Mona Lisa Saloy: Black Creole Chronicles (University of New Orleans Press, 2023)

Mona Lisa Saloy is not just a poet, she is a N’awlins woman … with a Nat King Cole kiss of a namePoet E. Ethelbert Miller on the back cover of Red Beans and Ricely Yours

What is all this about Mona Lisa and Nat King Cole? At least part of the answer can be found in the poem Nat King Cole Babies and Black Mona Lisas, in what we could call the first volume of Mona Lisa Saloy’s ongoing chronicles of Black Creole culture in New Orleans, Louisiana: Red Beans and Ricely Yours (Truman State University Press, 2005).

Nat King Cole (1919-1965) from 1956 to 1957 hosted NBC, the National Broadcasting Company’s The Nat King Cole Show, the first nationally broadcast television show hosted by an African American. It was cancelled after just one season for lack of sponsors, few sponsors willing to be associated with a Black entertainer. (“Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark” – Nat King Cole).

Short lived. But long enough for a number of ‘Black Mona Lisas’ to be born to parents listening to jazz pianist-turned-singer Nat King Cole’s version of the 1950 #1 hit on the pop-charts. And Saloy remembers “Nat King Cole singing to me,” thinking Mona Lisa was his lover, like Sweet Lorraine.

Black Creole chronicler. There are exactly nine years between Saloy’s three volumes of creole chronicles. The second volume, Second Line Home: New Orleans Poems, was released by Truman State University Press in 2014. But we must turn now to Black Creole Chronicles, released 2023 on the occasion of Mona Lisa Saloy’s appointment as Poet Laureate of Louisiana, 2021-2023.

Mona Lisa Saloy is a Black Creole chronicler with a global outlook. Part of the dedication reads: “For my people everywhere, united by culture, separated by seas.” And the poem What We Know Now That Was Not Taught in School (MLS grew up at the end of the Jim Crow-period, in the pre-Civil Rights era) is a mini-atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Middle Passage, lasting roughly from 1619 when the first “20 and odd Negroes” from Africa, subsequently enslaved, were landed and sold from a “Dutch man of Warr” to white settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, the first English colony in the New World, until the last U.S. slave ship, the Clotilda, in 1860.   

The story continues in the brilliant At The Whitney Plantation Museum, Louisiana, reminding us of Pope Nicholas V’s Papal Bull of 1452 sanctioning enslavement of Africans, Catholic sanctioning of enslavement not repudiated until 1992 when Pope John Paul II on a journey to Africa apologized.

But even more important to the poem is Mona Lisa Saloy’s narration of her visit to the Whitney Plantation Museum: “At the Whitney, the/ Fields of Angels/ Tells all.” For the exhibition Ohio artist Woodrow Nash has created seventy-one life-sized kids, “Sweet faces with no eyes to/ Symbolize the hopelessness of being enslaved,” replicas from Federal Writers’ Project photos, many children not surviving beyond the age of two, and buried in the “Fields of Angels.” 

The whip is the lash of God.” Saloy quotes a little boy, John McDonald of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, from the Federal Writers’ slave narratives: “No, suh, Boss; I can’t read & write; when I was brung up/ ef’n my boss man ketch me wit/ A pencil & paper, it was twenty-five lashes.”  

Black resilience and ‘joie de vivre’. Known for her religiosity, and for her ethos to “hold some one’s good in mind,” Mona Lisa Saloy – author, folklorist, educator and scholar – sees Black resilience and ‘joie de vivre’ as key to New Orleans’ history and culture that she celebrates in poems about the covid-19 pandemic, hurricanes, the Black Lives Matter-movement, #metoo, and homophobia; but also romance, unexpectedly finding love (“He was my high school sweetheart”), and poems about family, neighborhood, cuisine, Black Creole speech, dance and music.

In Pandemic Chronicles: COVID from NOLA, a ‘diary’ of eleven poems, Saloy talks about the recent global – and deadly – pandemic, nothing specifically American about it, except maybe this:

“This American President #45/ Does/ Not/ Care// … Fake facts/ Masks Not Necessary/ President #45 doesn’t wear masks/ Trump’s hoax/ America is fine/ Pandemic under control/ Really?”

Another slightly shorter sequence of poems is about hurricanes. Fifteen years after the disaster, Katrina has not been forgotten. Composed and presented for the Fifteenth Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a Poets & Writers virtual program, Saloy wrote We Remember Hurricane Katrina:

“Only days later/ TV news broadcasts that/ The shock has worn off … The shock does not wear off/ The shock will not wear off/ When a home is drowned or/ Flattened by winds or/ Burned by fire.” Listing irreplaceable personal items lost, and “No dads/ No moms/ No kids/ No uncles/ No aunts/ No neighbors even the/ Fussy ones/ … / Only the hunger for/ What was, when/ Life was here.” 

Praisesongs for family and neighbors. Saloy is a teller of tales “so we don’t lose our stories” in the tradition of New Orleans’ oral storytellers. In Corpus Christi with Ms. Ruth, Saloy pays homage to “Ms. Ruth – femme de couleur libre – / … married a Negro & her family disowned her/ …/ Strict Catholic all her days/ …/ My neighbor/ My friend/ Gone to glory now/ With me all my days.”

Mrs. Bywater, My Second Grade School Teacher remembers the elegant Mrs. Bywater, “Her hair coifed like a/ Chocolate Loretta Young or a/ Home-girl Lena Horne,” one of the few teachers at Epiphany Catholic School not a Blessed Sacrament Nun, instilling pride in her young pupils:   “Mrs. Bywater, because of you,/ I am me, educating, documenting/ Our beautiful Black culture.”

Praisesong: Barbara Ann (4 My Sister 2) is a loving portrait of a favorite big sister “who walked me through girlhood, assuring me/ I could keep swimming even/ When jim crow refused me Olympic tryouts.” They swam in water shows like Esther Williams, always centered in a heart made of the best swimmers in Hardin Park: “She the beauty/ Me the athlete and book kid/ …”

“… Sis/ Made me go to college, so I went kicking and screaming,/ then I/ Took to it like a catfish hugging river silt/ … / She said, go ahead/ You do what I couldn’t/ Study.

Celebrations – and a crack epidemic. Years Ago: Two Weeks before Katrina is a poem of stark contradictions. All of her family, colleagues, and neighbors young and old, had come together to celebrate Mona Lisa Saloy’s PhD (on the poetry of New Orleans born ‘beat’ poet Bob Kaufman), her PhD a family first, giving a backyard party with dance, jazz & gumbo in her beloved 7th Ward.

Only days later Hurricane Katrina came roaring across the Mexican Gulf. Mona Lisa Saloy: “It was … the last time our family was all together, when nobody died & no one got married.”

And then there are the lines midway in the poem, the story of finding her father, once a strapping WWII Army Sergeant and a master carpenter, diminished to a man who babbled, slobbered, and who forgot who he knew, “My Daddy,” step kids and transient men on crack having taken over his life and his home, stealing everything not nailed down and completely neglecting his personal care.                     

Saloy: “Took me two years in & out of court to get rid of those  niggas.”

When she returned permanently to New Orleans, it would take Mona Lisa Saloy eight years to rebuild the house that her father had built: “What do you mean, give up? That’s not in my DNA.”

 “… Sis: I’m Home.” A major poem, God Was Willing Sis: I’m Home, as published as a “Poem-a-Day” on 14 September 2022 on the Academy of American Poets website,  begins:

“Rebuilt our little shotgun house/ Daddy bought for $2000 on the G.I. Bill/ Post-WWII in the 7th Ward./ Wide enough to love two families at a time, double,/ Long & wide like a bulldog, stocky with a sturdy gait/ Seemingly indestructible/ With turn-of-the-century/ Plaster and lath between walls held by red-brick fireplaces/ Anchors for kin to hold on to/ Steady, outlasting many storms/ From Betsy to Camille, hurricanes that came &/ Went like occasional visitors who/ Overstay their welcome. Here, we saved every book we ever had from/ Old Bibles listing births …”

In “About This Poem” Saloy, summing up, writes that the poem: 1. Celebrates my dear sister, to whom I owe so much; 2. Celebrates my dear dad, who gave us our home, our love of reading and writing, and our land, at a time when too many Negroes’ only land was in a potted plant; 3. Acknowledges it took sixteen moves in fourteen-and-a-half years and twelve different addresses to finally land a home, having rebuilt after losing everything in post-Katrina flooding.”

Flying While Black. One of the last of the poems in this collection, dedicated to Pulitzer Prize winner Jericho Brown (The Tradition, Copper Canyon Press, 2019) and a former student of Mona Lisa Saloy’s at Dillard University in New Orleans, is Today, He Flew With the Spirit of America.

On that day, shortly after the covid-19 lockdown and the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer, Brown flew from New Orleans to Ft. Lauderdale on the low cost carrier Spirit Airlines as the only Black on the flight. Mona Lisa Saloy: “Did I LOL? Yes, & he liked it, he really liked it …”

“Mostly, we try to rise/ Above the petty race cards/ Carving new ground, but this day/ JB can only be a Black man, who must/ Be ready to navigate whatever/ Folks throw his way// He’s brown, tall, brilliant/ Others see only/ His skin … , only/Fear rose that day, a reminder/ How America hurts.”

UFI // 26 June 2023

Note: Red Beans and Ricely Yours and Second Line Home: New Orleans Poems were both reissued by Black Bayou Press in 2021, after Mona Lisa Saloy’s appointment as Poet Laureate of Louisiana.