The culture of New Orleans has historically been shaped by the influence of its diverse inhabitants, said Jason Berry (CAS ’71), author and investigative reporter.
The Feb. 25 event featured Berry’s new book, which argues New Orleans’ culture is grounded in performance and display.
“When you grow up in a town where the adults wear masks and dance in the streets, it plants a certain optimism in the human experiment,” Berry said.
New Orleanian culture has cultivated a hopeful attitude for the city’s residents that has contrasted the racial tensions that have shaped the city’s society for centuries, according to Berry.
“The challenge of this book for me was to capture both that zest for life for which the city is so well known and the deeper history layered in violence, much of it racial,” Berry said.
A lifelong resident of New Orleans, Berry said he has long been interested in the culture of his hometown. In 1986, he wrote “Up From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II.” The book focused on the city’s music scene but also analyzed the influence of immigrant communities on the city’s culture.
Berry is also known for his reporting of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, which began well before the 2002 Boston Globe report on the abuse crisis. He drew national attention for his coverage of Gilbert Gauthe, a Catholic priest accused of abuse in Louisiana, in 1985, according to The Washington Post.
He later published the books “Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children” and “Vows of Silence,” which further explored allegations of sexual abuse against priests and the responses of the Church.
The contributions of a diverse collection of cultures have formed the identity of New Orleans, according to Berry.
“This kind of melding of different peoples at this crossroads of America is what has given the town its personality and tone and temper,” Berry said.
The history of New Orleans is characterized by interactions among diverse groups that have inhabited the city. The land belonged to the Chitimacha, a Native American tribe based in Louisiana, until the French established the city as a port in 1718. Control of the city passed from the French to the Spanish and then back briefly to the French before the United States bought the land in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.
Through the changing governance of the city, French, Spanish, Creole and black influences have contributed to the culture of New Orleans. However, institutionalized racial hierarchies that dictated the city’s society shaped the relationship between culture and law, according to Berry.
“The argument of this book is that New Orleans’ beguiling personality stems from a long tension between a culture of spectacle, rooted in the dances of enslaved Africans in a public park known as Congo Square, and a city of laws that was anchored in white supremacy,” Berry said.
The event was hosted by the Georgetown University history department and the Georgetown University Alumni Association and was held in Arrupe Hall.
Titled “City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Year 300,” Berry’s latest book features insights from the diary of Benjamin Latrobe, the architect responsible for designing Washington, D.C., and a waterworks system in New Orleans in the early 1800s.
Latrobe’s firsthand accounts capture the diversity of New Orleans, according to Berry.
“The ship is in fog, and he hears the sounds of all these different languages, all these different tongues — a city of migrants,” Berry said.
But for all the celebration of different cultures that took place in the city, New Orleans was still marked by racial violence, which Berry explores through Latrobe’s descriptions.
“He’s appalled by the cruelty he sees — the beatings, the floggings,” Berry said.