Dr. Helen A. Regis

Troubling Joy

Learning from Activists for Racial Justice in the Festival Archive

Watch the video of Dr. Regis’s talk here.

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is a rich site for exploring happiness in a racially polarized urban context. In the 1970s, white festival founders saw virtue in centering local, authentic Black music and cultural traditions and giving respect to Black musicians whose art had been undervalued. In oral histories, these lovers of Black music express happiness in having created integrated spaces for people to enjoy each other’s music. African American activists publicly contested this view, calling for accountability to the Black community whose cultural heritage the festival celebrated and sold. I explore these tensions through two figures whose extensive archives illuminate larger social fields: festival founder Allison Miner and writer/activist Tom Dent. While Miner found happiness in the dream of interracial intimacy, Dent sought joy in self-determination. Their divergent understandings of happiness and virtue in the public presentation of black music and culture reflect racialized social worlds to which they belonged and produced contrasting visions for the Festival’s future.

Helen A. Regis is a cultural anthropologist at Louisiana State University. As series editor for the Neighborhood Story Project, she has helped create a new canon of collaborative ethnography written by and for New Orleanians. Regis has written a series of articles on public space, policing, parades, race, heritage, festivity, and tourism. She co-authored Charitable Choices: Religion, Race, and Poverty in the Post-Welfare Era and a forthcoming book Bayou Harvest: Subsistence Practices in Coastal Louisiana. Public scholarship includes Seventh Ward Speaks, Paseos por New Orleans, and Creating Congo Square: Jazz Fest and Black Power.

The annual MacKay Lecture Series is funded by the generous endowment of Mrs. Gladys MacKay in appreciation of the education her husband, Reverend Malcolm Ross MacKay (B.A., 1927), received in the liberal arts at Dalhousie University.

Questions? Contact mingo@dal.ca