Saturday, May 02, 2009

The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square

by Ned Sublette

Near the end of his history of early New Orleans, Ned Sublette says of Katrina and those hellish months afterwards: "To lose any American city would have been unthinkable. But to lose New Orleans..." Those of us who have lived in New Orleans or visited often have an understandable affection for the place. But the rest of us may wonder: what's so special about this low-lying, poverty-stricken city at the dirty end of the Mississippi? It's one of the oldest cities in America, but its history stood very much apart from the thirteen colonies. It was always an outsider, not quite French, not quite Spanish, not quite American, but the music that originated there came to define the American sound. It was a major center for slave trading, but at the same time had more free people of color than any other town in America.

True to the title of the book, Sublette ranges far and wide, from Africa to South America, from the Caribbean to Canada, to tell the story of the deep roots of New Orleans. I learned much more about Havana and Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) than I'd ever known. New Orleans was apparently even more heavily influenced by the Caribbean than by France or Spain. And, though the effects of the Haitian Revolution sent deep reverberations all across the early United States, I had certainly never been taught about it in school. Though at times it seems Sublette is talking about anywhere but New Orleans, he keeps beautifully connecting it all, until the reader understands what a miraculous and unlikely culture New Orleans evolved into.

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