It’s said, ”To know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been.” New Orleans is thick in culture and she’s birthed those who live and breathe her origins and the many features that make her unique. Meet Cierra Chenier, a local Historian who tells the stories that bridge that gap of then and now.
Who is Cierra Chenier?
I’m a Black woman born and raised in New Orleans, a writer and historian of Black New Orleans history and culture. I believe in history as a tool and my words and voice as a medium. I’ve been told that I’m an old soul, something that I credit to spending a lot of time with my grandmothers growing up. I might be the quietest in the room until I feel compelled to speak and when I do, it’ll always be from a place of passion and truth. You gon hear me lol.
I love seafood and naturally, Creole cuisine is always my preference. I’m at my best when the weather is not a degree over 70, crawfish is 4.99/lb, and I’m able to be still, recharge, and create. I think of myself as someone who is shaped and guided by my roots, my culture, my values, and my family.
The Chenier’s are a well-known family in New Orleans. What role has your family played in the city of New Orleans?
You know around here we say the phrase, “They good people.” I’m proud and blessed to come from good, well-intended people. I’ve traced our roots back to 1700s Louisiana, deep in New Orleans, Reserve, to Opelousas; with ancestors both enslaved and free and a strong line of free women of color. My paternal great grandfather, “The Count” as he was nicknamed, was the first Black case worker in New Orleans’ Department of Welfare and a legendary quarterback for Xavier Prep’s football team. My great auntie Celine Chenier was a civil rights and Black liberation activist. Her work called her across the country in defense of women’s rights, humane prison conditions, and Black liberation. A member of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and a founder of the Free Joan Little Fund, she was monumental to the 1975 acquittal of Joan Little.
When I think of The Chenier’s, I think Black Catholics from the 7th Ward. St. Aug, Corpus Christi, Circle Food Store, The Autocrat, all that. I come from hardworking grandfathers and praying grandmothers who took care of everybody. I take after my dad’s love for his city and his work as a force in New Orleans’ film, music, and event production spaces. My mom is a leader in development and communications and I take after her ability to speak with conviction, both on and off camera. Something I was always taught growing up was to never go without correcting the pronunciation of your name. This comes from a place of being proud of who I am, where I come from, and to continuing to be “good people.”
For many who’ve grown up in New Orleans East, revisiting their childhood is impossible because of Hurricane Katrina. Can you paint a picture of what it was like for you growing up in New Orleans East?
My New Orleans East was Jazzland/Six Flags when my report card came back with good grades, going to St. Maria Goretti on Sundays, being so giddy to know it was Cash Money when you saw the cars or their house in Eastover. Going to the nail shop in The Plaza with my mom and the African book and art store in there with my dad. UniverSOUL Circus coming to The Plaza parking lot! Getting my first library card at the library on Read and feeding the ducks at Joe Brown Park. The best grits from Shoney’s on Bullard. Extra gummy bears in my snoball from Rodney’s on Lake Forest.
Everything felt close, attainable, and familiar. So much of my family and friends lived 5-10 minutes away. Growing up in that era of The East is my constant reminder of all the things Black New Orleans can and should have and what The East deserves and is owed.
Tell us about your journey to becoming a Historian?
I became a historian in response to my New Orleans becoming history in such a short period of time. After Katrina, I would subconsciously hold on to things and collect memories because essentially we had to start all over. Then I was seeing my old neighborhood and old schools change in a way I didn’t recognize. I would drive around the city and see the city changing, demographics changing. At the same time, gun violence was taking away people close to me and I just felt the need to hold on to as much of “my New Orleans” as I could.
I started pulling back to the Black history I always grew up immersed and interested in. I graduated in Political Science and African American Studies, so I could do research papers with my eyes closed. I combined that love for writing with my experience as a multi-generational New Orleanian and created NOIR ‘N NOLA.
When you started Noir ‘N NOLA, what was your goal for the blog?
I needed to create something that would remind us of the value of our lives and stories. History was the tool. In a changing New Orleans, the intention was to remember all that we have created and survived here and our right to live full and free lives in OUR city.
I knew then that I had to create what I didn’t see, so NOIR ‘N NOLA was my offering to Black New Orleans. It had to sound, look, and feel like something that was true to me and us. My goal is to continue sharing our stories truthfully and intentionally, reaching across generations, and leave a comprehensive body of work that uses our past to speak to the present and future.
You’ve often referred to the spirit of New Orleans as a woman, why?
A Black woman she is! I personified her as that. Who else but a Black woman creates the culture, the trends, the foundation for what many hear and see but doesn’t get the credit she deserves? She gives us tough, but unconditional love, despite losing so many of her own. She’s been wronged throughout history and yet, continues to survive.
New Orleans is the Black women who sold sweets outside Congo Square as praline ladies, then centuries later started selling sweets in the neighborhoods as candy ladies. New Orleans is the Black women that put red beans over the stove on wash days and decorated their tignons when the law criminalized their hair. The essence of this city is that of a Black woman, so to be a Black woman from this city, I feel chosen.
We’ve heard the story of Marie Laveau is your favorite historic treasure. Do you see examples of her legacy in today’s New Orleans?
Marie Laveau lived in such a pivotal point in New Orleans’ history, with her life spanning across slavery, the Louisiana Purchase, 1811 Slave Revolt, War of 1812, yellow fever epidemic, emancipation and reconstruction, etc. New Orleans is a city that has preserved so much of its African roots while still being impacted by colonization. Marie Laveau’s legacy is parallel to that aspect of the city–through her religious practices, she was preserving African-derived traditions while being rooted in the religion of the land, Catholicism, all while contributing to a form of Vodou that was unique to Louisiana.
We associate her imagery with the tignon, which we still wear today (with our gold hoops!) She was a New Orleans woman through and through–a leader, an entrepreneur, a finesser, a queen. She was one of the first figures in history where I could honestly say, “I see myself.” She’s ours!
Many New Orleanians are concerned about the height of crime, gentrification, and the decisions of local politicians. How has New Orleans overcome these issues in the past?
New Orleans has withstood slavery, wars, epidemics, storms, gentrification, crime, corrupt politicians… because there were people throughout each era who did exactly what the time period required of them. When the yellow fever outbreak of 1853 struck New Orleans, Marie Laveau used her power and knowledge of herbal remedies to treat and heal those affected.
During slavery, people like Jean Saint Malo escaped the plantations and chose freedom by any means necessary, navigating the swamps and forming free, maroon communities. Charles Deslondes strategized with other enslaved men and women and led the largest uprising of enslaved people in the country, seeking to establish New Orleans as a free Black republic. When Americans took over the other side of Canal Street after the Louisiana Purchase, the Creoles of the “original city” became adamant preservers of the culture they knew, a culture we still have today. Free people of color used their privileges of being free to create institutions and movements that Black New Orleans continues to benefit from. They resisted, created, advocated, and went to work. We have a shared responsibility to do the same.
Why is preserving the culture of New Orleans important and how can people assist in this mission?
When you see our culture being threatened, it’s because neighborhoods and our livelihoods are also being threatened. People think it’s just about a coffee shop or people from outside the culture inserting themselves in it. It’s that, but it’s also the underlying issues there. An influx of transplants to a neighborhood post-Katrina means somebody is getting pushed out, somebody’s rent is going up, the “village that raised a child” is being destabilized because many families are now displaced across the city in areas we aren’t even originally rooted in. When the demographics at a secondline look different, it’s because that is now who lives in those historically Black neighborhoods.
The neighborhoods that are being gentrified and happen to be on higher ground, impacts who gets hardest hit by flooding when storms come. When development comes after the neighborhood changes, that impacts who gets access to healthy foods and quality services, which in turn impacts health outcomes and life expectancy. When communities are destabilized and investment goes to some, while others are left vulnerable, you see rises in crime. The fight against gentrification is literally a fight for our lives.
There’s no one way to combat this, but to even begin doing so, we have to be here and maintain our footing here. It requires being gatekeepers of Black New Orleans culture, everything ain’t for everybody. In whatever work we do, we have to have a united front, be intentional about preservation, building and collaborating within our community, and refusing to put a price on our city’s soul and selling it to the highest bidder.
What advice do you have for students considering becoming a historian?
First ask yourself, “Why am I doing this? Who am I doing it for?” and find yourself in these stories. There has to be a bigger purpose. Anybody can “do history”–we see it so much on social media. Bite-sized information pulled from the first page of Google, copied and pasted, and presented as new information as a means of social media engagement. History is now seen as interesting “content” but rarely goes beyond the surface because there isn’t a commitment to the study, only the virality of it.
To be a lifelong student of history (because you never stop learning) means being dedicated to the totality and wholeness of the person or event you’re studying, so much so, that you can communicate the story differently each time you talk/write about them.
All of this comes at a cost that isn’t always realized. There will be times when you have to put the book down because the truth is so heavy, where you’ll feel rage and sadness in your chest when reading through a ‘slave record,’ or frustration at the ways that you have to ask yourself, “has anything even changed?” In knowing why you’ve chosen a specific topic in history and who you’re doing it for, you then owe it to those who lived it to get the story right. Lastly, never underestimate the power of cultural memory or lived experience–that’s what fills the gaps in ways traditional research cannot.
What’s next for Cierra Chenier?
I’ve been writing, researching, and exploring the ways history can be creatively used to speak to all of what New Orleans currently faces. Expect more stories across multiple mediums, maybe even a relaunch. You’ll be hearing my voice a lot more soon!