Remember I said that thing about missing home and seeing it everywhere? Maybe it’s that I look for it everywhere. Even before I got here, I started looking for it. While I’m from South Carolina and I currently live in Georgia, I spent seven formative years in South Louisiana getting my Ph.D. at LSU. Sure, I left there, but somehow I didn’t really leave there—LA is in my heart, especially New Orleans. Part of the reason for that is because I love the music so much. So, when I saw that Kermit Ruffins was playing at the Brooklyn Bowl on the first Saturday after my arrival, it was a no-brainer—I bought my ticket straight away.
But, as should be expected, I didn’t just go dance the night away and lose myself in the music. I reflected (ah, the life of an academic—unable to NOT reflect). And what I reflected on this time was the exportation of southern culture, which seems to be in line with the trip theme of “Southern writers in New York.” Some might argue that Kermit Ruffins is the essence of popular New Orleans music these days, and some—like me—might argue that New Orleans music is the essence of southern music. So, when I got to the Brooklyn Bowl and saw lines outside the door, I was heartened. When I talked to some folks outside who were jazzed (excuse the punny phrasing) to see Kermit play, I was moved that so many others appreciated the music from my “heart” city of New Orleans.
And then someone asked me if I’d tried the fried chicken at Brooklyn Bowl because they are known for their fried chicken.
I don’t know why that simple question set me off thinking, but it did. I wanted to answer that just about everybody I know fries up his/her own chicken with a special recipe and that there are probably 20 or more restaurants that serve the “best” fried chicken in the town where I live. I started to feel like I was in a place where fried chicken and traditional jazz were exotic. I started to think that maybe these folks were fetishizing the South, coming to Brooklyn to eat fried chicken and dance and sing along to “Marie” as if they were in New Orleans or some other Southern locale. Somehow, it also felt a little unfair that they only experienced the best aspects of the culture without understanding how the centuries of violence and oppression came to inform these aspects. When you live in the South, it is much harder to ignore that history and its reverberations. In some ways, I could connect this experience to the Kara Walker installation—there was a strangely discomforting distance between art and audience.
But maybe that’s just the way—art cannot create authenticity for us; it is, after all, artifice. Maybe I should be happy that people are just searching for a hip Southern experience, that they want to eat southern food and see Kermit Ruffins (because there are plenty of Southerners who don’t want to celebrate our rich culture). Still, I left a little disappointed because seeing Kermit in Brooklyn is not anything like seeing New Orleans music in New Orleans. The place is intrinsic to the culture—the music and everything else—and there’s a spirit that is not transportable. As Tom Piazza (a native New Yorker) writes in his memoir, Why New Orleans Matters, “New Orleanians are attached to tradition, which is fused to a sense of place, to the ground itself…” (104). Much of this “tradition” is also born from the horrifying and complicated history of the region. So, if you’re seeking New Orleans culture or Southern culture of any kind, it’s best to just go there and dance in place, listen for the reverb, and maybe even fry your own chicken.