An interview with Lolis Eric Elie, New Orleans’ ombudsman, documentarian, and storyteller

Lolis Eric Elie — writer, journalist, documentarian, screenwriter, and man-about-town — is a native New Orleanian and a resident of his beloved Tremé, the oldest African American neighborhood in America.

He’s done a terrific book on the culture of barbecue, Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country, an equally impressive documentary, Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, and now is story editor for HBO’s Treme series, with fans all over the nation and which most everyone in New Orleans adores.

Lolis’ father Lolis Edward Elie was a prominent civil rights attorney who played a key role in the integration of New Orleans. He even played a personal role in the integration of Chris Steak House, a story I relate in the memoir:

The racial integration of Ruth’s Chris happened in a moment of … political power broking.  Despite her roots in Plaquemines Parish, I have often heard it said that Ruth’s Chris was the first fine dining restaurant in New Orleans where blacks felt comfortable.  Lolis Edward Elie, a member of the most important civil rights firm in the city, Collins, Douglas and Elie, broke the race barrier when he was brought to lunch by a conservative white politician who needed Elie’s clout in the black community.  The candidate was unlikely to secure support from a radical civil rights attorney, but Elie, a bon vivant, understood the good meal he was being bribed with.  The Public Accommodations Act had been made the law of the land a year before Mom took possession of Chris’, but, as throughout the South, the law took effect storefront by storefront.  Suddenly Chris’ dining room was in a tizzy.  A white oil man from the West Bank (adjacent to bigoted Plaquemines Parish) approached my mother and in that drawl bigots seem required to assume even if they were not born to it, told my mother, “if that boy ( two syllables) eats here (two syllables), I’ll never eat at Chris’ again (one and a half syllables: ‘uh-g’n).”  I imagine him towering over her five foot two inch frame.  ”There’s the door,” she replied.  I imagine her presence filling the room.  But it always did.

Q: Lolis, thanks for taking the time to chat with fans of New Orleans lore and culture.  When you were Metro columnist for the Times Picayune, I used to think of you as the ombudsman for the African American community (and the rest of us too!).  With your movie Faubourg Tremé you became for a moment its historian and documentarian.  Now with HBO’s Treme you seem to have become our storyteller.  What was it like to do a documentary about the cultural and historical importance of Faubourg Treme and then have HBO come knock at your door, seeming to agree with you?  What bottle of wine did you open that night?  And who did you share it with?

A: When I moved back to New Orleans after college, grad school and exile in Atlanta, I wanted to live in a neighborhood that looked and felt like New Orleans. I grew up in Carrollton in a ranch style house. Treme was a very different experience. Second lines regularly pass in front of my door. St. Augustine church is right around the corner and its history and influence is strongly felt in the neighborhood. But, as important as anything tangible, there is a sense in Treme that this is important ground, that this neighborhood, with its history of music in Congo Square, its tradition of the building trades (as both art and commerce) and its tradition of literature dating back to “Les Cenelles,” [A Collection of Poems by Creole Writers of the Early Nineteenth Century] all combine to make this a sacred place. Even people who can’t quote chapter and verse of the history of their community seem to understand that Treme, virtually alone among New Orleans neighborhoods, embodies something of the essence of black New Orleans and therefore of New Orleans.

Dawn Logsdon, a white New Orleans native who directed and edited the documentary, saw this more clearly than I did. When she approached me about the possibility of making a documentary about “Treme,” I thought it was a worthy project, but not necessarily one to which I was will to devote years of my already busy life. The initial vsion for “Faubourg Treme” was hers, but even that statement is filled with a kind of irony. We agreed that we would do a documentary about how the contemporary culture of this community was so rich. At that time poets Brenda Marie Osbey and Kalamu ya Salaam were living in the neighborhood. They were the contemporary embodiments of the literary tradition that went back to the various salons held in ante bellum Treme. My carpenter, Irving Trevigne, represented the generations of back men who made their livings in the building trades. Glen David Andrews, the trombone player, represented the extension of the music tradition, dating back to the pre-jazz antebellum days. We knew we’d have to include at least something of the 19th century history to put all of these modern developments in context. But, the more we dug into what was happening in the 1800s, the more we realized that that history was incredibly fascinating and relatively unknown. Of course, one of the most important historians of that period was Joe Logsdon, Dawn’s late father. We went far afield, only to return to her roots.

When HBO’s “Treme” called, it didn’t really hit me at first what it all meant. First of all, they invited me to be a “consultant.” My impression was that they were certain that they wanted to pick my brain, but perhaps not so sure that they wanted me to write for them. I don’t know. I’ve never asked them about that. I know that when I had dinner with David Simon, Eric Overmyer and David Mills, we dined at MiLa and I ordered a bottle of Tablas Creek Cotes de Tablas Blanc. It’s one of my go-to wines when I’m unsure whether my dining companions are serious wine drinkers. Turns out it was perfect for the evening as none of my dining companions were wine geeks.

While the documentary Dawn and I did ended up focusing a lot on history, in some ways, “Treme” is the logical extension of that history. Indeed, in some ways it’s the fictional version of some of the ideas we had imagined focusing on before getting kidnapped by history. The fiction of “Treme” allows us to look at the personal lives of our characters and in so doing humanize the historical events that are the basis for the work we are doing. All of David Simon’s work draws heavily on real events. That approach helps not only from the standpoint of credibility with the audience, but also in terms of helping ensure that our fictions are guided by what did or could have happened.

Q: Can you comment on how those three roles interweave in your work: ombudsman or advocate, historian, and storyteller?

It’s funny to hear you separate the roles like that. You are right about it, though I don’t necessarily think of the roles as being separate. When I was writing for The Times-Picayune, I had to write three columns a week. One thing I told myself was that they wouldn’t all be brilliant or clever. But sometimes if I just wrote about something important, informed people of an event or person or history that they needed to know about, I would have discharged my responsibility to put something of quality in the paper, even if I fell short of eloquence that particular day. So, I suppose in that way, I did see various directions in which my own inclinations might guide divergent approaches to the column.

I was a very earnest kid. Too earnest for my own good. Back in 6th and 7th grade, when I was one of two or three black kids at Trinity Episcopal School, I would sometimes cry because of my inability to convince my uptown white classmates that Nixon was evil and the Vietnam War was wrong. Eventually I realized that crying was not an effective rhetorical strategy and that, even if I was right, it wouldn’t necessarily change the world. But art—storytelling in particular—was a way of creating entertainment that could succeed even if it didn’t change anyone’s mind. That is the spirit that informs all my work these days: try to make it entertaining, interesting, intelligent, engaging. Then hope that readers or viewers will be so enthralled with the work that they might also be moved to see the world more as I do.

Q: The Tremé neighborhood is known for its rich musical history.  The 19th century Creole music tradition was centered there and the 20th century brass band tradition was born there.  A rich gene pool, it would seem.  Have you heard about the efforts by FirstLine Schools, the folks who brought us the Edible Schoolyard, to make music the focus of Tremé’s Craig High School?  Think that could work, a high school in Tremé focused on music?

 A: FirstLine’s work in this regard is pretty new, so it’s hard to draw any conclusions yet. I always thought the New Orleans schools in general should take greater advantage of our musical traditions. Not because of my own love of music or my own belief that the discipline of music education can be broadly applicable. My point is that the community itself encourages and rewards musical accomplishment. You can’t march down the street in a band of students who got “A’s” in math. You can’t invite your parents to hear you recite Poe’s “Raven.” But your parents, friends, neighbors and siblings will all be very pleased to check you out playing in a brass band or marching band. The community values music.

 Q: In Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, Louis Armstrong describes his excitement the first time he led the Color Waifs Home marching band through his old South Rampart Street neighborhood, the Fertel’s neighborhood as well.  We should use that value as a bridge to get kids to skills, in and out of the band room, that can help them make their lives fulfilling.

 A: Exactly. Much about New Orleans has changed. But this abiding appreciation for the music exemplifies how this city has stayed true to its roots. The question is how do we build on that. Unfortunately, most approaches to improving education around here assume that our people and our culture bring nothing but ignorance to the table. We can all learn much from Armstrong’s life.

Q: You were at NOCCA with Wynton Marsalis and later his tour manager.  How did you escape a musical fate and find writing?

A: A musical fate escaped me. It became clear that I was a good student but not a very god musician. Unlike some of the other guys who flunked out of NOCCA because they couldn’t or wouldn’t do the work, I found the academic side of it relatively easy. I had no problem with the discipline necessary to learn the songs and theories that we were called upon to learn. The problem is that my musical abilities scarcely improved. I put in a lot of hours for a little result in music. In writing, things came easy. Which is not to say that the writing process in general comes easy. Writing complicated stories or essays or scripts, is difficult, slow, challenging work. But I feel that my hours are rewarded in writing in ways that they weren’t in music. My return on investment was pretty low.

Q: You’ve had a big role at the Southern Foodways Alliance, serving on their board and being a mainstay at their annual conference in October at the University of Mississippi.  This next conference will return to one of your favorite topics: barbecue. Excited about that?

A: It’s been interesting to witness barbecue’s slow conquest of America, and by extenuation the Southern foodways conquest on the Northern regions. These days you probably have a dozen different barbecue places in New York City, and other places not historically known for their barbecue are also attaining barbecue prominence. From a Southern Foodways Alliance perspective, this is further evidence of the extent to which Southern food is emblematically American. People from outside the region are finding good barbecue, slow cooked the traditional way, is damn near as exotic as Vietnamese soups or Ethiopian stews.

In addition to this wider recognition of barbecue as both toothsome and important, there are some interesting movements happening in the barbecue world. Jim N’ Nick’s has been pioneering efforts to introduce heritage meats in all two dozen of its locations. Ed Mitchell, the North Carolina barbecue master, has been working in a similar direction. In addition to taking another look at the meat they’re smoking, lots of the newer places are re-imagining and improving traditional barbecue side dishes. The single best place to study and enjoy Southern food is at the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium. The fact that we are featuring barbecue as our theme this year is exciting indeed.

Q: What’s next on your calendar?  I know there’s Treme, season 3.  Anything else brewing?

A: My situation vis à vis “Treme” and television in general is sort of ironic. I’ve been writing for decades now, but this is my first time writing for television. Even now, after two and a half seasons, I have a lot more to learn. I’m always tempted to focus on the next project, at times to the detriment of the current one. But I’m really try to keep the current season of “Treme” as my priority. I’m still very much in television school. David Simon, Eric Overmyer and now George Pelecanos are the teachers. Job 1 at this point is to learn as much as I can from them.