Something else was going on in New Orleans. The living was good there. The clock ticked more slowly; people laughed more easily; people kissed; people loved; there was joy.
I know that New Orleans will win its fight in the end. I was born in the city and lived there for many years. It shaped who and what I am. Never have I experienced a place where people knew more about love, about family, about loyalty and about getting along than the people of New Orleans. It is perhaps their very gentleness that gives them their endurance.
But to my country I want to say this: During this crisis you failed us. You looked down on us; you dismissed our victims; you dismissed us. You want our Jazz Fest, you want our Mardi Gras, you want our cooking and our music. Then when you saw us in real trouble, when you saw a tiny minority preying on the weak among us, you called us “Sin City,” and turned your backs.
Rice remembers the New Orleans of history and most people’s imagination–a view that could not withstand this crises. One of the better writings I’ve seen in the last week was from a recent evacuee, Jordan Flaherty. Frank Paynter re-created the writing in his weblog. Flaherty wrote:
For those who have not lived in New Orleans, you have missed a incredible, glorious, vital, city. A place with a culture and energy unlike anywhere else in the world. A 70% African-American city where resistance to white supremecy has supported a generous, subversive and unique culture of vivid beauty. From jazz, blues and hiphop, to secondlines, Mardi Gras Indians, Parades, Beads, Jazz Funerals, and red beans and rice on Monday nights, New Orleans is a place of art and music and dance and sexuality and liberation unlike anywhere else in the world.
It is also a city of exploitation and segregation and fear. The city of New Orleans has a population of just over 500,000 and was expecting 300 murders this year, most of them centered on just a few, overwhelmingly black, neighborhoods […] The city has a 40% illiteracy rate, and over 50% of black ninth graders will not graduate in four years. Louisiana spends on average $4,724 per child’s education and ranks 48th in the country for lowest teacher salaries. The equivalent of more than two classrooms of young people drop out of Louisiana schools every day and about 50,000 students are absent from school on any given day. Far too many young black men from New Orleans end up enslaved in Angola Prison, a former slave plantation where inmates still do manual farm labor, and over 90% of inmates eventually die in the prison. It is a city where industry has left, and most remaining jobs are are low-paying, transient, insecure jobs in the service economy.
Race has always been the undercurrent of Louisiana politics. This disaster is one that was constructed out of racism, neglect and incompetence. Hurricane Katrina was the inevitable spark igniting the gasoline of cruelty and corruption. From the neighborhoods left most at risk, to the treatment of the refugees to the the media portayal of the victims, this disaster is shaped by race
While the rich escaped New Orleans, those with nowhere to go and no way to get there were left behind. Adding salt to the wound, the local and national media have spent the last week demonizing those left behind. As someone that loves New Orleans and the people in it, this is the part of this tragedy that hurts me the most, and it hurts me deeply.
In the coming months, billions of dollars will likely flood into New Orleans. This money can either be spent to usher in a “New Deal” for the city, with public investment, creation of stable union jobs, new schools, cultural programs and housing restoration, or the city can be “rebuilt and revitalized” to a shell of its former self, with newer hotels, more casinos, and with chain stores and theme parks replacing the former neighborhoods, cultural centers and corner jazz clubs.
Now that the money is flowing in, and the world’s eyes are focused on Katrina, its vital that progressive-minded people take this opportunity to fight for a rebuilding with justice. New Orleans is a special place, and we need to fight for its rebirth.
When I was a member of the Children of God too many years ago, one of the other members was a man, an Acadian, who’s secular name was William Williams. Whether this was his real name or not was a bit questionable, but oddly believable if you knew William. He was a stocky guy, taller than me, blond haired, and nose permanently flattened by being broke so many times.
William was about the most soft spoken man you could imagine, with a wonderful Cajun accent. He was kind, and caring, and very, very patient. When we had a moment to talk, without the Church elders standing over us, he told me of his history. Willliam used to roll drunks along Bourbon Street for a living. If you’re not familiar with the term, what this means is that he would follow a tourist, too drunk to have any sense, and would either wait until they fell over, or would hasten the inevitable. He would then rob the person, usually only his money, leaving the wallet, and take off.
Imagine my surprise: here was this man, soft spoken, intelligent, caring, and he would knock down and rob tourists. But the contradiction between the man and his actions fascinated me, and I think was one of the major reasons I have always been interested in the history of the South. Like William, the deep South is often a contradition: on the one hand, warm and friendly, gracious and beautiful; on the other, ruthless.
Now, William didn’t like rolling drunks. If life had been different, I think he would have been a great teacher. But he grew up poor, in the streets of a city that has lived for centuries in a state of barbarous gentility.
The historian wars with the humanitarian. To return New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf region into what they were before only “better”, will be to return it to a culture that has long been dependent on, and even encouraged, poverty. A colorful poverty, rich with heritage and art and history; but poverty nonetheless.