COVID and the culture
As we struggle through the changes brought on by the coronavirus outbreak, I am reminded of the 1980s, when a disastrous downturn in the oil industry turned south Louisiana topsy-turvy.
We’d boasted back then that our oil and gas made Louisiana recession-proof, that we had something everyone else needed, and nothing could change that. When others complained about oil prices, we put stickers on our bumpers: “Let the [blankety-blanks] freeze in the dark.”
But when the big oil bust hit, we found out that had been wishful thinking. A new bumper sticker appeared: “Stay Alive in ’85.” That also turned out to be wishful thinking for a lot of people associated with the oil and gas industry, which included practically everybody in south Louisiana.
That bust turned out to be the catalyst that made us realize that we had plenty to offer besides oil, and that we could and should diversify our economy. That idea led to the concept of actively promoting our culture.
We knew that south Louisiana was different from most other places, but it hadn’t dawned on most of us that people from those other places would come to see, and fall in love with, what we considered our everyday life. There had been efforts to hold on to our language and music and crafts, but that was mostly for ourselves. But then we began to perceive that our food, music, history, language, and inclination toward “passing a good time” had a value, that people from elsewhere, unbelievably, would pay good money to share.
I was then, and continue to be, an advocate for promotion of our authentic culture. I emphasize authentic. You’ll remember that some people went a little overboard and promoted everything from made-up history to “genuine” Cajun hot dogs (just like grandma used to make).
All of it, the real and the hokey, set off a boom that caused us to begin to think once more that nothing could shut down our newfound culture-based businesses. All we had to do was keep being us and others would come to see us do it.
We never thought about a pandemic that meant that nobody, including ourselves, would be able to eat at our restaurants, two-step at our dance halls, or come together for our festivals. That was as inconceivable as a plummeting oil market had once been.
But here we are, and it looks like we may be in this predicament for a while. The good news is that it will be only for a while. The oil industry did rebound back then, albeit with some differences. The cultural economy will do the same, also most likely with some differences. But the things that created it in the first place will still be with us.
We come from a culture that honors a love for family and the fun things that can happen when we get together to boil crawfish or ride horses or enjoy the rich variety of our music.
This virus business deprives us of some of that — but if we are not careful, it could also deprive us of loved ones who are at the center of the culture that sets us apart — brothers and sisters and cousins, parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles who have taught us how to cook, showed us our first dance steps, secured those family bonds that are so important.
When people from elsewhere come to see us, they don’t always realize that our families are the keepers of our culture; the traditions they maintain are the basis of what others find so compelling here.
Our culture is based upon family values that have never been for sale, and won’t be in the future, but we do love to share those values and the things that set us apart, and that love won’t change, either.
Some of us still find it incredible that people will spend some money while doing the sharing.
But they do, and we’ll again be able to grin, shake our heads, and say, “OK, we’ll take it, if you insist.”
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.