In an event that reflected the culture and geography of its location, the New Orleans chapter of the Women’s National Book Association held its “Bookwoman Speaks” program Tuesday May 30, 2017 at the George and Joyce Wein Jazz & Heritage Center on Rampart Street, the dividing line between the French Quarter (the city’s first settlement) and the historic Tremé neighborhood (America’s oldest surviving black community). Chapter member Freddi Evans led our group in a Story Circle with the theme “Sassy Bookwomen of New Orleans.” The theme arose from the desire to explore the sassy voices of New Orleans bookwomen, both contemporary and historical.
New Orleans women have always been an incredibly creative and outspoken species – not only in their writing, but in every aspect of life: cooking, costuming, singing, dancing, making music, running businesses. Does New Orleans provide an atmosphere where women are freer to express themselves on paper as bookwomen?
Our Story Circle generated memories about authors past and contemporary, publishers (including Eliza Nicholson, owner of the Daily Picayune where women’s advice columns were pioneered), a painter, a music impresario, poets, the founding of Ladyfest New Orleans, musicians (naturally), journalists (including Diana Pinckley for whom the chapter named its annual mystery writing prizes), a woman who restores eyes, voodoo (both Marie Laveau and Sally Glassman, a contemporary practitioner, artist, and gallery owner), nuns (and their role in establishing many of the institutions in the area), historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall (influential scholar and author who developed a database of enslaved Africans which has become a key genealogical research tool) and everyone’s favorite chef and food author, Leah Chase (the first chef honored with two portraits in the Smithsonian Institution at both the National Gallery and the National Museum of African American History, she’s fed presidents – not holding back about telling them what they ought to eat! – and is still cooking at 94 years of age).
The WNBA-NOLA Story Circle honored the participatory nature of New Orleans culture – everyone tells a story – and the deep and ongoing contributions of the African American community to the creative life of the city. Story Circles were developed by the Free Southern Theater which was founded in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. (The method as taught by John O’Neal, one of the FST founders, is explained here: http://wagner.nyu.edu/files/leadership/PracticeNoteStoryCircleMethod0608.pdf.)
The WNBA-NOLA Story Circle was facilitated by chapter member Freddi Evans, an author, scholar, arts educator, and literacy advocate, recently named by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities as its Humanities Hero for the month of May. Freddi co-chairs the New Orleans Committee to Erect Historic Markers on the Slave Trade to Louisiana, a project of the National Park Service. She has authored award-winning children’s books and the notable 2010 cultural history Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans. Forthcoming works include co-editorship of New Orleans & the World: The Tricentennial Anthology and co-authorship of a biography of the life of African American artist John Scott. Freddi has twice been a Fulbright Scholar.
Freddi closed the WNBA-NOLA Story Circle with the observation that this method reminded her of libation ceremonies in which the names of those who have passed on are spoken and ancestors are remembered. The WNBA-NOLA story circle remembered many of our sassy forbearers and contemporary inspirations. In the centennial year of the WNBA, it was a fitting way for bookwomen to speak.