Going through the experience of Hurricane Katrina taught me to submit to and praise God. The message I got is that we are hopeless, but we still thanked God in the midst of it. Some people can’t fathom how to sing and praise him in the midst of Katrina. That is where I pulled all of my cultural understanding and my spiritual [understanding] together. I came back to New Orleans and that is what inspired the “Resurrection,” not just of the Baby Dolls, but my desire to promote New Orleans music, song, and dance in general. It was to be an example of hope. This is our testimony. We want people to share their testimony. What do you feel you want to resurrect about New Orleans culture? What is your contribution to the Resurrection?
—Millisia White, founder, the New Orleans Society of Dance’s Baby Doll Ladies
ON AUGUST 26, 2005, artist Steve Prince was visiting New Orleans—the city where he was born and raised—presiding over In My Father’s House, a show of his own work, promoting his art, and visiting with relatives. He was also spending precious time with his mentor the late sculptor John T. Scott, who had been waging a long battle with pulmonary fibrosis. It was a profoundly sweet time, tinged with the bitter. It was three days before Hurricane Katrina, the storm named “blood dazzler” by poet Patricia Smith.
As Katrina drew near, Prince fielded grim calls from his wife, literature professor Valerie Sweeney Prince, who urged her partner to leave. At first, Prince demurred. He was an “art evangelist,” telling stories through visual images and spoken word in the place of his birth. He was wielding tools for healing—for memory, mourning, and renewal. And he was in the company of a cherished teacher. He had been through many a Gulf Coast storm and seen them fizzle and do nothing. Who could leave?
But the day before the storm, he left. With all flights from New Orleans canceled, Prince drove a long road east to Atlanta and, eventually, flew back home to Virginia. From there, he bore witness to what followed: the drowning of New Orleans—a crossroads of cultures, languages, foods, and faiths, and the literal crossroads of the Atlantic slave trade. The stranding and scattering of citizens, unable or unwilling to leave their beloved, complicated city. The scornful “contempt and pity” (in words W.E.B. Du Bois used a century before) directed at a place that so many spectators had visited only for forgetful pleasure.
It was from afar that Prince, son of New Orleans, created the work that would become the Katrina Suite. From pencil, paper, knife, linoleum, and ink came linked pieces organized around New Orleans funerary traditions: the mourning Dirge and the joyful renewal of the Second Line. Throughout the Suite, Prince invites viewers to grieve the catastrophe that began long before the 2005 storm: the institution of slavery that fed the machine of industrialization and gave rise to modernity itself. Drawing upon Abrahamic, Mediterranean, and African diasporic traditions, Prince asks observers to move from spectatorship to witness. And he welcomes them to dance, to participate in the making of meaning, and, in doing so, to consider the possibilities and limits for renewal not only in the world of the flesh, but also of the spirit.
The word “dirge” is familiar in English, but its etymology, rooted in the Latin imperative dirige—“direct!”—is perhaps less so. Fittingly, the graphite images of Katrina’s Dirge—the Suite’s first movement, and the first that Prince composed—direct the eye to the center of the paper, where massive horse/men bear a casket of such weight that each knee, pushed past its limit, buckles toward the ground [see Plate 1]. This heaviness is the music of the Dirge. It is the long, slow walk freighted with grief and mourning, the solemn procession down New Orleans’ central line, Elysian Fields Avenue. It is on this path that the pallbearers—the four horse/men of the Apocalypse—carry the burden of New Orleans in all its complexity, a complexity that the storm’s waves revealed to many for the first time.
Familiar sights rest atop the casket: a Mardi Gras abundance of food, drink, beads, music; the lamp-lit street signs most often associated with French Quarter revels; Saint Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, complete with Andrew Jackson astride his horse. Prince renders these images strange and dreamlike, recasting them as part of the “harrowing tale of urban violence” that he sees Katrina laying bare. These icons of tourism bob in a sea of “desperate hands waving, bottles of liquor and wine glasses, phallic pistols, trapped bodies, forks embedded in the landscape” (Prince’s words). Street signs bear the names of Desire and Melpomene, housing projects where people die quick, violent deaths, as well as the slow, social death of finding themselves outside of the protection of the legal system.
In his commentary on his work, Prince has noted that the name “Katrina” is etymologically linked to processes of purification. In Katrina’s Dirge, he imagines the recovery from the hurricane as a material and spiritual cleansing. Others before him have drawn connections between storms and their cleansing power. Think, for instance, of the biblical account of the flood, or Jonathan Swift’s 1710 “A Description of a City Shower.” But to do so can also be risky. There are those who have appropriated this imagery in what philosopher Lewis Gordon has called the “bad faith” of antiblack racism. In 2009, for example, white radio host Neal Boortz infamously stated that Katrina “washed out a lot of debris, including human debris.” Though hardly unusual (check out any internet comments section concerning Katrina), the sentiment is nevertheless a stark emblem of a white mythology that disdains black life and death as self-generated pathology and waste.
The Katrina Suite as a whole rejects that mythology, firmly and deftly. The apocalyptic pallbearers’ casket in Katrina’s Dirge is modeled, Prince has said, on “elaborate Greco-Roman sarcophagi adorned with relief sculptures depicting war, wealth, and myths.” In this context, the Crescent City’s violence—represented especially in the baseball-capped figurehead at the casket’s fore, a sickle-shaped gunshot blown out below—is part of the larger tide of violence across history and culture. At the same time, Katrina’s Dirge also complicates the impulse to shelter behind the so-called “universal.” The piece inaugurates the Suite’s persistent request that viewers come face-to-face with Katrina’s specificity, the storm’s immersion in what scholar Saidiya Hartman calls “the afterlife of slavery,” the limited economic options, poor access to healthcare and education, early death, imprisonment, and poverty visited upon black communities in the wake of the slave trade.
Jackson Square, for example, remembered by many only as a klieg-lit backdrop to President George W. Bush’s post-Katrina address, is itself saturated in slavery’s afterlife. Known once as Place d’Armes, the tourist site was central to the largest slave revolt in the history of the United States, the 1811 German Coast Uprising. After the uprising, the severed heads of executed black freedom fighters were displayed near New Orleans in a gruesome attempt to ward off imitators. Rising in ghostly line drawings from the waves, this slavery-soaked history haunts, contextualizes, and, in its depths, threatens to overwhelm the triptych of dark figures along the casket’s length. To be able to see and to bear this painful, heavy mourning is the dual challenge of Katrina’s Dirge and the Katrina Suite as a whole. Can viewers bear up under what the hybrid horse/men of the Apocalypse carry, remember, reveal, and prophesy?
“Gretna” has come to serve as shorthand for what happened when a predominantly black group of approximately two hundred Katrina survivors tried to cross the Crescent City Connection bridge on foot and pass through to the dry lands of Gretna and beyond. The group was stopped by police cars, guns, and officers, and not permitted to pass. In the name, supposedly, of preventing “another Superdome,” officers fired shots into the air, turned the people around at gunpoint, and ordered them to abandon a provisional encampment near the bridge. The walkers, no longer seen as citizens and survivors but hostile invaders, turned away, their faces to crumbled levees and a drowning city, their backs to dry land and a broken bridge.
The Katrina Suite’s second piece confronts the bridge to Gretna and asserts that it has long been broken. Katrina’s Veil: Stand at the Gretna Bridge represents the literal incident at Gretna and interprets it as a direct descendant of an event that took place four decades earlier: Bloody Sunday—March 7, 1965—when hundreds of civil rights demonstrators on Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge were attacked by state and local police [see Plate 2]. With knife strokes to linoleum, Prince overlays scenes that are all too similar, on two different bridges in two different eras.
In Katrina’s Veil, the apocalyptic horse/men are back, but they are arranged differently. They do not bear the waves of storm and history; rather, they ride them in the sky. And instead of struggling with freighted arms and buckling knees, they throw elbows and shoulders, sharp as the lightning illuminating the bridge below, joints held akimbo like the “skeletons in our proverbial closet” with which, Prince observes, the nation has “not yet adequately dealt.”
Read left to right as in a book, Katrina’s Veil grounds the origins of Gretna and Bloody Sunday in the legacy of slavery. At left is a pregnant profile, a swollen belly within which skeletal black bodies tumble. From this belly, which Prince calls slavery’s “mothership,” emerges a cluster of angry white officers, guns bristling like dog’s teeth. Prince’s visual yoking of police power with slavery is considered, and carefully executed. As critic Bryan Wagner has established, plantation patrolling during slavery created the template for the modern police force in the United States. Given such beginnings, it is no surprise that the “peculiar institution” of chattel slavery also generates the deeply embedded racism motivating the officers’ fury.
To the right of the belly, the officers are unmoving. They are also unmoved by those who approach: black figures on bare feet, weary and worn survivors of the hurricane seeking safe passage. The walkers bear children both at the breast and in a shopping cart. The cart serves as an improvised baby carriage, yes, but also as a jarring reminder of the continued captivity and commodification of black bodies. The figures walk in the living death of dispossession, a twenty-first-century wave of what Du Bois called in 1903 the endless black “throng of unhearsed dead.” Without profound change both on the bridge and in its very structure, Prince suggests, the walkers will be turned back again and again—or worse.
The black man at the center of Katrina’s Veil explicitly recalls and revises Francisco de Goya’s famous The Third of May 1808, depicting the slaughter of Spaniards at Napoleonic gunpoint. In Goya’s painting, the man stands with hands upraised. In Prince’s piece, by contrast, the man holds his hands at his side, stiff like a corpse. From the storm above, a horse/man’s finger presses down toward a gun covered with a condom. That gesture sparks questions that, caught up in the tension on the bridge, are matters of actual life and death. Is the gun being pushed aside or aimed? Is the officer being pressured to fire or dissuaded? Will the prophylactic thwart or enable the shot? If the black man were to raise his hands like his Goyan counterpart, how will white eyes read him? Will he be seen as defenseless or menacing? And what will happen on the other side of the white guns, when in the blink of an eye, a flash of lightning, the twitch of a trigger finger, the standoff could lurch into a massacre?
Through these questions, Prince leads us to the deadly edge along which all the figures on the bridge stand. It is the same edge that lies along the top of the sarcophagus in Katrina’s Dirge, sharpened by history and structural power, but also, Prince emphasizes, by individual choice. Prince pushes viewers to recognize that even in the middle of the long flood of racism and white power, they—we—still have choices. They—we—can decide whether or not to pull the trigger. They—we—can challenge the mental hold that the afterlife of slavery still has over us. Or, we can keep choosing not to do this difficult work, and continue to reap the whirlwind. Seven years after Katrina, we can watch all over again what happens when black people are seen only as a threat, and not as vulnerable human beings: this time in New York City, this time during Hurricane Sandy, when black mother Glenda Moore loses her sons in the storm because a homeowner in a predominantly white neighborhood won’t let her inside as water overwhelms Staten Island.
On the right side of Katrina’s Veil, the last horse/man holds a handkerchief, delicately between two huge fingers. As the linocut’s title indicates, this windblown square of cloth alludes to Du Bois’s concept of the “veil” from The Souls of Black Folk: the thing that blocks black access to the advantages of the white world but also enables black knowledge of that world—a kind of “second sight.” Here it obscures a figure huddled alone inside a battered dwelling that offers scant shelter from the scene on the bridge. Without renewal and change, the veil will lower further to become a shroud, a winding sheet. But it may also be lifted up. The message of the entire Katrina Suite becomes clear here: the necessary, unavoidable work of the Dirge is to enter into historical mourning, to lift the veil of antiblackness, to witness all that has happened before and all that may happen again. After all, none of us, African American or not, knows when we may have to get moving, to flee, to be forced to find shelter among strangers who have the power to kill.
And yet, in the image of the handkerchief, fluttering dove-like in the wind, Prince promises that if the work of the Dirge is done, there will not always be only mourning. There will also be the Second Line.
Watching the violence done to his drowning community wounded Prince. How to begin to heal? How to represent the complexities of home to outsiders susceptible to seeing only caricature? How to acknowledge death and renewal, both material and spiritual, without platitude, disavowal, or cynicism? The four-part Second Line engages the apocalyptic horse/men once again to help answer these questions [see Plate 3]. In Katrina’s Dirge, the horse/men collectively bear the weight of antiblackness in a city, a nation, a world. In Katrina’s Veil, they illuminate a recurring, violent scene that many, perhaps, would prefer remain hidden and unacknowledged. They witness, bear up under grief, and mourn communally.
But the example of Christ’s passion demonstrates that death and rebirth are also necessarily individual experiences. Meditating upon this, Prince brought Second Line into being through a process that alludes to the Trinity and to the Resurrection. He spent three days on each individual piece, crafting the four drawings in four different American cities—Grand Rapids, San Antonio, Virginia Beach, and Silver Spring, Maryland—and did so in real time in front of live audiences who witnessed his physical engagement with simple pencil and paper, and the slow revelation of each eight-foot-tall “death carrier.” Individually, each horse/man is visually stunning: masculine and feminine, delicate and strong, body and spirit. Each stands on its own while remaining part of the ensemble. Seen side by side in a gallery, the overall effect of their massiveness is striking indeed.
In black New Orleans funerary traditions, the Dirge gives way once the service is over. The musicians—the funeral procession’s First Line—change up the music from the somber pace to an up-tempo jaunt and swing. Then come those on the Second Line: the mourners whom the music brings back to life, who remember with joy the departed, gone to their eternal home. If, as historian Bernice Johnson Reagon says, the only requirement for making an utterance in African American tradition is that you “express your need to change your condition,” then perhaps the only rule of the Second Line is to change your condition by getting up and moving in any way that you can. And if physical movement isn’t possible for you, spiritual movement—and, Prince might say, the Spirit itself—is always accessible.
In each panel, funeral-appropriate formality takes flight in an individually expressive movement to the Second Line music. Jackets and ties flutter in the air. Manes toss. Hands reach skyward while furred, nailed, weighted shoes fashioned for pallbearers tread the ground ever so nimbly. Parasols, necessities in the hot southern sun, twirl and hang while handkerchiefs for the fleshly work of mopping brows, wiping tears, and blotting necks become the light and lightness of the Holy Spirit.
Some may be tempted to see these dances as a happy ending, as exonerating closure. But Second Line does not forget death. Prince crafts his horse/men as ambivalent tricksters. The ground on which they execute their intricate steps is a graveyard. On one level, the setting calls to mind New Orleans’s aboveground cemeteries, those cities of the dead that were dislodged as the levees overtopped and breached. On another level, each horse/man’s stance spans the mysterious boundary between the mortal plane and beyond. There is, Prince says, “another spirit flowing in the background.” In one panel, the dancer’s eyes meet the viewer’s in the world of the flesh. In others, the eyes turn inward or to the sky, and exhalations born of intense activity take human form, representing the spirit and a love that transcends time and space. In the earthly Second Line, memory, loss, and healing mingle with pain and joy. For Prince, these black, white, and gray spaces acknowledge death, but also celebrate our rejuvenation.
Across all of Prince’s work, the human form is flesh and sinew, curve and angle. It is full and lean, heavy and featherweight, motion and stillness. These compelling qualities burst into life in the Katrina Suite linocut Flambeau [see Plate 4]. When I first saw it in the tiny frame of an internet window, the piece moved me as it itself moves, figures spilling over each other in a Mardi Gras procession from the right edge of the frame, parading past the viewer, and beginning to bend back along the road to where they began.
Recursion—cultural and personal—powers the lit heart of Flambeau. The title refers to the kerosene lantern at the top of the frame, held up by the man crying out. A tradition as old as Mardi Gras itself, black flambeau carriers have a long history in New Orleans. Weathering dripping kerosene and open flames, disenfranchised black men wielded the heavy lanterns and did the hard, dangerous, necessary work of lighting the nighttime carnival parades. Eventually, the invention of battery-powered light made their work obsolete. Prince acknowledges that for some people, the flambeau’s obsolescence was welcome, good riddance not only to kerosene but also to shameful memories connected with slavery de jure and de facto. However, utter forgetting in New Orleans is nearly always impossible. Someone will bring the forgotten memory back to life. And indeed, a determined group of people (including some women) have revived the flambeau tradition.
Resurrected in the present and illuminating the past, Flambeau proceeds along the city and nation’s checkered path—which according to Prince represents both the “game of life” and the crossroads of the decisions we are daily asked to make, hearkening back to the choices made and unmade on the bridge to Gretna. And in every decision, every choice, there is the weighty presence of the past, hence the inclusion of the now-familiar horse/men bringing up the rear. Their shoes firmly upon the ground, a handkerchief light in the stormy air, they testify once again to the complex history of New Orleans and the transformative power of jubilation.
Perhaps nowhere in the Suite does that history and power course more dynamically than through the woman lunging low at the front of Flambeau. On one level, she embodies the creative, resistant spirituality of the Baby Dolls, black women whose Mardi Gras masking tradition continues in New Orleans to this day. According to scholar Kim Vaz, the original Million Dollar Baby Dolls hailed from segregated black Storyville, the poorer rendition of white Storyville, a famous red-light district. Though often branded a den of sin, Vaz writes, black Storyville not only produced Louis Armstrong (who grew up there), but also generated social and religious institutions that nurtured its residents.
The original Baby Dolls and their living art form emerged out of Storyville in the early twentieth century. Masking in carefully crafted frilly, baby-like clothing, the Baby Dolls adopted the cherished status of little children that norms of race, gender, and class had denied them. Making themselves seen and known in a city that diminished their humanity, the Baby Dolls, Vaz notes, forged a tradition emphasizing not only “dance, but costuming, pageantry, beauty, independence and, above all else, spirituality.”
As Millisia White’s testimony at the start of this essay reflects, that spirituality took on even greater importance post-Katrina as new masking troupes formed. The deep roots of the Baby Doll tradition spurred black women to look back upon past practices and relearn an old lesson of resilience—in Vaz’s words: “out of nothing, create something.” Through Flambeau, Prince offers the Baby Dolls’ creative, carnival resistance as the appropriate cultural vanguard for healing and renewal. Transforming the past into the present through ritual memory and revision, the Baby Doll literally and figuratively leads the parade.
But even more, Flambeau is a deeply personal memorial for Prince and illustrates an important return in his own family history. Both the piece and the woman at its fore stand as a tribute to Prince’s mother, Mrs. Hattie Prince, who died in 2008 at the age of sixty-eight. She went back to school in her forties and earned a degree in childhood education. To commemorate her achievement and her life, Prince designed Flambeau to raise funds for a scholarship in her honor. Celebrating his mother’s homecoming, her soul’s return to its source, the Second Line imagery of Flambeau evokes Mrs. Prince’s spirit—her love of laughter, story, and dance. “I know,” says Prince, “they were having a party when she got to the afterlife.”
Like the Katrina Suite and New Orleans itself, Flambeau pairs oppositions that for Prince are always in play: loss and joy, leave-taking and return, death and life, the Alpha and the Omega. His art testifies to the creativity of his complicated home, its ability to transform the bonds of history and flesh into a celebration of art and spirit. Steve Prince, art evangelist, travels ceaselessly, bringing this message with him as he showcases his work. Through image, sound, movement, and memory, he asks audiences to help bear the weight, to witness the scene on the bridge, to reflect upon the road that he, his family, and his city have traveled—to confront the wounds compounded by the storm without shrinking from the truth. And he invites them to dance. Steve Prince’s art is wrought in the spirit of the possible. It believes in the Dirge, yes, but also in the Second Line.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.