When Deb Cotton moved to New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina, she wanted to write about food. With a background in journalism and union work in California, she had a hunger for life that pulls people to this disaster-prone city where the music never stops and politics is a wayward bus.
“Big Red Cotton” became a Gambit blogger, covering the second line parades for Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. She dyed her hair red; her face glowed. In 2007 she published Notes from New Orleans, a grand book with a voice to echo across time.
“I am sincerely tripping on the amount of play white men throw at me here in New Orleans. Never in all my cumulative years and several cities of residence have white men been so forward in their overtures towards me as New Orleans, proving once again New Orleanians’ compulsive drive to do everything the opposite of everybody everywhere else.”
Born in Los Angeles in 1965 to a black father and Jewish mother, Cotton spent her formative years in Oklahoma City with her father’s family, reconnecting later with her mother in California; she graduated from San Francisco State. She converted to Judaism, her mother’s faith. Jewish and black, scourge of bad politicians and champion of the second line, Deb Cotton was a life force.
“Foot-and-mouth syndrome aside, our biggest issue with Mayor Nagin is his lack of leadership in creating a real plan to rebuild the city,” she wrote in the aching post-K year. “Well, you can’t be a little bit mayor any more than you can be a little bit pregnant….Get packing on the leadership front pronto!”
Her book, Notes from New Orleans, does a lot more than bash Nagin, who moved into a penitentiary after it came out.
“With each second line that rolled down Ursulines Avenue, New Orleans lured me from my dark brooding funk and tossed me into the fire of dancing Black folks and brass instruments bobbing down the street, burning, sweating, marching from one end of town to the other,” she wrote. “This went on every week for months until one day, between the parades and sessions with my shrink and onset of spring, I began to feel alive again. And the haunting images of dead floating bodies faded away.
“This is the beauty – and the problem – with living in New Orleans. At any given moment, life and death change places with each other when you least expect it.”
What haunting prescience, those words.
On Mother’s Day 2013, Deb Cotton was one of eighteen people wounded in the crossfire of drug gangsters at the Original Big Seven second line parade. After a long hospitalization with severe internal injuries, she was, miraculously, able to walk. She testified in federal court, asking the judge to give lenience to her shooter, one of three brothers who agreed to a plea bargain. She wanted him to do time, but have a chance at rehabilitation in middle age. Complimenting her, the judge gave him life.
She’d had 36 surgeries when we met last year through Mark Hertsgaard, a journalist friend wounded in the lower leg at the same parade. I’ve been working on a documentary about jazz funerals. I was struck by her belief in redemption, so strong that she visited the penitentiary to forgive the dude who shot her. They began corresponding.
“What’s better – to hate him?” she said. “Our society turns its back on these boys. What’s wrong with us that we can’t help them?”
Day after day, mass shootings flicker past us on the news. The country that put men on the moon won’t halt unrestricted access to military weapons. Duck hunters don’t use AK-47s.
Deb Cotton died of her wounds a month before Steve Scalise was shot. I prayed for his recovery and prayed at her funeral. She was a martyr to the parading tradition she loved for its beauty of music and dance. What a deep soul she was.