NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the 23rd episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” It will be available starting 18 November 2022. You can find it and all episodes at Stitcher, iTunes, and wherever you get your podcasts, along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts.
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I first met Carol Bebelle years ago, when I was writing Art Became The Oxygen: An Artistic Response Guide for the US Department of Arts and Culture. Carol had been at ground zero for Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans in 2005. I had read her excellent essay, “The Vision Has Its Time” in an anthology on civic engagement after the storm, and interviewed her in the hope of sharing her knowledge with other artists confronting civic and natural disasters. Ashé Cultural Arts Center, the organization she cofounded, had immediately set to work providing comfort, community, and support after the storm.
As Carol explains in the podcast, in our first conversation, she gave me the guide’s title, using the analogy of an airplane having to make an emergency landing: “put your mask on first, and then help others.” In the aftermath of disaster, Carol said, “art became the oxygen.”
“In post-Katrina New Orleans, it was really, really bad. The city had been emptied of pretty much all life other than folks who had responsibility for staying here. There was a stench of death and of the storm that lingered for months. The human spirit was faced with the daunting effort of keeping people lifted, to be able to attend to matters that have to do with lost loved ones, the loss of everything. For Black folks, it came closest to being kind of a restimulator of what the Middle Passage must have been like.”
The need was great, so Ashé “became a place for everything. Using Maslow’s hierarchy of need, we were doing food, clothing and shelter….We were partnering with people to do grieving ceremonies. We were also doing what we called The Chill Zone, where we brought in the acupuncturists and massage therapists and gave people permission to attend to themselves and help to heal some of their hurts. We brought together 16 women artists and put together a production called ‘Swimming Upstream,” where we took the experiences of women and brought them to bear in the telling of the story of what it was like for us here in New Orleans. When people walked into our show, we made sure it was beautiful, it smelled really good. People were able to walk in the door and one after the other, they would take this very deep breath. And they said, you know, ‘At least there’s something that looks like home….’ That was when I became very clear about the power of culture to be a healing force, to be an opportunity of representation, an opportunity to correct and to complete histories, to be able to be voice. Culture and art became all of that in the wake of Katrina.”
In the podcast, Carol shares a “cultural continuum” that guides her understanding of the work. “The cultural continuum is cultural rooting, which is where you get your core identification—things from rules, roles, rituals, traditions, folkways. You do that several times: when you’re an infant and moving up, as you go move into the world, and you go to other places, and have to encounter other cultures, you go back and you become rooted. So rooting is first, then bearing. This is when you start owning what it is that has been rooted in you, how it fits, how you express it, what your voice is inside of that. The next one is bridging, when you come in contact with something different than you, and you begin the process some people call code-switching, but it’s bridging, . Then the final piece is culture making, it’s when you take a circumstance or situation, and you discover that it can be improved by creating ritual, redefining roles, something to make it better.”
François noted that people follow many different paths to community-based cultural work. Many don’t start from an understanding of themselves as artists. Carol described her influences:
“I am a granddaughter of pastors from both sides of my family. The church was a microcosm of culture, full of rules and ritual and full of glorious art. This was the Baptist Church; music was not just gospel, it was anthems to gospel. You got a chance to be able to hear music that was near classical, all the way to gospel and Jubilee singing. Clearly you had spoken word—my grandfather was a rather popular minister—and the camaraderie and the caretaking. It was not until I was an adult that I discovered that my friends who always got a chance to come over and spend the night or the weekend or the week, that this was not like sleepovers. These were instances where families were either financially strapped, or there was some problem in the home. I didn’t find out until some of these children as grownups were talking to me, saying, ‘I never really got a chance to thank anybody in your family for how much you helped.’ I was shocked. The whole thing of taking care of others, and being responsible for your sister and your brother, that ethic was there.
“Then the years that I did in the public sector taught me things, too. Everywhere in New Orleans, Black folks were moving into middle management and senior management in government and the nonprofit sector—except in the cultural sector. I was frankly indignant about it. I went, ‘This is absolutely crazy.’ At the same time I was in my own midlife kind of crisis, where I had gone to all of these jobs primarily because they were next steps in my evolution. I never sat back and thought about what I really wanted to do. I said, ‘Well, this is something we can take care of.’ When we got the opportunity to get this building, it was really a gift of sorts, because the developer who did the building did it on a very popular historical strip that had gone into bad times. And so there were lots of reclamation churches on the street. There were sex workers and substance abuse and homeless missions on the street. Her interest was in revitalizing this corridor, which at one time had been a heyday place. So we felt really connected to the opportunity to be a part of helping to bring back something, and particularly to bring it back as an African American cultural corridor.
“I had worked in the public sector and been a writer of grants that brought in millions of dollars to the school board, as well as to the city. But when we started looking for people to invest—foundations and like that—people were giving us $1,500 and saying, ‘Well, you know, we’re going to look and see, I really believe that you believe that you’re going to be able to make a difference here, but we’re not so convinced.'”
In the podcast, Carol explains how she and Ashé cofounder Douglas Redd created a beautiful, responsive and welcoming space and “in time, it became a long overdue place where culture, the culture of the African diaspora can have a home. And it can be tended, and celebrated and spotlighted not from a place of defense but from a place of being authentically and naturally yourself.”
That’s a bit of the origin story. Tune in to hear profound reflections many subjects: being prepared to fail and go on, learning from experience, the critical role of the spiritual in cultural work. Carol talks about racial justice and racial healing, a double task: “One, to find a way to be able to attend to the wounds. And secondly, it is to find a pathway that can bring people together. I think that we’ve spent a lot of time in our movements and all speaking truth to power, and calling people out. And those are very important parts of the formula. But if the reversal of Roe v. Wade has taught us anything, it is also that we have to call people in, we have to look for the places where humanity can coexist and coincide and begin to build bridges. Now, everybody’s not supposed to do that work, like everybody’s not supposed to do the calling out and speaking truth to power. But we’ve got to do a better job.” Carol also tells us about her forthcoming album of music, entitled “Medicine Bag,” and featuring “Stand by Me,” which has become a medicine song for her. Can’t wait to hear it!
“Stand By Me” by Playing for Change.