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Reviews |  Imani Perry: The Legacy of Slavery in New Orleans

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Reviews | Imani Perry: The Legacy of Slavery in New Orleans

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That evening, I went with a friend to one of the most familiar places in New Orleans: Café du Monde. It is a tourist spot, but also a local institution. Café du Monde has been on Decatur Street in the neighborhood since 1862. At the time, it was part of the French market. Despite the name, the French Market was originally an Aboriginal trading post and is believed to be the oldest continuous open-air market in the country. Today, the Café du Monde is a simple open-air restaurant where you drink chicory coffee and eat donuts.

The sweets, a light pastry dusted with icing sugar, like many Southern specialties, owe something to black people. Norbert Rillieux, cousin of the painter Edgar Degas and a man of color descended from a white planter, made history by creating what is known as the multiple-effect evaporator for sugar cane. Rillieux created a machine to harness the steam from boiling cane syrup, passing it through three chambers. At the end of the process, he was left with crystals of refined sugar. Rillieux’s invention led to a sugar boom. As a result, sweetness was available everywhere. Its methods were adopted in Cuba, Mexico, France, Egypt and, of course, throughout the southern United States in the 1830s. By the time Café du Monde appeared, sugar and confectionery were in booming.

Rillieux could not have eaten at Café du Monde despite his prestige as one of the first chemical engineers and his distinguished lineage. Although the color line in New Orleans may be more porous than much of the South, it did exist. Café du Monde did not knowingly serve black customers until July 1964, in response to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

It’s one of those stark reminders that New Orleans was and truly is the southern United States. If you look around, although there is still a wonderful diversity of people in New Orleans, you can see the differences. Between black and white, between tourists and locals. The inhabitants are blacker, often a little rounder, often with tired eyes. Tourists greedily drink the surroundings. The locals smile at them, but their faces whiten as the tourists turn away.

Back at the hotel, full of donuts, we passed a cemetery. I did not know in the darkness which it was: No. 1, 2 or 3. At the Saint-Louis cemetery No. 1, Homer Adolph Plessy, the plaintiff in Plessy c. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision that upheld segregation, is buried. It is also the burial place of Marie Laveau, the mythological black voodoo queen, who was so shapeshifter that I can hardly imagine how to tell you a story about her that I know is true beyond the fact that she was once a real person. The first mayor of New Orleans, Jean Étienne de Boré, is also buried there. He was the man who first granulated the sugar in the United States, under the tutelage of two Cubans, which means that every time you sprinkle it on your cereal or in your coffee, you might wonder how he, like Rillieux, made national dependence much more palatable. .

I can’t help but think of the sweetness born from the violence of slavery as a metaphor for New Orleans, which is a cradle gathering the South and its strands at the root. Like its native drink, a Sazerac, it is sweet and strong enough to knock you out. And, of course, as often as people try to cut him off from the rest of the South, he functions as a phantom limb, the one we feel everywhere even when we don’t see him on us. The New Orleans graves are located above ground due to potential flooding. And so the dead are raised and decorated with incredibly bright mausoleums and abundant flowers. Spirits hear music and can also swing.

Imani Perry is Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. This essay is adapted from his book “South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation,” which will be published on Tuesday.

Reviews | Imani Perry: The Legacy of Slavery in New Orleans

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