As 2017 comes to an end — and with the mayor's race finally over and the New Orleans Saints ascendant again — you'll soon be hearing about a major citywide initiative that will encompass much of the city's cultural life in 2018: the tricentennial of the founding of New Orleans, or what city leaders are calling NOLA 300.
Last week, WYES-TV premiered New Orleans: The First 300 Years, a two-hour documentary narrated by John Goodman exploring the city's history (the program repeats at 1 p.m. and 9 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 23), and there's a coffee table book of the same name by Errol and Peggy Scott Laborde, with an introduction by historian Lawrence Powell. Also last week, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and more than a dozen local leaders held a symposium at the Orpheum Theater "to recount the past, discuss the present and envision the future of New Orleans."
Commemorative, Instagram-worthy "NOLA 300" sculptures like the one pictured, near the Big Lake in New Orleans City Park, are going up around town, and even Prospect.4, the New Orleans art triennial (the topic of this week's cover story by D. Eric Bookhardt) draws inspiration from the city's history. After Jan. 1, opera, ballet, theater, art exhibits and concerts celebrating New Orleans history will be staged all over town. The celebration will culminate in late April 2018 (while New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival visitors are in town) with a tricentennial interfaith service, a weekend for international guests and dignitaries at the restored Gallier Hall, and a citywide celebration April 22.
Naturally, all this will be a major tourism draw and a chance for New Orleans to once again shine in front of the world. But NOLA 300 has to be more than a clever bit of marketing if it is to be a true celebration of New Orleans. Making sure that the city's entire history — the good and the bad, the accomplishments and the still-imperfect — will be the challenge.
We cannot give great New Orleanians like Leah Chase or Norman Francis their historical due without also acknowledging the painful legacy of Plessy v. Ferguson, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that codified segregation under the "separate but equal" rubric. We cannot acknowledge New Orleans' greatest contribution to the world — jazz — without also showing the struggle that the city's musicians had, and continue to have, making a living from their talents. Nor can we celebrate the city's recovery from Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures without acknowledging that the storm and the response also laid bare fundamental inequities that are older than any of us — inequities that remain.
Every family history includes good times and bad, joys and sorrows, struggles and achievements. "NOLA 300" presents an unparalleled opportunity for New Orleanians to acknowledge and accept that none of us is perfect, but what matters most to us as a community — what ultimately unites us despite our differences — is our shared determination to face each day filled with joyful hope and determination no matter what life throws at us. It's who we are, and who we'll always be.
And that's worth celebrating.