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Black Thought

"Whatever we believe about ourselves and our ability comes true." -Susan L. Taylor

Black Thought

Congo Square

Picture I took in May of 2018, the entrance into Congo Square

Picture I took in May of 2018, the entrance into Congo Square

Located in Louis Armstrong Park in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana; Congo Square is an open area with so much cultural significance within African American culture in the city. The institution of slavery operated uniquely in New Orleans, with very specific rules that dictated what the slaves were permitted to do under the Code Noir laws of 1724. The African slaves were explicitly granted Sundays off, however it didn't detail where they were allowed to congregate within the city, forcing them to gather in remote areas of the city, usually along the levee walls. In 1817 the mayor of New Orleans issued a city ordinance that restricted any kind of gathering of enslaved Africans to the one location: Congo Square. Here they sang, danced and set up markets to sell goods that would allow for them to make money to purchase their freedom. In 1803 the United States purchased the state of Louisiana from France, the area attracted more visitors, many of them had never heard African music, the protestant and catholic churches had forbade it. The visitors were amazed by the African beats and dancing styles that had survived the middle passage. The variety of dances that could be seen in Congo Square included the Bamboula, Calinda, Congo, Carabine and Juba; the sounds of the beats can still be heard in jazz funerals, second lines, and Indian mardi-gras parties. The 500-600 slaves that gathered in the area would put bells, ribbons, and sashes on their attire to accentuate their dancing.

Picture I took in May of 2018

Picture I took in May of 2018

The musicians used a range of instruments from available cultures: drums, gourds, banjo-like instruments, and quillpipes made from reeds strung together like pan flutes, as well as marimbas and European instruments such as the violintambourines, and triangles. Gradually, the music in the square gained more European influence as enslaved English-speaking Africans danced to songs like “Old Virginia Never Tire.” This mix of African and European styles helped create African American culture.

Slave made banjo

Slave made banjo

Along with the singing and dancing, Voodoo practices were held in Congo Square. Marie Laveau, the first and most powerful voodoo queen, is one of the most well known practitioners of voodoo in Congo Square. In the 1830s, Marie Laveau led voodoo dances in Congo Square and held darker, more covert rituals along the banks of Lake Pontchartrain and St. John's Bayou.

Picture I took in May of 2018

Picture I took in May of 2018

As harsher United States practices of slavery replaced the more lenient French colonial style, the gatherings of enslaved Africans declined. Although no recorded date of the last of these dances in the square exists, the practice seems to have stopped more than a decade before the end of slavery with the American Civil War.



Me spinning around in Congo Square, in Louis Armstrong Park in the Trem’e section of New Orleans. People probably thought I was crazy…

Slaves gathering, dancing playing instruments

Slaves gathering, dancing playing instruments

Kandice HillComment