Nelson Mandela’s Second Line

By Kelly Harris 

I went early. Sat on St. Louis Cathedral’s cold stair. Brought a notebook. Took notes on the musicians carrying their instruments through Jackson Square on foot. Jotting notes must have made me look like a tourist, but never mind what people think. This is the day President Mandela will be laid to rest and I am in a city, where grief is pushed through trombones. A city where jazz funerals are rooted in African dance, music and rituals.

Nelson Mandela Second Line

Many tourists don’t know they are experiencing what Africans brought through slavery. “Excuse me. What are they about to do?” asks a woman in a Packers sweat shirt and a camera around her neck.

It’s not quite second-line atmosphere, but there is a sense something is about to happen. Too much glitter, too many umbrellas, too many drums harnessed on the chests of young men.

I introduced myself to a few of the ladies and tell them I’m a blogger—doesn’t ring a bell. It’s the camera that makes them pose. “Don’t leave me out, bay-beh,” another woman yells while jumping into the photo. These ladies were fierce. Trust me.

And then just like that—there’s a circular dancing wall behind me. I was in the thick of it.  “MANDELA!” cries a woman to the heavens.

I’m short, but I tried my best to get as many images and clips as possible. I want my 14-month-old daughter to see this when she’s older. From a coffin-shaped box, doves are released. It was beautiful sight to see white birds fly for a black man.

“Some glad morning, when this life is over.

I’ll fly away.”

I put away my camera and joined the French Quarter church, clapped my hands. It’s important, I think, to not just be a part of the paparazzi at second lines.

“When I die, Hallelujah by and by.”

All the Madiba signs and South African flags made me feel a part of the global goodbye. By now the crowd is moving, and I became teary eyed at the site of a black man leading the crowd with a dignified strut through the streets of New Orleans. I couldn’t help but think of Henry Glover and the recent “not guilty” verdict.

“Dude, I’m in New Orleans and they’re like having this party and it’s cool. You can dance behind the band and everything,” a man tells someone on his cell phone.

A first-time-second line experience could be unbelievable in a commercially cultured America.

There’s an old black saying: Every shut eye ain’t sleep; Every good-bye ain’t gone. In New Orleans, we don’t just say it. We believe it.

Nelson Mandela

July 18, 1918- December 5, 2013