The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

June 18, 2016

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of New Orleans

Not long ago, New Orleans bandleader  Jean Baptiste filmed a Late Show segment with Stephen Colbert, whom he showed around the French Quarter.  Jean stood casually in a long-sleeved shirt and slacks, not breaking a sweat, as he is from Louisiana, his family having lived there and played jazz there for numerous generations.  He was showing Stephen how to “hang” on a street corner, looking casual and cool.  Colbert was neither casual in a summer-weight suit, nor was he cool.  He said just standing there for a few minutes he was sweating so much he was experiencing “swamp ass.” I think “swamp ass” would sound much more elegant in Cajun, as it would translate into, “cul de bayou,” but it is not a phenomenon Cajuns regularly experience, accustomed as they are to the heat down here.  The rest of us, though, who might even be used to Southern heat (Stephen Colbert grew up in the South), are ill-acclimated to avoiding cul de bayou, cuisse de bayou (swamp thigh), or couilles de bayou (swamp testicles).  It’s hot and muggy in New Orleans.

cold drinkThat weather mojo works both ways, by the way.  Yankees are much more able to handle cold.  Every Southern lady I know who doesn’t ski owns only thin jackets, nothing at all from the Northface Catalog, and the second the temperature dips below forty degrees, they shiver as if it were going out of style.  I married my husband in an old antebellum mansion which had served as the Yankee headquarters during the Siege of Vicksburg.  The night before our January wedding, the fountains had frozen over in the garden.  I walked around getting ready in a t-shirt and jeans while the majority of guests on his side of the aisle trembled violently and stomped their feet to keep from getting frostbite.  My years walking between skyscrapers in Manhattan while the wind shot ice pellets at my face made a breezeless thirty-degree chill feel like a cool day hardly worth noticing as cold.

Come June that year, of course, my experience changed radically. I remember when the headache started — three a.m., and it was the middle of June, and it was eighty degrees outside.  Since I couldn’t sleep, I took the dog for a walk, and I saw bats flying overhead, catching the many bugs in the air.  I also saw my neighbors out for a stroll with their dogs, as this was going to be the coolest moment for at least twenty-four more hours.  The headache lasted through July.  I remember the early days of the month, sitting in a gazebo I had set up in our back yard, staring at the ice melting in a big plastic cup of mint tea I had filled to drink out there, my head throbbing so hard because my blood didn’t know what to do with the intensity of the heat that would not quit.  By August, the headache had dissipated with the murky-smelling mist off the Mississippi that had wafted over our back lawn every morning during the hottest summer days.

I have never had a heat headache in any subsequent summers, acclimated as I am to Southern heat.  Still, though, New Orleans heat is not for wimps.

I cannot imagine how slaves harvested rice in this weather.  They almost all died young, it seems, according to a plantation tour I took once.  I don’t know how anybody survived New Orleans heat before air conditioning. It’s impressive to imagine anybody trying to put on a corset in this weather. It would take a particular admiration for martyred saints that a good Catholic homily might inspire, as no Protestants would see the merit in suffering like that just to have a wasp waist. The French doors everywhere in New Orleans are a relic of the era when the only hope anyone had of enough air was to make certain that the house was no stuffier than the outside air, in  the vain hope of some kind of cool breeze emanating from some virgin martyr’s icy breath. Sinful city as New Orleans has always been, the hot-blooded women of the metropolis could offer no icy virginity to pair with martyred sainthood recognizable to the Vatican, so people suffered in this town.

I admit it. I can’t stand the heat.  I have left New Orleans for a few weeks of respite six hours due north in northern Mississippi.  It isn’t hot enough to reduce me to a puddle of sweat here, now with my acclimated sweat glands. I am writing my dissertation, and it is good to sit in a library with the air conditioning on full blast, drink a diet coke, and to think of nothing but knights and Middle French and Middle English works of literature that describe them. I am sweating, but there is no cul de bayou. There is no headache, except from squinting at faded letters in old books. But I admit it.  I am a mauviette de bayou (a swamp wimp),  a faignant de bayou (a swamp weakling loser), and it would take a miracle de bayou (you’ve got this one on your own) to acclimate me to this tropical sauna before next June, when there will be no escape from the impressive humidity and heat.

Advertisements

February 6, 2010

The questionable etymology of “Who Dat”

I write this as someone who could not care less who wins the Superbowl. The Superbowl is an instance of American culture at its most commercial, shallow, and it only partially sublimates its violence.  Superbowl Sunday is the number one day of the year where American women call domestic violence hotlines.  Men get drunk, beat up their women after the game,  so excuse me if I don’t feel particularly like celebrating.

That said, living as I do on the very border of Mississippi and Louisiana, you may well imagine that I have heard a few exclamations of “Who Dat Dere Gonna Beat Dem Saints?”

The phrase comes from a song recorded by an African-American New Orleans Jazz band and singer.  The phraseology, one of African-American diction particular to the black working class of New Orleans, caught on.  No one but Chicago Cubs fans can understand the devotion of certain New Orleans Saints fans throughout multiple seasons of defeat.  They have never won a Superbowl before, but the song, “Who dat” was sung over and over again, season after season, by certain die-hard fans — black and white.

For a person from the Northeast, the first listen to “Who Dat” might potentially appear to be part of the Aunt-Jemima-and-Sambo-style charictures demeaning to people of color that the deep south has tolerated for generations, often seeming oblivious to their symbolism and negative messages.  This is, after all, a region that keeps debating the proper place of the Confederate flag as a symbol within state flags.  To a Northeasterner, it seems like debating where the swastika belongs on the current German flag as a sign of its heritage.  I remember an article I read in the early 1990s in The Village Voice where a reporter attending an event hosted by the Christian Coalition involved the singing of the “Who Dat” song — in reference to Christian sainthood — and one of the coalition’s PR people rushed over to her to tell her that “Who Dat”‘s diction was racially neutral.  She wrote something in her article like, “Yeah, right!”  According to Wikipedia, “Who Dat” songs — songs with lyrics that start with “Who Dat?” and have a response like, “Who dat who say who dat?” originated in minstrel shows, notorious spectacles of American racism played by white men in black face.  How could “Who Dat” in the Saints fight song have no racial implications?

However, “Who Dat” seems to have what recording executives call crossover appeal.  It is true that I occasionally here white people sounding something, not exactly, like that when they speak.  I see signs around me, a four-hour drive to New Orleans, with the words, “Who Dat” painted on them by hand.  People around here are excited about the game tomorrow.  They have needed a reason to be excited for some time.  While Vicksburg was not devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the whole region has felt the aftermath of the storm’s terrible havoc.   In numerous towns in Mississippi, historical landmarks were decimated, to say nothing of the horrible devastation of people’s homes.  Lots of refugees from the storm moved inland and slightly north — meaning not far from here.  After having driven through New Orleans less than a year ago, and having seen whole neighborhoods still standing but condemned — a red “X” painted on each of the houses to indicate that it was still not safe even to climb the front steps — I dare say that people have a right to get excited about a pointless and commercialized ritual where they might have something to brag about.

For the last three Sundays, our pastor has brought a football with him to the pulpit.  He uses football metaphors to describe things like, “how to receive from God,” where the football is the blessing and God is the quarterback.  No one around here has ever thought, it seems, that football metaphors smacked even subtly of impiety, as football is important stuff to the people of Mississippi  — native son Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre is probably the most celebrated celebrity in the whole state, equivalent to J-Lo and Derek Jeter combined for the Bronx.  Yet  I look from pew to pew and see how happy people are, and I recognize that some people smiling haven’t had much to smile about for a while.  Unlike New Yorkers, I note that people suffer around here in silence.  New Yorkers like to mouth off.  Here, they just wait for an excuse — like a football game — to scream.

The propagation of “Who Dat” as a fight song in no way challenged preconceived notions about intellectual capacity of African-Amerricans.   “Who Dat” is not a Barak Obama speech.  That said, football is not an exercise in intellectual capacity.  Americans distrust egg-heads, even though eggs are shaped a bit  like footballs.  In the Northeast, these days, we have examples of white people adopting the songs of the urban working class and underclass African-Americans.  Any teenage white boy in high school chanting back the rap of Fifty Cent is doing that, largely oblivious to the racial implications of what he’s doing.  I have heard white boys in Brooklyn call each other the N-word.  To them, it means “friend” in a street-friendly manner.

So with a black Harvard-educated president and a bunch of white street thugs calling themselves the “N” word, perhaps the nation is ready for a chorus of  “Who Dat.”  Perhaps the people of the gulf states have had enough trouble without  a carpet bagger like me questioning their intentions here.  People are happy around me, even though the ritual that excites them baffles me.  We all need all the reasons to celebrate that we can find.  There is even a new hybrid “Who Dat” Saints fight song that seems to be a hybrid of African-American and Cajun dialect.  It’s called, “In Da Supabeauxl” by Misty and the Moonpie Kings.  A complex and hybridized view would be all inclusive, making fun of no group, except, possibly, the Colts, who are, I am told, going down.   So long live the strange gumbo of this song and its questionable etymology.   Who dat?  Apparently all of us, all of us are we dat say who dat.

Blog at WordPress.com.