Black Lives: A North Star to Freedom

by Stephanie McKee

said we wanna bring back black
we wanna bring black back
we wanna bring ancient thoughts to present thinkers
so future generations can be healed

Sunni Patterson
Excerpt from Gomela to Return… Movement of our Mother Tongue

When I think of New Orleans, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t the food or music but the color of the people—the way we look and feel. The color of our lives is as multifaceted as the beading in any Mardi Gras Indian suit. When the sun hits just right, I can never tell where one begins and the other ends. This is the triumph of color in New Orleans.

New Orleans is alive. It is a city with a close-knit network of artists, culture bearers, and community organizations who care deeply about the unique culture and future of our hometown. Our care for each other extends past the city limits, as we remain connected to the people who have been forced into the ‘New Orleans Diaspora’ by economic and ecological crisis. After Katrina, the cultural dynamic of our city was forcibly dispersed. A little here, a little there and anywhere there was possibility for it, we grew. Over the years, I’ve witnessed the New Orleans artistic landscape shift from a handful of lifelong lovers, to a host of new artists. But fewer and fewer artists are keepers of the flame; carriers of that distinctly New Orleans color.  

The Mardi Gras Indian costuming and street performance traditions are one core site of our enduring cultural legacies. The children are introduced pretty early on and tell their friends to join them in Indian practice when the streetlights come on. They, too, are building a future that is full of fancy costumes, lifelong acquaintances, and legendary stories. We are here to stay in the hearts of the people, but we also want to remain in the eye of the world. In order for our heritage to continue growing and bearing fruits of epic potency, we do what we have always done: we live. We breathe, cry, and laugh crescent city feathers. That is to say, we create. 

"Our forebears forged revolutionary theater out of the dire social, political, and economic conditions of the segregated South. They continued spinning tales while local governments dragged their feet in implementing the changes that were promised by civil rights legislation."

Grown out of the southern grassroots organizing tradition, Junebug Productions takes seriously the charge to tend to the people of New Orleans by nurturing the city’s creative spirit. With our offices based in the cultural epicenter of Black New Orleans, the Tremé neighborhood, we live in a commitment to honoring all those who have come before us and softening the way for all those who will come after. This is our 21st century Sankofa philosophy. As Sunni Patterson says, we “bring back black” by rooting our work in radical, diasporic, and multigenerational expressions of community remembrance. We understand the purpose of our artmaking as a mission to uplift the collaborative relationships that naturally exist among artists and communities in the African-based jazz culture of New Orleans. 

Junebug’s revolutionary theater practices pay homage to a fusion of African and New Orleans performance traditions that are highly participatory and inclusive. These Black forms and aesthetics challenge the dominant Western ideals of performance and theater. Our culture-driven art translates New Orleans street performance into the more “traditional” theater setting without losing the depth and intensity that characterizes the original form. Staying true to these distinctly Black and Southern aesthetic priorities, our productions break down the barrier between audience and performer.

We do this while also navigating a cultural infrastructure that is under attack and in jeopardy. But that is nothing new. We are the organizational successor of the Free Southern Theater (FST), a cultural wing of the civil rights movement. Our forebears forged revolutionary theater out of the dire social, political, and economic conditions of the segregated South. They continued spinning tales while local governments dragged their feet in implementing the changes that were promised by civil rights legislation. We have been a body of Black people, dreaming up new futures and gathering our stories to weave together cultural sustenance. In this current era of crisis, we are once again faced with the question of how to reimagine what it means to do this work now.

"We are in the business of transmitting our light, our color, as a beacon for all those who are concerned about freedom."

As our neighborhoods experience the impact of climate destruction and predatory speculation designed to profit from our art, culture, and history, we believe an essential part of our work is ensuring that locally rooted Black artists are engaged in speculating and creating our own inclusive and generative visions for the future within our broader communities. We believe that the people who create, live, and work in New Orleans understand most clearly what it means to create freedom here. They are in the best position to build an equitable, economically and environmentally just, future. Our communities are our collaborators. All of our work amplifies the voices of our community and participates in shaping a new narrative of equity and justice.

What we end up with are pieces of collective memory, a tapestry woven by groups of multidisciplinary artists who represent the diversity of Black life in New Orleans. Artists are asked to bring their authentic selves to the space and we build on their skills, experiences, artistic talents, and aesthetics by utilizing our Story Circle Process. Devised by the field organizers of the Free Southern Theater in the late 1960s, a story circle is a community engagement practice that invites participants to get to know each other and uncover their common concerns by offering and listening to each other’s tales and short stories. The experiences conveyed through their stories are then used by the facilitators to shape a project or narrative. This process allows us to create productions that center the personal and collective stories of New Orleans’ residents.

Currently, we are developing a body of work that explores income inequality, gentrification, and the disparate impact of climate change on communities of color. This work, that tackles themes of safety and self-determination, has brought together a dedicated group of artists serving as changemakers and responders to the forces reshaping our community. With all of our work, we seek to (1) engage the community in developing and delivering a message, told through multidisciplinary art, about their daily struggles for survival and dignity, (2) educate policy influencers and decision-makers about the consequences and effects of the lack of equity for African-American people in New Orleans, and (3) increase the reach and utility of art as a vehicle for social change. Our work has always engaged public school students, teachers, artists, culture bearers, public health providers and advocates, city policy makers, and government officials. As we continue to bear witness to the crises facing our community, we challenge ourselves to always consider the systemic nature of the issues we are trying to express so that we can better position ourselves and our work as strategic tools.  

Our work is about the heartbeat of a people that will never die. Our culture and our traditions will continue to evolve and grow and survive the test of time. This work utilizes the rich oral traditions and practices of a culture fighting against its own erasure. We are in the business of transmitting our light, our color, as a beacon for all those who are concerned about freedom. In this sense, we are a North Star—not only for our beloved New Orleans, but for an artistic network that transcends space and time. Our art brings ancient technologies forward through revolutionary acts of cultural production. It is my belief that we are just one North Star among many, all glittering in a testament to the audacious persistence of Black life. 

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