It's great to visit different places with different cultures, but sometimes
that's impossible. You may not be able to travel as much as you'd like,
or the place may no longer exist in the same way. This is especially true
of the past, which had a different culture from the same place in the
present. It can also be true of catastrophic events that you wouldn't
want to experience.
Popular culture can give you a more realistic sense of another time and
place than would be possible any other way. Reading a good book or
watching a good movie or TV show can put you in that place,
introducing you to the sorts of people who lived and walked there at the
An example is a series of books I've been
reading about New Orleans in the 1830s.
They're by author Barbara Hambly and
feature the detective Benjamin January.
The first book in the series, A Free Man
of Color, opens doors to Creole society in
the era of gaslight and horses and buggies.
It takes you around a New Orleans that no
longer exists, giving you a picture of the life
that formed the basis of cultural traditions
that continue today.
Benjamin January is a man of mixed blood working as a musician even though he trained as a
doctor in Paris. He investigates the murder of a young woman at a Mardi Gras ball, working
with the rough and crude white policeman Abishag Shaw against the background of New
Orleans nightlife and social conventions, and the plantations just outside its borders.
In the second book in the series, Fever Season, January is able to use his medical training to
help fight a devastating epidemic of yellow fever, caring for the dying at Charity Hospital
while working as a music teacher during the day and helping a schoolmistress dedicated to
teach young girls of color in a time and place when neither knowledge nor people of color
The third, Graveyard Dust, examines the mysterious world of voodoo and its relationship to
New Orleans' dominant Catholicism. January's sister Olympe, a voodoo practitioner and
follower of Voodoo Queen Marie Leveau, has been accused of murder. His own life is
threatened when January finds graveyard dust, a voodoo death curse, sprinkled at his door.
There are several other books in the series that I haven't yet read, but I'm eager to.
Another example of popular culture opening a door to New Orleans
is the incredible first season of David Simon's HBO series, Treme,
set in New Orleans three months after Katrina. Pronounced
Tre-may, the title refers to America's oldest black neighborhood.
The major character in Treme is the varied music of New
Orleans--rhythm and blues, zydeco, and especially jazz. Beginning
with the theme song written by John Boutte, it imbues the entire series
with life and depth. But the visuals are almost as important as the
sounds, including the rushing water, the high water marks, the codes
on houses showing how many bodies were found inside and the
mold, so prevalent you can almost smell it.
Antoine Batiste (above), played by Wendell Pierce, is perhaps the
most representative of the many music-makers and styles showcased
in the series.
I especially loved the plot line that began with his losing his horn after
being rousted by the police and continued through the gift of a new
one by a Japanese jazz enthusiast. Through numerous twists and
turns, Batiste bridges the past, present and future of New Orleans
My second favorite character is LaDonna Batiste-Williams
(left), Antoine's former wife and friend, played by Khandi
She makes the screen glow whether she's yelling at lazy
construction workers on the bar she inherited from her
father or marching with heart-rending dignity at a jazz
Her relationship with Antoinette 'Toni' Bernette, played by
Melissa Leo, rivals Thelma and Louise and shows the bond
that can be forged between differing cultures as Leo's
character works to help locate Alexander's brother, who is
missing after the storm.
It spoke to me of close friendships I've enjoyed over the
years with people of other cultures, though in my
experience, who's on the giving and on the receiving end
swings back and forth more than theirs indicated.
Leo plays the wife of John Goodman's college professor
Creighton Bernette (shown left berating a news crew
covering the disaster).
Creighton starts out strong supporting his city, but
gradually disintegrates before our eyes.
A second season of Treme has aired to critical approval.
My favorite character is Big Chief Albert Lambreaux,
played by Clarke Peters (left). He returns to New Orleans
determined to continue the tradition of the Mardi Gras
A small wiry man of incredible strength, he reminds me of