by Keith Weldon Medley
Throughout its history, New Orleans has produced outstanding, strong and creative women of color. Despite the hardships, they have always managed to transcend the indignities of the day-today and become notable caregivers, organizers, entrepreneurs, trail blazers, culinary artists, leaders, movers and shakers. There were the literary figures such as Alice Dunbar. There were people like Henriette Dellile, who cared for the poor, the sick and the enslaved. There were figures such as Rose Nicaud, who made a living selling coffee to people passing by on the streets of the French Quarter. The women of historic New Orleans always found a way to make a way with style, spice, vigor and hard work.
Dianne (Gumbomarie) Honoré is a contemporary example of that tradition. As a New Orleans native, she has carved out her niche in the city’s history while jumpstarting numerous projects that help tell the story of who we are and where we are going. She’s a lover of history, a healer, teacher, performer and a champion of her city.
Growing up in the heart of Tremé, at five years old, Dianne helped out at her father’s iconic Hank’s Restaurant and Bar at the corner of Kerlerec and North Robertson. She grew up dancing and second-lining through the Sixth Ward and Seventh Ward when the parades passed by. She studied music at St. Louis Cathedral School and studied business administration at the University of New Orleans. In 1990, she became a licensed New Orleans tour guide to expand knowledge of the city’s colorful and diverse history.
After a harrowing experience working here through Hurricane Katrina, then relocating, she returned to the city as a nurse at Ochsner Medical Center. During the same time frame, she worked at the Destrehan Plantation, exploring her family’s deep roots in Louisiana. Out of that experience, she and another guide developed the Unheard Voices of Louisiana that explored the diversity of life in Louisiana through the eyes of all of its inhabitants. It also told the stories of the enslaved, the free people of color, the German immigrants, the Italians, the Haitians and the women who populated the area.
Keith Weldon Medley: Dianne, you seem to have an extraordinary aura about you. You have sold goods outside of Congo Square, helped organize the Unheard Voices of Louisiana Tour, the Honoré-Destrehan Experience tour in addition to producing the popular Gumbomarie dolls, Indigo bracelets and those great T-shirts. You just recently appeared in Matt Lemmler’s “A History of Jazz” orchestral adaptation. You looked like you were having great fun with your shimmy-shimmy cabaret outfit during the performance at the US Mint. You are so talented on so many levels. Where did all of that creativity come from? How did growing up in downtown New Orleans shape your spirit and vibe?
Dianne Gumbomarie Honoré: Spending my early years in the Tremé and the French Quarter definitely sparked my creative interests and instilled in me that it’s OK to be who you are and express yourself. New Orleans is the quintessential city that thrives on creativity; and I picked up on the creative vibe that surrounds the Quarter. I was always surrounded by vibrant resilient people. I absorbed every bit of all that as a child. From watching the folks at Hank’s bar stir to the sounds of the blues to making costumes to second lining on any given weekend on my front porch. I was surrounded by music, artists, craftsmen, dancing. The relief, the laughter, the pride, all the outcomes of self-expression I observed. There are healing properties in expressing oneself and I always find peace in doing so.
KWM: You’re a Seventh Ward lady. So, tell us exactly what is a “ra ta té”?
DGH: Ra ta té, according to my grandmother and mother, meant one who sits on the porch bragging and running their mouth! I can hear my Grandmother say “E’s settin’ out dere ra ta té -ing wit E’s breta een law!” Translation: “He’s sitting out there running his mouth with his brother-in-law!”
KWM: In what ways do different people react to your dolls?
DHG: They find them unique and interesting. Then once I tell them the history behind them, the story of the free women and the “X” across the chest, it takes their curiosity to a new level. People not from New Orleans also love the fact that they are hand made by a native.
KWM: In addition to your creative side, you are also a nurse. How does that fit in to all the other aspects of your life?
DGH: Being a nurse addresses the most basic of life’s necessities, a person’s health and well-being. I truly enjoy taking care of others. It is a gift. I have to be in touch with reality for one. I have to practice compassion in order to make good assessments and decisions. Nursing also takes creativity. To complete tasks which so many nurses have today and to be able to listen and find solutions for patient’s needs, which are in many cases immediate. There is nothing more gratifying than soothing someone’s pain, giving comfort to the sick. All the material things, the daily things we complain about are not of importance in these moments. That person’s well-being to them and me are of the utmost importance; and there is something very moving and special about lifting someone from the rubble of sickness, even the dying patient. I mean isn’t that what life is really all about? Compassion and helping others regardless of what you do professionally.
KWM: Just reading your Facebook page, your bouts with cancer have inspired a lot of women who face this challenge. You dared to take it head on. What kind of feelings do you go through as you fight this scourge and how do you remain so positively fierce staring down cancer?
DGH: I have run the gambit of emotions from complete and utter shock to fear to anger to sheer happiness. I also have a lot of fight in me. I also realize that when in these situations you can either melt away into darkness or take control and simply deal with it. Handle your business. Be informed. Make your own choices about treatments and live with those decisions. I think of what is the worst that could happen and walk away from the fear because I am then ready to deal with the worst case scenario. One of my best medicines for positive attitude has hands down been exercise. I do not know where I would be without it.