It is my belief that you don’t choose New Orleans – New Orleans chooses you. Those who have fallen for her, live with her, are sprung, lost and turned out in love with her, know exactly what I mean. Ain’t no amount of wind, water, gunfire, potholes, ignant’ politics or doomsday predictions can pry your death grip from her. Come hell or high water, you stay – or return.
Deborah “Big Red” Cotton
New Orleans chose me December 2015 on the type of day Jill Scott would scat about—on her first album, you know, when she was married to Lyzel. It was my first trip to the city and I gregariously fell in love with it, as most tourists do. But my swampy love affair for New Orleans, the city that has catapulted my life in a variety of ways, became unassumingly complex.
When I first visited in 2015, my friend Maya and I decided to walk around the French Quarter and eventually found ourselves alongside the Mississippi River. It was there where I saw a woman deliver tupperware filled with fried chicken, greens, and macaroni cheese to her son, who was on a field trip.
“That’s going to be me in a few years! I’m going to live here and do the same for my kids. The only difference is they’ll be eating curry chicken and roti,” I proudly said.
“Oh, okay girl,” Maya said with a side-eye.
If you knew me, then and now, you’d know I ‘ride and die’ for New York City, heavy. It was a weird statement for a die-hard New Yorker to make on a trip, much less to a city she’s never been to before. Especially when nothing had transpired, yet, for me to send a “Bih! Lemme tell you what had happened on our trip” text message to the besties back home. But before I could let Maya know I was kidding, my prophetic forecast was sealed and blessed with a monsoon baptism, making us dash into a nearby restaurant.
As the trip unfolded, another college friend, Candace, and her cousin joined us. We indulged in the city’s storied history, decadent food, and lusty drinks, accompanied by belly laughs that cramped our stomachs. It was a beautiful trip filled with sisterhood and ‘where the real n-ggas at?’ adventures sponsored by Tinder and penthouse hotel rooms.
That vacation helped me break my long-standing loyalty to my elusive childhood crush. He had me turned out and in love throughout our mid-to-late twenties, but with little cementing on what we were and where we were going. It was easy to be delusional with hope and drunk off of prayer over someone who checked all of my boxes—one of them being Guyanese-American; only for the relationship to progress like cassareep Cassareep (Casrip) is a thick black liquid made from cassava root, often with additional spices, which is used as a base for many sauces and especially in Guyanese pepperpot. Why meet new people or date when I could daydream about owning a brownstone with my Guyanese ass husband, his Guyanese ass gold chain, and our Guyanese ass pickneyEnglish-Caribbean colloquialism for child/children., who would beg for salara, patties, and cheese rolls, just like we did as kids?
Within those five magical days, New Orleans showed me that New York and a Guyanese banaGuyanese Creolese for guy or man didn’t have to be the end-all, be-all. New Orleans taught me to look out for myself in a refreshing way that appeared glamorous. It rooted and routed me back to some good ol’ fashion independence, intuition, and freedom that tasted delicious.
Constantly reminding me of the synchronistic lessons it taught me, New Orleans followed me back home. I would see fleur-de-lis on the 4 Train, Saints jerseys on the L Train, and New Orleanian tourists would regularly stop me to ask for directions, followed by, “When you comin’ back down to the Big Easy, guh?”
I began to tell those close to me that I would move there but I was often met with sucked teeth, resistance, and, of course, logic. I worked in media, and New Orleans didn’t have a fraction of the media jobs New York had. I also didn’t have any familial connections there. But New Orleans and its peculiar mysticism had a hold on me that I couldn’t shake. Life in New York flowed, but I felt extremely disconnected from the gritty rawness that usually made my heart swell with pride. As my love for New Orleans grew, my life in New York rearranged itself through a layoff, endless job interviews, and a new relationship. By the time the city of my dreams gave me an opportunity to work and live in one of its historic wards, I was no longer 26 but 29 and excited to live forever “down by the bayou.”
But, my transition to New Orleans was difficult and rutted. The natives became neighbors and the magnetism that drew me to the city flew the coop. The New Yorker in me became disenchanted with how much they wanted to know about me, especially when their questions were often circularA method in which a person is asked a question but their response is cross-referenced by other members of the conversation. Cause and effect vetting process used in psychology and not straight-forward. The Caribbean in me was annoyed with how much they su-suEnglish Caribbean Creolese for gossip, speaking ill on someone.and seh-sehEnglish Caribbean Creolese for spreading false information. like my recently emigrated relatives who secured American friendships with frivolous intel for a tête-à-tête. The small-town charm was overwhelming for me, a New Yorker who was used to living anonymously. Actions I deemed insignificant were heightened, like ignoring strangers with deafening headphones, buying condoms, asking about birth control/maternity leave options, or frequenting events without my boyfriend. In New York, the aforementioned was my millennial norm but in New Orleans, I was often met with tantalizing pushback underlined with respectability politics.
Dubbed “the northernmost city of the Caribbean,” I couldn’t figure out why my connection to New Orleans was no longer gelling how it used to. When asked why Caribbeans who migrate to cities that remind them of their culture don’t adjust easily, Dr. Shearon Roberts, Assistant Professor of Mass Communication and faculty member of African American and Diaspora Studies of Xavier University of Louisiana explained: “The Black experience in America is a particularly unique one and its legacy is enduring and painful. This is not to say this is the case for people of Caribbean descent or background, but people of Caribbean descent live in spaces and nations where those who hold power today look like them. People of color in the Caribbean are the majority in their societies. This impacts a wide range of post-colonial outcomes regarding education, healthcare, and economic mobility. This is not the same for African Americans and therefore the experiences are distinct. Even though many Caribbean nations did not gain independence until the 1960s, the civil rights movement was in full effect in the U.S., and today many of the gains of that movement are still to be enforced and realized.”
My challenges deepened while searching for community and discussing identity. I thought my already secured friendships in New Orleans would alleviate the discomfort I felt but those played out differently once Instagram and iMessage were no longer our mediators. My friendships also became aloof when my area of residence and new job juxtaposed against post-Katrina employment structures and gentrification issues. Gian Smith, New Orleans native, educator, and poet shared with PS Mag how long-time residents of the city still suffer financially, years after Hurricane Katrina. “These people aren’t being offered any new jobs, they have the same job possibilities as before, same wages as before, but are still having to deal with the rising costs of living,” Smith shared. “For a while, New Orleans was a place where you could find a one-bedroom apartment for $550. That [increase in rents] didn’t come because of native New Orleanians, who’ve been here for 25 to 35 years. They’re the ones who can’t just pick up and leave—but they can barely afford to stick around.”
It’s true what they say: you can’t love New Orleans if you don’t love its people. But with love should come an examination of what isn’t copacetic. Often, I would be looped into disillusioned conversations mocking the “otherness” of immigrants. I’d hear how immigrants “take everything” and shouldn’t be hired for jobs because the “paperwork would be too much of a hassle.” In these conversations, my Black skin didn’t signify my parents’ own immigration journeys to North America from Guyana, South America. Sharing my family’s ethnic identity, to some, was perceived as me trying to erase my Blackness because they believed my South American identity to be synonymous with white-presenting Latinx ethnicities. However, the opposite is true; the majority of enslaved Africans were displaced to the Caribbean, Central and South America, but specifically to the countries of Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil.
The commentary didn’t phase me. The American education system does a mediocre job teaching American slavery much less the cultures, languages and religions that the Black race encompasses worldwide. The beliefs on immigration and domestic migration the New Orleanians I encountered had interestingly mirrored present-day issues within the Caribbean community. Rihanna illustrated an example of such in her March 2020 interview with British Vogue. “Her mother, Monica, was an immigrant to the Caribbean island from Guyana, the former British colony in South America,” journalist Afua Hersh wrote. “Rihanna tells me that Guyanese immigrants were unpopular in Barbados when she was growing up. “The Guyanese are like the Mexicans of Barbados,” she says. “That’s why I really relate and empathise with Mexican people or Latino people, who are discriminated against in America.” Despite the cultural tensions Guyanese people have faced abroad, there are those who give similar energy to Venezuelan expats who cross Guyana’s borders due to political crises; much like how New Orleanians were treated when displaced by Katrina.
Dr. Roberts continued to expand on these tensions in our short interview. “These distinctions in access to rights, freedoms, power and marginalization often create differing forms and degrees of tensions for people of Caribbean descent or backgrounds, particularly with the African American community. People of Caribbean descent often come from families with higher degrees of education, or access to that education that impacts economic mobility. There are also racial and cultural distinctions. The racial mixes of people from the Caribbean results in hybrid identities (Indo-Black for Trinidad and Guyana) and (Chinese-Black for Jamaica) for example, that goes beyond the black-white mix,” she said.
“For the Spanish-speaking Caribbean like the D.R. and Cuba those hybrid racial identities are far more complex,” she continued, “While being identified in the U.S. or even the U.K. as Black, Caribbean people see their blackness in far more complex ways. This is not to say that the main areas in which people of Caribbean descent have assimilated aren’t in majority African American spaces. That mixing historically has led to interesting new hybrids like the creation of rap, but the diverse experiences of people of African descent means that we see the world and relate to it differently…and those tensions are still being sought out today across the Diaspora as we unpack the legacy of slavery, colonization, and segregation that people of African descent have faced in the Diaspora.”
It is equally important to note that multiple experiences can occur simultaneously and these nuances inform you of how to survive. My third “return” to New Orleans has taught me the lasting impact a crisis can have on people and how it crafts the perception of timeAuthentic New Orleans: Tourism, Culture, and Race in the Big Easy By Kevin Fox Gotham (i.e. “before the storm and after the storm” time references) or how natives safeguard their culture.
The New Orleanians’ protective approach to culture has educated me on the importance of community and what influence I want to have as a writer and future mother of second-generation Guyanese-Americans. Guyanese culture is more than “chicken curry” memes or the fatuous (but necessary) “Whose Waistline Is Better” competitions. Its history is engraved with award-winning musicians, writers and politicians, such as Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to serve in the U.S. Congress and to be nominated in the 1972 U.S. Presidential race.
New Orleans has given me the volume to attend and highlight those needs in my career and personal life, a mission (and lesson) that could have been missed if I was hellbent on trying to “fix” or fit into a society that already has its key players. And for that, I will always love New Orleans, because she’s all good and bad by herself.
Illustration by Janelle Cummins