Our Stories Told By Us
By Tina Antolini
I’ve learned something, talking to people who’ve lived through a tragedy—be it the death of a loved one or a tornado destroying a home or an entire town: there is something profoundly healing about the telling a story. This is a lesson the city of New Orleans offers plentiful evidence of; everywhere you turn, there’s another organization recording stories, from oral histories to anecdotes, legends of the city’s Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs to tales of Hurricane Katrina mayhem.
As an outsider, I have the sense that New Orleans is telling itself all these stories, building itself anew in these voices, resurrecting memories to prove that the essentials of what made the city what it was—the people, the traditions—are undiminished by the hurricane’s winds and the flood water’s encroachment, not to mention the human disaster of the handling of the storm’s aftermath.
But the value of sharing a story—and the empowerment of it—was something many in New Orleans believed in long before Katrina. If you want a sense of the tapestry of stories that make up the Crescent City, head on over to The Neighborhood Story Project. “Our Stories Told By Us” is the motto of this non-profit, based in the city’s 7th Ward. Founders Rachel Breunlin and Abram Himelstein call it a “documentary book-making project,” but the makers are members of the community. The books NSP puts out are full of neighborhood scenes that are at times universal and at others distinctly New Orleanian: street corner childhood initiations, a barbershop that doubles as an artist’s studio, the sewing of the elaborate feathered costumes of the city’s famed Mardi Gras Indians. They come from writers who are teenagers, senior citizens—and everyone in between.
Here’re a couple of excerpts from some of their recent releases… You can order the books in full—and a slew of others— by going here.
Excerpt from Beyond the Bricks
Co-authored by Daron Crawford and Pernell Russell (Excerpt authored by Pernell Russell)
My cousin Troy’s daddy came by our house with this man with long hair and a baseball cap on. When they were leaving, I overheard my mama telling Troy, “I like him.”
I found out his name was Brandon. He told me to call him Bee. I was about ten years old when that happened.
I remember Brandon came around so much that he moved in after about a year. We made this bond between us that nobody could break. One day in the seventh grade I was doing homework, and Bee came and sat on the bed next to me and said, “You think you’re going to college?” I said, “No, I want to take up a trade.” Then I saw this look on his face like, “Boy, you’re crazy.” He showed me one of his college tests and was like, “If I could do it, you could do it.”
One night, about six years after I first met Bee, I was by my daddy’s house. My auntie called and said, “Bee dead.” I said, “Man, stop playing.” She kept calling me and so I was like, “Dad, bring me home.” My dad took me back across the river to Franklin.
I got home and my mama was laying in the bed, holding my sister saying, “I can’t believe that”—which became something she said every, every day. I didn’t feel anything right then. When I saw everybody getting t-shirts made, I started to feel it.
When I woke up the morning of Bee’s funeral, I was moving very slow. I did not even want to get out the bed, to tell you the truth, cause I didn’t get any sleep. I was thinking about all the memories of us from the project, the way he used to take care of me and my brothers in Texas, how he never left us when we came back to the city. He used to bring me anywhere. He would have brought me to the moon if I would have asked him.
At the church, I was at the back. When a man started singing, I started crying. I cried all the way out the church. I couldn’t do nothing but cry. My cousin hugged me and said, “It’s gonna be all good, don’t trip.” I was speechless. They carried him out of the church and into the hearse and my cousin took pictures. We second lined through the torn down project to the gym. It must have been a hundred degrees outside. We danced and took pictures.
I knew Bee for six years. He was my step-daddy. He showed me how to ride a bike, fight—all kinds of things. When I got to that age, he showed me how to drive. Bee always knew how to make you feel good.
Excerpts from From My Mother’s House of Beauty
By Susan Stephanie Henry
I was born in La Ceiba, a city on the Caribbean coast of Honduras. I lived in a neighborhood called Englishtown in a two-story house near the ocean. From our front porch, we could see the deep blue water touch the sky. The scent was nice and fresh. At night, we could see the stars.
In 2000, when I was ten years old, my mom, brother, and I moved to start a new life in New Orleans with my dad. It was a dramatic change—different school, different lifestyle. In La Ceiba, I could run down the street barefoot and onto the beach. I felt far away from the sea. I missed the horizon and being able to tell what time it was just by the light.
In this new place, it was hard for me to talk about where I came from. I said Honduras but over the years, my memory became blurry and I wanted to leave my life in La Ceiba behind. Before I started writing this book, I had no interest in learning about my background. I never paid attention to the reason why I spoke English and most people in my neighborhood in Honduras did not.
I asked my grams once about how our ancestors are connected to the Caribbean coast of Honduras. We are a mixture of Spanish, English, French, Indian, and African. But what does this mean? And how do I explain it to people in New Orleans?
Thanks to several interviews with family members and people from the Honduran community in New Orleans, I learned much more about my roots. The book became a way to help me learn about where I come from and explain to people who don’t know.
My family talks about going back to La Ceiba. I, on the other hand, feel attached to both the U.S. and Honduras, particularly New Orleans. One of the bridges between my two places in the world is my mother, who moved back to Honduras in 2007.
My mother was my main inspiration growing up. I got my love for hair and fashion from her. At her salon, she did all kinds of women’s hair. Color didn’t matter, anyone could come to my mom’s shop. Although she isn’t here now, I kept what she passed on to me and made it my own.
Having a different background and accent to go with it was not easy in elementary school. I got teased a lot. My mom spoke English to me since I was young. It was my first language despite growing up in Honduras where most people spoke Spanish. I used think my mama was preparing me to live in the States.
I always thought there was just one type of English, but when I moved to New Orleans, I saw how many there were. In school, I got put down one grade. They thought I didn’t know enough English because I came from another country, even though I could always understand the lessons. For one period of the day, they also put me in an English as a Second Language class. It was just me, a teacher, and a desk.
Kids would ask me to say certain words they knew I couldn’t pronounce, like “three.” And I’d say, “tree.” They cracked up and I didn’t know what they were laughing at. I couldn’t hear the difference. Sometimes when we’d write notes to pass in class, I would spell words the way they sounded to me and the other kids would laugh.
I was so quiet, it was hard to find people to hang out with. I looked different from the other girls and acted different, too. I’ve always been really thin and the girls in my school had a lot more curves. The boys teased me because I was really skinny, and the girls felt superior with their big butts and boobs.
Now when people at school ask me where I’m from, I know they mean what hood. In elementary, I always answered Honduras or Central America. I didn’t know any better. I told my uncle Cregg about it and he laughed and said, “Dawg, just say you from the Seventh Ward.”
Excerpt from Signed, The President
By Kenneth Phillips
I didn’t how know he got here, but this lil dude my mother gave birth to on June 22, 1993 is my best friend. My Aunt Loren named him “Kimani Eman.” The name comes from Kenya. Not many people in our family call him by his full name. We usually say “Mani” or “Moonie.” Together, Terrance and Ahyaro used to call us, “The Brothers of Destruction.” When we were little, we made a hut in our room out of the bed covers. We called it “Ilulu.” We went into the kitchen and stole marshmallows, cookies, cold drinks, and cereal and went into the circle to talk about everything. It didn’t have to be serious, but we covered what happened and what we wished would happen.
We were up in there for hours. Inside, we had different spaces—a living room, kitchen, and bedroom. Nobody could step in the Ilulu except for us and our dog Kobey. If there was something we needed to discuss and didn’t want to talk about it in front of the rest of our family, we would say, “Ilulu,” and run into the bedroom to make the circle. And if we were mad at each other, one of us would say, “So you want to fight?” We made the Ilulu and fought on our knees. Our rule was we couldn’t stand up. We felt safe there. It was our palace.
We made a pledge: “We (Doodie and Moonie) swear to never discuss any Ilulu business out of the Ilulu. If one of us does so, he will get the plunger stuck to his booty.”
One time we took each other to court in the Ilulu and Kobey was our judge. We took off the head of a mop and taped it to Kobey’s head and pled our case. Our lawyers were our teddy bears. Kimani called Kobey “Your Hugeness” and I addressed him, “Mister.” He barked and sentenced both of us. We set up a camera like People’s Court and Kobey, dressed in a blazer, interviewed us about the verdict. I thought I won the case and Kimani swore to God he won.
My lil brother is my backbone—the person I’m closest to in the world. He’s generous, kind, smart in math, and does some stupid things that keep me laughing. One time I walked out of my room and he was ironing his clothes in the dining room, naked. He’s uninhibited and doesn’t care what other people think. When he meets you, he’ll stare at you. Sometimes I tell him, “Stop looking at people like that,” but he catches on to them real quick.