Walking through Congo Square reminds Cherice Harrison-Nelson of her family. Her great-great-grandfather Madison was sold into slavery at 11 years old and brought to New Orleans in 1820 by his owner, Francis E. Rives, who had acquired property in the French Quarter.
Harrison-Nelson, who staged a solo artist’s protest for Black Lives Matter in 2020, said that, for Black History Month, Congo Square must be foremost in discussions. She carries its culture with her as a reminder of her roots on the other side of the world.
“I always think there’s a possibility that my grandfather gathered in that space on Sunday,” said Harrison-Nelson, the Maroon Queen of the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society.
“It connects me not only to the African diaspora — the drumming, the singing and dancing — but a true site of memory for me that I’m walking, possibly in a place where my grandfather walked,” Harrison-Nelson said.
Congo Square is the epitome of resilience and Black identity in New Orleans. Going back to the 19th century, the area was known as a gathering space where enslaved and free people of color came together to drum, dance, trade, pray and honor the spirits of their ancestors. The space still revives the descendants of the African diaspora and is a national testament to black history and culture.
The 3 p.m. hour on Sundays, has become a traditional time of worship and praise at the square. The patter of fingers on the drums and the rhythms of the bamboula is heard flowing throughout Louis Armstrong Park.
The rhythm of the bamboula, also the dance of love, is a way to “honor your ancestors,” said Luther Gray, head of the Congo Square Preservation Society. The drum circle cultivates a divine, spiritual energy linking the past and the present, he said.
Gray was taught to play the bamboula by Chief Hawthorne Bey, an African folklorist and percussionist who came to New Orleans in the early 1990s. He spent his visit teaching Gray and other local master drummers the bamboula.
“The bass part was like boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-boom. The other part was like bop-ba-bop-ba-bop and the third part was um-pa-um-pa-um-pa,” Gray said as he replicated the sounds of the beats.
He said he was blown away when he heard the sounds from the chief’s culture, because it was familiar to him as the rhythm of the second line. The sounds had been preserved by the present-day Black Masking Indians through second liners and drummers following the Indians.
“People in New Orleans have taken things from Africa. Africa and the Caribbean and indigenous [people] and they melted and blended into the culture,” Gray said.
Congo Square represents the tenacity of African culture and heritage. Inside this space, enslaved Black people and free people of color had the freedom to express themselves through music and dance. It was a way to escape from the oppression of enslavement and racism, “when everything else was taken away from us,” said Freddi Williams Evans, author of “Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans” and a children’s book “Come Sunday: A Young Reader’s History of Congo Square.”
“We were able to practice [traditions] here when we had been stripped of everything physical, those things that were deep inside were able to be expressed,” she said. “That is what makes it so sacred and such a reference point beyond just the location,” Evans said.
Today the square is a symbol of Black culture, identity and the existence of people of color. Their self-actualization was realized and the sense of autonomy was shaped for individuals and as a community.
“When you go to Congo Square, it is empirical evidence for me that who and whose I am could not be beaten or bred out of me,” said Harrison-Nelson. “I am a child of Africa living in both worlds. I carry it in my soul and it manifests through expressions that are both contemporary and ancient,” she said.
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