Thursday, February 11, 2010

On our own terms

Pride in New Orleans Saints fills a city that is All-American and all New Orleans: A guest column by C.W. Cannon
By Contributing Op-Ed columnist
February 09, 2010, 3:22PM

One thing that observers of Super Bowl XLIV, here and elsewhere, agree on, is that for the Crescent City, the win is about "more than football." But what does this mean? What is it about?

Most commentators point out that the suffering wrought by Hurricane Katrina is what makes the victory especially meaningful. It's true that the Super Bowl puts New Orleans back in the media spotlight for the first time since 2005, and in far more pleasant circumstances. If nothing else, this time we had time to do our hair and select our best outfits. But a consideration of how Saints fans have reacted to their star turn on the national stage suggests that something even more than triumph over unnatural disaster is afoot. The drama of the Saints season represents nothing less than the attempt of New Orleanians to control their own representation in the national culture, and to define their membership in the American community on their own terms.

The biggest sign of this process of self-definition is a linguistic phenomenon -- yes, dat one. The very notion of a "Who Dat Nation," rather than simply "Saints fans," suggests that New Orleanians, wherever they are, wish to be considered a type of special entity within the broader "America." While this type of exceptionalism existed before Katrina, it was greatly exacerbated as a result of the storm, when admirers of the region's unique cultural aspects began to cherish more than ever what they feared could be lost in the post-K era. In a more complex sense, the idea that the "Who Dat Nation" is not limited to the New Orleans area media market suggests that New Orleans is a state of mind, a cultural attitude, more than a geographic entity.

The vernacular origins of "who dat," and the way "dat" is inserted in a variety of other formulations, bespeak aspects of a New Orleans character that fans wish to promote: working class, casual, playful, colorful. The racial ambiguity of the phrase is also significant, especially in light of post-Katrina media coverage of the city's racial difficulties.

Like so much in New Orleans culture, the chant has African-American provenance but has been embraced and claimed, comfortably and convincingly, by people of all hues.
(Nola here: and with respect to Mr. Cannon In New Orleans talking this way is more than just African American. My German grandparents and great aunts & uncles said: "des" - these, "dat" - that, "dem" - them and "dose" - those.)

While there's no question that racial animus complicates day-to-day life in the metro area, white and black residents alike chafe when outsiders emphasize this disagreeable fact too much. A mayoral election offers citizens an opportunity to vent legitimate frustrations, but for a national football championship, New Orleanians put on their best face for national observers -- who, for a tourist town like ours, we all realize are also potential paying guests.

While New Orleanians love being different, they don't want to be so different that they're not considered American at all. This is the other thread in the drama of Super Bowl XLIV. The Lombardi trophy is only available to a limited fraternity of major American cities. As much as they emphasize their own special character, Who Dats insist that this victory is evidence that this special character does not exclude them from the American community.

This, too, is a sensitive issue given the last time New Orleanians were on TV. The paradox of wanting to be different and wanting to be true-blue (or gold) American is illustrated best by the flap over the NFL's attempt to claim "who dat" as its own intellectual property. The message from the black-and-gold tribe was clear: we deserve to go to the Super Bowl and win, but we'll make our own t-shirts, thank you.

It will be very interesting to see how Mardi Gras 2010 compares to Mardi Gras 2006. Anybody know how to dye blue tarp gold?

C.W. Cannon is the author of a novel, "Soul Resin." He teaches English at Loyola University and can be reached at

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