"With each second line that rolled down Ursulines Avenue, New Orleans lured me from my dark brooding funk and tossed me into the fire of dancing Black folks and brass instruments bobbing down the street, burning, sweating, marching from one end of town to the other. This went on for months until one day, between the parades and sessions with my shrink and onset of Spring, I began to feel alive again. And the haunting images of dead floating bodies faded away.
"This is the beauty — and the problem — with living in New Orleans. At any moment, life and death change places with each other when you least expect it. And try as you may to control what you let enter your life, you never know what's waiting around the corner that will either thrill you — or level you to the ground."
Deborah "Big Red" Cotton wrote those words in 2007, in her book Notes from New Orleans — six years before the Mother's Day second line tragedy in which she and 18 other people were shot by two men who fired into the crowd. She took only one of the many bullets that were fired, but no one was injured more severely than Deborah. In the years that followed, she underwent dozens of surgeries to repair internal organs. Last week — nearly four years to the day since the shooting — Deb succumbed to complications from those injuries. She was fearless, fierce, compassionate and taken far too soon at the age of 52. She still had work to do.
Deb's contributions to the city and its culture were immense, both before and after the shooting. When she arrived in New Orleans in 2005, she began chronicling the recovery effort after Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods, particularly in the hard-hit Lower 9th Ward. Her interest in the city's second-line culture — brass bands, social aid and pleasure clubs, black Indians, marching groups — grew into a passion and a balm, giving her purpose, giving her life.
When she began writing regularly for Gambit in 2009, she was the first journalist to take on second-line culture as a beat: writing, posting photographs and videos, collecting route sheets and publishing an annual second-line calendar that remains one of the most popular features of our website.
- Photo by Clancy DuBos
City and police officials and the second-line community were not always on the best of terms at the time, and Deb worked to teach officialdom that the men with the tubas and the suits and the fancy footwork were role models and mentors for the young people in their neighborhoods — not the problem. After she was shot, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and then-NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas stressed that the shooters had nothing to do with the Mother's Day parade. In fact, the parade was officially staged all over again in her honor. Creating understanding and bridging gaps were among Deborah's many gifts.
At no time were those gifts tested more than after her shooting. During her recovery, Deb held the young shooters responsible. She also blamed the city and the criminal justice system — the former for providing few opportunities for poor youth, and the latter for what she saw as a lack of rehabilitation and mercy. She visited the man who shot her in jail. More than that, she forgave him and spoke publicly on his behalf.
Deborah died on the morning of May 2, little more than a week after she accepted an award from Avodah New Orleans, a group advocating for social change and the fight against poverty, "rooted in and nourished by Jewish values."
Late on the afternoon of her death, a group of friends sat shiva for Deborah and said the Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning, which concludes with a plea for world peace. Then, as the shadows grew long across the city, brass band musicians, buckjumpers, members of social aid and pleasure clubs, and Deborah's many friends gathered in Treme, where she lived for years, and staged a joyful second line, playing music and dancing outside her former apartment. It was the homegoing Big Red deserved and would have loved so much, but it came far, far too soon.
— A public memorial for Deborah Cotton will be set in the next few weeks.