Postcard from New Orleans: Just a Sunday Afternoon Second Line
By Tina Antolini
It’s a Sunday afternoon in New Orleans, and we’re stuck in traffic on an ordinary street in the Central City neighborhood. The reason? We made the mistake of trying to drive through the route of a second line. For all the fame of the city’s parades around Mardi Gras, New Orleans residents take to the streets every weekend for a good chunk of the year to second line… yes, it’s both a noun and a verb. Second lines stem from the city’s jazz funeral tradition: the main line is made up of the somber mourners; the second line is the folks following behind—celebrating and dancing.
But they’re not just attached to funerals anymore, thanks to the city’s Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs—benevolent societies originally founded to provide African American residents with insurance back in the days when insurance companies wouldn’t offer it to them. The Clubs still do charitable work, but now each one also hosts an annual second line, marking off a parade route in their neighborhood, hiring a brass band, and dressing to the nines to dance in the streets.
We catch a glimpse of the second line making its way down a cross street a few blocks ahead of us. SOTRU intern (and NOLA godsend) Julia Botero and I bolt out of the car, with apologies to Mr. Letson (who was behind the wheel), and run towards the mass of people. I push my way up into where the members of the Revolution Social Aid and Pleasure Club have paused momentarily in their parade down the street. Dapper doesn’t do these men’s outfits justice. They have matching tan suits with green shirts, pink ties and large elaborate sashes across their chests, each one made up of hundreds of tiny bows of pink, yellow, green. They have matching fedoras, matching shoes that are color-coordinated with their sashes. Four people on either side of them walk along, holding up a rope so the crowd doesn’t spill over into the area where the club members will dance. Behind them is a brass band; I hang out next to the sousaphone and the trombone.
The band starts to play, and we all start moving in half march, half dance. People are pressed in along the club and the band, filling the entire roadway, sidewalk. Some carry beers, daiquiris, their beverage of choice. One man carries a little parasol over his head. People keep grabbing my microphone, singing into it. One man banging on a glass bottle in time to the music sidles up to me and kisses my hand. The band moves into a song with a certain step to it, one step forward, one step back. The whole crowd does it, some of us because we have no choice, we are moving as one—but also because we’re delirious with the music, the joy of being in the streets. A man with a mouthful of gold teeth starts walk-dancing next to me, strikes up a conversation. “We march whenever we can,” he says. “Good day or bad day. THIS is New Orleans. This is what we do.”
Check out more of members of the Revolution Social Aid and Pleasure Club dancing fancy here.