On Completing Community Narratives

Carol in Central City, New Orleans

<em>Ms. Carol Bebelle (she/her), usually known as Mama Carol or Mz. B, is a native New Orleanian, cultural and racial healer, and community organizer. In 1998, she co-founded the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, with the goal of creating art connected to civic engagement and reflective of the surrounding Black community. She is also a writer of poetry and essays, with a book entitled “In a Manner of Speaking,” and featured work in the collections “Civic Engagement in the Wake of Katrina” and “Didn’t Wash Us Away: Transformative Stories of Post-Katrina Cultural Resilience.”</em>


Thank you so much for speaking with me today. I’d love to start just by asking you to talk a little bit about your story and your work?

The best way to talk about me is that I wound up being at the cutting edge of a lot of things that were happening in society. The first significant thing is that I went to college at 16, and I wound up going to Loyola [University] New Orleans by default. Myself and two friends were trying to plot on getting somewhere else together, because we knew we weren’t going to be able to leave the city alone. We plotted on going to Wake Forest, and made the mistake of wanting to go too far to a place that nobody knew anything about. My mother put the kibosh on it first, and then got with the other mothers and that was that. But Loyola was integrating. It was the second year that they were integrating, and they were really looking for good Black students, so we ended up going to Loyola.

At Loyola I began dealing with the issue of being in an integrated environment and everything that that meant, but also discovering how I could convert my background, which is having been raised in the church with a grandfather who was the minister, and having a very defined service leadership instinct in myself. I began to work with Upward Bound first and then College Bound, working with young people who were trying to get to college. I did that in college, and then I was also the first college graduate in my family on either side. So the accomplishment of graduating was sufficient, but there wasn’t a lot of guidance in terms of what happens after that. I began looking for a job in the public sector because I suspected that I could be able to find one there because they were integrating as well. I got a job at the school board at the time that the school board was bringing in its Title I ESEA funding. And they needed someone to do the community organizing, getting the parent advisory committees together. That wound up being my part of the work, designing a way in which [parents] could manage to be a part of picking what would go into their various schools. And so my career in community-based planning, human service planning, got started as a happenstance, really with not a lot of leadership, but just being given a task and trying to imagine how to do something that hadn’t been done in a similar way before. I moved on from there to go to the City and work on doing human service planning around substance abuse, then went to public health.

This whole time that I’m doing the work that I’m being paid for, there’s this whole other side where I’m working in the community, with churches and community-based organizations, and started working with the Black theatre companies and the Black nationalist organizations that were doing education and youth enrichment. I started trying to create a professional life for myself doing that work. During that time I met Douglas Redd - a lot of the folks who were doing this kind of community-based work were getting their logos and signs done by Doug. Our conversation led to the realization that it was a sin and a shame that there wasn’t an organization led by black folks that was about culture and that was land-based. We had a lot of organizations, but they weren’t a place. They were an organization. And I was particularly affronted given that I had been in the public sector and I knew that at almost every level, Black folks were moving to middle- and upper-management inside of almost all of these other institutions. That awareness came together with an opportunity, and Ashé Cultural Arts Center was born.

I really like that description of Ashé being land-based, trying to make it a place. Since I’ve been in the city, I’ve always known Ashé as being very rooted in Central City [a historically Black neighborhood in New Orleans]. Could you talk a little bit about the relationship between a neighborhood, a situated community, and a cultural or arts institution like Ashé?

Absolutely. Having done all of that community-based planning work, I had worked all over the city. So Central City was not foreign to me. I knew a fair number of the leaders, both at the establishment level and at the community level. Doug was also well-known because of what he had been doing, which was being the somebody that everybody went to to get any kind of artwork designed that had an African imprint or influence in it, so he had a similar kind of citywide connection. So coming to Central City wasn’t hard in that way, and in fact, the community wanted something to be done with Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. They were envisioning that, had been envisioning it for years. There were like 30 plans that had been done. So it’s not like we didn’t have an idea of what the community wanted. And they didn’t want this to become a City Hall row, right? They really wanted it to have a cultural life. We really tried to be true to that, and this opportunity showed up.

So when we came we had already sat down at the community organization tables, and we had a great sense of what the community wanted. We knew a lot of the people at the table, but people didn’t know us, so the job was to have people be comfortable with us coming. A lot of that fell on Doug because I was chained to the desk, so I wasn’t able to do all that. But Doug was a coffee drinker and cigarette smoker, so oftentimes he’d just set on the outside garden planter, drink his coffee, and smoke his cigarette, and people got to see him, got to talk to him. In that way, he was our outreach for people who were curious or not sure at the ground level, while I was working at the institutional level. It’s a courtship of sorts, where you’re listening a lot, and the moment comes when you can start to talk a little bit about what it is that you’re seeing and might be able to contribute. One of the tenants that I’ve held forever is that artists are missing at community organizing tables, and missing at the community planning tables, because they really are creative and they could look at the very same things and come up with different ways of putting them together. That’s because they have a muscle called creativity that they have been building for years. At Ashé, people got to see some different aspects of what working with artists could mean.

One big thing that we did was we started doing murals around the community. We have that iconic mural that’s by the [Ashé] parking lot, but we also did some up and down Martin Luther King Boulevard, with an eye toward telling the story of Dr. King in New Orleans, because SCLC didn’t get started in Georgia or Alabama or Mississippi. It got started in New Orleans, almost around the corner from Ashé Cultural Arts Center. There’s a civil rights history in New Orleans and in Central City, so we put murals of the things that connected Dr. King to New Orleans. We used murals as a way to have people recognize themselves in the community and to understand that we got them, as well. Then we started thinking of ways that we could create things that would make it comfortable for people to come in. Because a cultural arts center is not the usual - a social center, an educational center, those kinds of things are usually what go to target communities. We wanted people to have the opportunity, and we were celebrating African and African-American art and artists, but we were also using culture and art as our tool, that we were really with and for the community. We tried to find ways to educate, to serve, to uplift, to enlighten, to essentially awaken in the community an awareness of their history and helping them to have insights that would validate them, and help to lift their self-image. So we were not just trying to find artists and culture-bearers, but we were trying to walk this line between having culture-bearers and artists be a part of the metamorphosis and the transformation of people as individuals and the community in general.

Wow, what a beautiful model. I love the words you used when you talked about it as a courtship, especially because I’m not a coffee drinker nor a cigarette smoker myself, so I’ve always wondered what I’m missing out on!

You can sweep the sidewalk instead!

That’s great, just what I wanted. I love what you were talking about in terms of trying to reflect history and completing narratives of the community. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about in what ways that gets left out of the conversation sometimes in New Orleans?

It’s not only in New Orleans, it’s everywhere. Part of the angst that the country is in now is that we don’t have a complete and correct narrative. When we sit down and think about the Native Americans, when we sit down and think about the African Americans, the part of the history book that talks about the history of those peoples is very small. So much so that McGraw-Hill has recently said that they’re pulling back two-thirds of their product to start creating books and materials that are more reflective of the real history. There’s been a really sanitized history that has used very careful words, which is why I always talk about enslavement, because enslavement essentially brings to bear the fact of what happened. When you decide to use the noun slave, then what you’re doing is you’re marking the person. As a writer, I’ve been very careful when I’m talking about our period of enslavement, to use the words that help people to appreciate what happened. And because we have not been careful, because we have not made people aware of how horrific it was, we’ve not helped people to really understand how long-standing the effects have been. We get to today, where folks cannot understand, and can feel like there’s something that’s called the ‘past’ about it. There is, we’re no longer enslaved, but there’s still a lot of the behavior that occurred in the enslavement that still exists.

And so correcting and completing the narrative has got to be a part of the work. People get really upset with Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project because it told the truth, and the truth that they heard was not the one that they were accustomed to. There’s a feeling of responsibility that probably came up, or maybe a feeling of shame that came up, I’m not really sure. We’ve got anger and rage coming up on the part of the folks who are the legacy of enslavement, and you have the shame and guilt that come up, and they’re all feelings that are appropriate. The issue is what you do with them. It begins with acknowledging the past, and then acknowledging that something’s gotta be done, that there’s healing to be made on both sides. I know what it feels like with little kids when one kid gets blamed for something that they didn’t do and another kid did it. They’re ready to fight to the nines. So there are people today who feel like that. They feel like, I didn’t do that, I wasn’t here, et cetera. When you don’t have a complete history you don’t understand that it doesn’t matter that you didn’t do it, what matters is that you continue to benefit from it, you’re not necessarily in your own life doing anything at all to help to offset it today. It’s really important to be able to talk about this like we’re talking about it, and not to have it always emerge in rage. In the rage, everybody reduces to being a little kid, and you’re scared, and you’re mad. Then we have immature reactions, and we miss the opportunity to be able to make a dent in the armor so that some light can come in.

I’d love to talk about the power of art not just to do this completing the narrative work, but also maybe do some of that healing work that you just mentioned.

In terms of our curating, we were always looking for ways to do that. Sometimes they were very simple ones. Often, they evolved from a given person’s experience. I was a child that loved mythology. And so I was really outdone when I wound up being almost 30 years old before I ran into African mythology. And I had no sense of African spirituality, I didn’t know about the Orishas, because I was raised a Christian, in addition to being in the American public school system, so none of that was gonna come my way unless I went looking for it. And it wasn’t going to come my way at a Catholic college either. A lot of the either spoken or unspoken stereotypes about Africans are about savagery, not being smart, being vicious and violent. And I said, what would it mean for a child to discover that there were these deities, African deities, responsible for these tender and special and important things in life? David Anderson had written a children’s book on the Yoruba story of the creation, called The Origin of Life, and so we decided to create a dance theatre piece on that, particularly for schools. We did that over twenty years ago, and made a commitment about fifteen years ago to do it every year, twice a year. It translated to kids who were in HeadStart to senior citizens because it was a story that they never had heard. In that way, where babies are concerned, you’re giving them something that gets to essentially conjugate itself inside of their knowledge base. You're saying, how could somebody be savage if they’ve got a consideration of the divine, and they’re attentive to the things that come along with that? In the story, we took it from the beginning of creation and took it all the way to New Orleans, because we have so many practitioners here. We take it from the beginning of time all the way through the creation of the Earth and how the people were dispersed and how they were snatched and they were brought to place. We tell them the whole story from the beginning of creation, including correct history, and we brought them to the place that they live in. And so it’s like getting in before the repair is needed.

In addition to that, we created an institute for cultural education. Its job was to teach the kindergarten, first, and second grade teachers that there is not a time in a child’s life that is going to be richer for learning than the one that they are managing, and to be certain that they understand the power of culture at that time. This is a critical time to be infusing students with their history and their culture, so that when they get to third and fourth grade they’re so solidly clear about how long the lineage of people that they have, that they’re the ones who were here almost at the beginning of time. When people start trying to diminish them, they’re not wondering what’s wrong with themselves, they’re wondering what’s wrong with those people for not knowing about this stuff. We called it the other Vitamin C. That’s what culture is, the other Vitamin C, a protecting vitamin that makes it possible for a child to be in a world that is constantly looking askance at them, constantly expecting less of them, constantly telling them that this is not for you. Artists create work for them, storytellers really animate and enrich the life of children so that they are strengthened to be able to deal with the way that the world looks at them.

That’s really beautiful and so much to think about! Thank you so much.

Questions for Reflection: What are successful examples of institution-community 'courtship' that you've seen and how can they be replicated? How is narrative rooted in a specific place or location, and why is it important to build narrative accurately and fully in these spaces?

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