NYU Black Renaissance Noire NYU Black Renaissance Noire V. 16.1 - Page 100

98 We listened to Flying Lotus and imagined blow drifting down to cover the gray landscape in white. We had followed Tom’s ghost to Bogalusa, a city he’d visited in the Sixties with the Free Southern Theater, an organization he first reported on and then joined when he left New York’s Lower East Side for New Orleans in 1965, returning to his birthplace. In Bogalusa the theater had tried for the first time to stage not just the repertory pieces they’d been playing throughout the South on successive tours since 1964, but a performance built on the spot, out of the actual race relations of the existing community. With the active participation of their black audience, theater members hoped to hold up reality itself, to render it accessible, as what Albert Murray would later describe the blues to be: “an idiom of experience-confrontation, and existential improvisation.” We drove through the city’s mostly empty downtown, brick buildings filled with empty storefronts. After a quick picnic lunch in a city park, curtailed by the cold and by the rolling stink of the paper mill that is the city’s economic engine, we drove northwest over low hills to Natchez. It was dark and raining hard when we arrived. The historic hotel where we stayed fronted the high bluffs above the Mississippi. Sheltered in a gazebo, we watched the lights of south-bound barges swirl through the fog. In the morning we took the Natchez Trace northeast to Jackson. This is a tunnel, we discovered, bored through time. Within it, the thin strip of land that borders the paved, wpa parkway, its wide curves designed for slower and heavier vehicles than our own, things were frozen, preserved as a national imaginarium. Beyond that Platonic strip, in the real world, things change, decay and transform. We walked across the swampy top of Emerald Mound, the second largest such indigenous structure in the United States, a ceremonial space built over centuries by the Plaquemines culture people, ancestors of the Natchez Indians, who leveled the crest of a natural hill and canted its sides with the dirt. We visited the Ferguson plantation, Mount Locust, a few miles down the road. The Trace, I learned, had been a rough network of trails that boatmen took from Natchez back toward Nashville and Cincinnati, after they’d floated their goods downriver. Before steam, the boats could not be returned against the current, and so were broken up and sold for materials. The men who worked the boats returned by land, by horse or on foot, to their point of origin. Quickly, the capillary network of footpaths began to distillate into a main artery, running southwest to northeast and serviced by entrepreneurs, a line traced today by the parkway. Mount Locust became a significant way station, developed out of the common law of hospitality into a paying concern, and along the way the plantation had expanded. The lifespan of the Trace, I learned, was brief, only a few decades, bridging the development of what had been Indian wilderness and the invention of steam, at which point the river men could return upriver by boat to St. Louis or beyond. The docent who gave us a tour of the plantation didn’t seem particularly surprised when I asked him about the slaves, but he hesitated a moment before he spoke. “GLENDORA, MS, JANUARY 2015” PHOTOGRAPHS BY LADY PEREZ. LARGE FORMAT ANALOG TO 35MM DIGITAL TRANSFER. “Chichi, get the yayo,” she kept saying, quoting Scarface, riffing the stereotypes of her own native place, and laughing like crazy.