Ferguson was raised amid carnival royalty: Her mother was a queen; her grandfather was a king. As a child, Ferguson couldn’t sit next to her nanny at the movie theater, because of race laws. Her great-great-grandfather, Judge John Ferguson, ruled that Homer Plessy, a black Creole, couldn’t ride in a railcar meant for whites. The 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson cemented segregation laws until Brown v. Board of Education launched the civil rights revolution in 1954.
After moving to New York City, she became a successful advertising photographer. “I woke up one day and realized I needed more interaction with real life,” she says. She was drawn back to her hometown in 2002 with a general idea for a Mardi Gras documentary and soon narrowed its focus to the largely unknown world of black debutantes. Member of the Club won the Crystal Heart Award at the 2008 Hearts and Minds Film Festival in Dover, Delaware. While researching the film, in a reversal of her childhood experience, she was barred from the black Royalty box at a carnival ball.
She moved back in 2006. “One never feels isolated here,” she says. “We’re all part of a greater artwork: the city, its identity and culture.”
When Cherice Harrison-Nelson’s home in Uptown’s Broadmoor neighborhood flooded, she lost computers, books, and her archives on Mardi Gras Indians, whose elaborate costumes in carnival parades reflect one of the city’s richest traditions. Now she lives in a Habitat home in a rebuilt Upper Ninth Ward enclave called Musicians’ Village. “I’m grateful for this house, but I consider it transitional,” she says.
Her father, Donald Harrison, Sr., the founding chief of Guardians of the Flame, a renowned Indian group, died in 1998. Her mother, Herreast, has repaired her home a few blocks away. Now Harrison-Nelson is working on a doctorate in urban studies at the University of New Orleans, focusing on the tradition she’s helping to preserve. The Indians march through the city on Mardi Gras each February; many lived in neighborhoods that took the worst flooding and have not returned. Reviving the tradition has become a survival quest.
On a warm Saturday morning, Harrison-Nelson and her mother and two sisters sit in a circle with four girls and a boy who have come to make costumes. There is an intense masculinity to the Indians, though more women and girls have joined in recent years, working with the men and boys on the complex sewing and beaded designs.
The women step back, taking tambourines as a drummer positions himself at the congas. The children sing “Indian Red,” the sacred song that’s sung first on Mardi Gras morning, before the parade heads into the streets: “We are Indians …/Indians of the nation/The whole wide creation/Oh how I love to hear them call/My Indian Red.”
In the year after the flood, as people straggled home to a city without social services, turf wars erupted in schools. Drug violence and murders skyrocketed. In January 2007, Helen Hill, 32, was killed by an intruder as her husband held their baby. Dinerral Shavers, 25, a snare drummer with the Hot 8 Brass Band, was shot in the head while driving with his family; the accused killer, a 17-year-old boy in a beef with Shavers’s stepson, was acquitted.
The murders drove Baty Landis to cofound Silence Is Violence, to reduce crime and help at-risk youths refocus their lives. In January 2007, Landis’s group led a march of 5,000 people on city hall, the largest demonstration since the 1960s, to agitate for reform. As Mayor Ray Nagin stood ashen-faced, people chanted, “Music in the schools!” — a reference to both Shavers, who’d also been a high school music teacher and band director, and long-standing community pleas for a school band program to counter gang culture.
“We want kids to be heroic by being creative,” Landis says of her organization. “The city’s violence intensified because neighborhoods were shaken up and kids were left behind when parents moved to other cities. It’s not that complicated to reach out to these kids. But the city programs just aren’t there.”
A foghorn bays on the river. “When art creates social networks, it reduces violence,” Landis says. “Why is that so hard for people to understand?”
For all the flawed politics, the strength of New Orleans lies in its neighborhoods, a weave of ethnic traditions embraced by musicians, artists, writers, and activists in a continuing quest to revive the soul of the city.