de vivre, and craftsmanship that is the legacy of the African contribution to the New World. New Orleans has given the world jazz, Trinidad delivered steel pan, Jamaica gave us reggae.

Sometimes seeing yourself in unexpected places makes you realise how you came to be. Not long ago, I was visiting Lapeyrouse Cemetery in Port of Spain, and wondering why we can’t turn our cemeteries into the historical sites that they are in so many parts of the world. And I came upon an old wall of memorial tablets to long-dead French Creoles: more than a few from Saint Domingue, many from France. Many of the epitaphs were not unlike the ones I had seen in New Orleans: so many dead of cholera, yellow fever, childbirth. And that is why, up to today, we still play the mas, our own spell against Sans Humanité: Santimanitay.