We Have Always Told Our Stories

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There’s a heightened craving for authentic experiences within the cultural community; mainstream museums are capitalizing on the narratives of Black people, giving the appearance of being inclusive in this new era.  They have worked to ensure (at least for the time being) that their collections, exhibitions, and public programming encapsulate this renewed interest. Black culture has taken center stage. These mainstream institutions have sought to amplify our voices and experiences. They have begun and (hopefully) will continue adding our voices into the broader ethos of American culture; however, why are these mainstream (mostly white) institutions given the opportunity to widely share Black stories?

When we say, “New Orleans history is Black history,” we (more specifically, me) mean it. New Orleans is considered one of the most Africanized cities in this country. Black people have a sense of who they are in this city. Our culture is ever present, our markers are indelible. It has been argued that this city makes its money from Black culture or Black exploitation (our tourism market is one of our greatest sources of income). A museum is an institution devoted to the procurement, care, studies, and display of objects of lasting interest or value. The first city-sanctioned Black art and history museum was established in 1996; it has been closed for almost a decade. Currently, we have nine Black  museums in New Orleans: Backstreet Cultural Museum, Donald Harrison Sr. Museum, House of Dance and Feathers, Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum, Katrina National Memorial Museum, The McKenna Museums (Le Musee de f.p.c. and The George and Leah McKenna Museum of African American Art), Treme’s Petite Jazz Museum, and Voodoo Spiritual Temple. These institutions are privately owned and operated by African Americans who found it necessary to insert our voice into the larger cultural conversation. We are at the forefront of telling our history. Our isolation from the status quo has given us the significant advantage to keeping it real. We get to speak our unedited truth with no strings attached. Black institutions and minority operated institutions are the authenticity that the mainstream has been seeking; however, we continue to be overlooked and undervalued. While these obstacles exist within our small Black institutions, we continue to strive forward and share our narrative with a loud voice. We continue to develop strategies, community partnerships, co-opts, and coalitions to pull resources together.  All yielding various success rates.

Recently, in New Orleans and the world, we have reached an impasse. Generally, we have finally recognized the importance of our own spaces while submitting ourselves into the world at large. We have allowed ourselves to be placed at the center of conversations without being the leaders of them. We have allowed a city that has commodified us to render us helpless in defense of our culture by underfunding city agencies put in place to be our voice. Black sacred spaces have always existed.  They have been telling our narratives, they have rejoiced in small triumphs with no support from the mainstream community and little help from our own community. How many of us have visited, become members, or advocated for our institutions?  How many of us know that we even exist? We are glad for our inclusion into the mainstream story; however, is it “our narrative?” No, because it has been edited, rewritten, and given to us in a way that we cannot understand.  So, “Yes” we should be welcomed into those public spaces, but is it truly designed for us?

We do not need validation from anybody except our own. Keep In Mind that we have always told our stories, both individually and collectively. If we want to maintain the ownership of our experiences, we must support our artists, storytellers, businesses, newspapers, cultural institutions, and schools. We must advocate for ourselves on a local, state, and national level. We are who we've been waiting for, and it’s time to recognize that.

Kim Coleman

Kim Coleman is the Curatorial Manager, Education Specialist, and historian at the McKenna Museums.  A native New Orleanian, she combines her love of history and art to develop authentic New Orleans historical and contemporary narratives in the boutique style tour experience. Her research focus’ on the development of race politics in Southeast Louisiana and the continued disenfranchisement of Black New Orleans in the 21st century.  She has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Dillard University in History and Master of Arts degree from Southern University at New Orleans in Museum Studies.

New Orleans History is Black History

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August 29, 2018 marks thirteen years since Hurricane Katrina. Katrina divided New Orleans into a pre and post-world. It’s hard to comprehend for anyone who doesn’t understand the dramatics of that change or for someone who may not know what New Orleans was and is to the continuum of Black history and freedom in this country. For those of us who are aware, we’ve reached a constant state of semi-outrage of the things we believed we could not change. New Orleans history is Black history. 

Black New Orleanians are trendsetters who have built and maintained this city economically, socially, and culturally. New Orleans is the home of America’s oldest Black neighborhood - Faubourg Treme. Our leaders in the Civil Rights Movement had the first successful transportation boycott - Star Car Boycott, 1867. We sued the Orleans Parish School Board in 1877, Bertonneau vs. OPSB. We started the first Black daily newspaper - La Tribune de la Nouvelle Orleans in 1864. The first anthology of Black poetry Les Cenelles, written in New Orleans in 1845. The second oldest Black nunnery was housed here - The Sisters of the Holy Family, and in the 1900s the Black community established its own public schools; Valena C. Jones Normal School and McDonogh #35 High school.  We are unique to the American story, but now it feels as if we are merging into the hegemonic structures of this society.  We are facing gentrification not just in our communities, but in our culture.

Cultural hegemony is the dominance of one social group over another. Hurricane Katrina made us vulnerable to that cultural dominance; it stripped us of our schools and our communities and left us in a state of anxiety. Our culture became a commodity,  without us in it. It has left us screaming “Make Treme Black Again,” quoted by Local New Orleans and, “Everything you Love about New Orleans is because of Black People,” quoted by native artist, Phlegm These statements are reminders of our cultural displacement and that we have been left out of mainstream conversations about who we are. These sentiments are coupled with a growing trend to be the gatekeepers of our narrative, strengthen our communities, control our educational systems, and be present in the political sphere. 

Today, Black people don’t need a seat at the table, we have decided to build our own table.  Black New Orleanians are setting trends once again.  We are awake; developing our own sacred spaces.  Building a modern-day Congo Square; which was then and is now a meeting place, a market place, and a spiritual place.  This culture has a history of resilience and resistance.  It is us who dredged    the swamp.  New Orleans is the result of Black people and only with us will it remain.  Our universe may have shifted, however; Keep In Mind that New Orleans would be nothing without Black people. 



About the Author

Kim Coleman is the Curatorial Manager, Education Specialist, and historian at the McKenna Museums.  A native New Orleanian, she combines her love of history and art to develop authentic New Orleans historical and contemporary narratives in the boutique style tour experience. Her research focus’ on the development of race politics in Southeast Louisiana and the continued disenfranchisement of Black New Orleans in the 21st century.  She has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Dillard University in History and Master of Arts degree from Southern University at New Orleans in Museum Studies.

Kim Coleman

Kim Coleman is the Curatorial Manager, Education Specialist, and historian at the McKenna Museums.  A native New Orleanian, she combines her love of history and art to develop authentic New Orleans historical and contemporary narratives in the boutique style tour experience. Her research focus’ on the development of race politics in Southeast Louisiana and the continued disenfranchisement of Black New Orleans in the 21st century.  She has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Dillard University in History and Master of Arts degree from Southern University at New Orleans in Museum Studies.