Reflections on New Orleans
This year we are journeying to the land currently known as New Orleans, Louisiana. Colonized by the French in 1718, Dr. Jeffery U. Darrensbourg,1 Tribal Councilperson and enrolled member of the Atakapa-Ishak Nation of Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas, has stated, “‘New Orleans’ was already a place, a place with a name, before the first Europeans set sail for the area.” Known as “Bulbancha,” a Choctaw term meaning “place of many tongues,” this place was originally inhabited by the Chitimacha nation and, prior to 1718, served as an important port and trading hub for more than 40 diverse peoples, including Atakapa, Caddo, Choctaw, Houma, Natchez, and Tunica nations.
Unfortunately, with European colonization of the region also came the institution of chattel slavery. Some Native Americans who resisted colonization became enslaved themselves while other Native Americans hid and aided enslaved Black people in escaping bondage. New Orleans was host to the largest slave markets in the Deep South, and our ASHE conference hotel is close to some of the sites where over 100,000 people were bought and sold into slavery during the first half of the 19th century. To this day, the region continues to wrestle with the legacy, past and present, of both colonization and slavery. The systematic oppression of people of color is reflected, for example, in current day educational inequities, wherein Louisiana is ranked #49 in the nation for higher education attainment.2
At the same time, the land currently known as New Orleans also represents tremendous creativity, resilience, and improvisation in the face of tragedy, from colonization to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Fittingly, in response to recent tri-centennial celebrations of the French “founding” of New Orleans, local graffiti artists painted “Bulbancha Forever” at the foot of the Jefferson Davis Monument, representing resistance and resilience in spite of the city’s multiple and intersecting legacies of inequality, erasure, and genocide. Such resilience also presents itself in educational spaces. For instance, New Orleans is host to outstanding historically Black colleges and universities, including Xavier University and Dillard University, both known for graduating a disproportionate number of the country’s Black STEM graduates.3 Impressively, Louisiana has led the country in FAFSA completion over the past several years, signaling new opportunities for local youth.4
As we prepare to travel to this dynamic region, we name the tensions we sit in—that we travel to a city whose officially recognized name is a daily reminder of oppression and erasure to many, that the region, like so many of our own, continues to deal with the legacy of hundreds of years of colonization and enslavement. As we seek to advance full participation, we recognize these complexities and look forward to learning from our host city.
2 U.S. News and World Report https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/louisiana
3 https://www.xula.edu/singleArticle?articleId=article___news___learn_org; https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/dillard-university-outranks-many-others-physics-grads-n765086