#For Whom Does New Orleans Matter?#
In the aftermath of August 29, 2005 and the Flood, which altered the history of New Orleans, I spent a year writing The Katrina Papers: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery (UNO Press 2008). As an exercise in getting a grip on my secular and Catholic "selves," the book saved my faith in what Nature failed to destroy: the human spirit that prevails under pressure. Yet, when I touch the book now and think about race relations in the new New Orleans of 2016, I have commerce with an angry ghost. Or, as the prodigious philosopher Jacques Derrida said with dubious authority: "Given that a revenant is always called upon to come and to come back, the thinking of the specter, contrary to what good sense leads us to believe, signals toward the future" (Specters of Marx, 245). Although the book restored a modicum of hope and charity, it did not erase my consciousness of living in a city and a nation afflicted by the HIV/AIDS of race. New Orleans is a revenant of conditional love and unprotected hatreds. Its current manifestation is Death waiting to implode. SNAFU.
And for whom does New Orleans matter? It matters greatly to those who have the capital, access to power, and moral disengagement necessary to profit from disaster. It matters in equal measure, if not more, to those who find themselves demoralized by disaster. They, I suspect, are the majority of the population. None of the performers in the tragicomic drama of New Orleans, regardless of class, ethnicity, degree of religious piety, country of origin, caste, or color are without sin. New Orleans matters for all of us who are actors in the play and essential ingredients in the gumbo that is the play's major theme. A less romantic, more thought-provoking, fact-based response to the question is "We Got 99 Problems and Lee Circle Ain't One," the New Orleans Tribune editorial of July/August 2015. One paragraph hits us like the blast of a shotgun:
"The Crescent City White Citizens League did not hold hush-hush meetings behind closed doors in the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina, scheming to keep Black citizenry from coming back to New Orleans with their plan for green space in the Ninth Ward and New Orleans East and their grand designs for a smaller, wealthier, more splendid and ostensibly Whiter city." (9)
When my Mississippi ears hear the words "White Citizens," my blood freezes. Although many of the grandiose plans discussed at city-wide charrettes in the months after the Storm and the Flood did not materialize, only the brain-damaged fail to understand in 2016 that "White Citizens" have bleached the Chocolate City.
What has happened by virtue of bleaching (and the influx of l'étrangers ) lends special irony to lines from Marcus Bruce Christian's signature poem "I am New Orleans" (1968) ------
I am New Orleans
A city that is a part of, and yet apart from all America;
A collection of contradictory environments;
A conglomeration of bloods and races and classes and colors;
Side-by-side, the New tickling the ribs of the Old;
Cheek-by-jowl, the Ludicrous making faces at the Sublime.
It is indeed ludicrous that a disproportionate number of African Americans in New Orleans are stripped of dignity by a caste system predicated on unskilled, menial labor. Can self-esteem rather than self-denigration flourish in a city where an estimated 50 % of its African American male population lacks employment? Probably not. The shifting demographics we can attribute to an increase in immigrant laborers has only made the crisis of black unemployment more critical. That many parents are baffled by the strange choices they are required to make as they try to ensure that their children can be educated is yet another abnormality. The romance the city is having with undemocratic, tax-supported, privatized education (charter schools) deepens their frustrations. The post-Katrina murder of public education in the city was the symbolic equivalent of an enraged policeperson killing an unarmed person, and non-partisan research can prove that what happened was part of a national plan. Yet another planned abnormality is the phenomenon of many black youths being targeted and criminalized by what Michelle Alexander has aptly named the new Jim Crow while the crimes of non-black youths are carefully photo- shopped. African Americans of all ages in New Orleans have been seasoned for three centuries, as it were, for mass incarceration, uphill battles to succeed, permanent inequality, and gradual genocide, the logical outcomes of psychological terrorism. We have to ask how the city shall deal with its historical ugliness that can't be divorced from its internationally acclaimed beauty during the forthcoming Tricentennial.
How shall the city articulate for whom its contradictory environments matter?
Should African Americans not loudly insist that their diverse stories be heard and respected during the Tricentennial, American mass media will broadcast cultural nonsense with alacrity. As the chief bureau of spinformation (i.e., deodorized misinformation), mass media works 24/7/365 to portray the majority of non-black New Orleanians as paragons of American civic virtue and to insinuate that non-white New Orleanians are overwhelming happy, fun-loving, remarkably intelligent, gifted in the creation of music, visual art and other expressive forms but wanting in steadfast allegiance to the cold Protestant work ethic needed to rebuild a city. It indeed matters that truthful narratives about cycles of progress and regression be told, even if those stories reduce in a small degree the attractiveness and fictionalized charms of the city that care forgot. Even if the narratives confirm that race relations are in low cotton and going down slow.
More attention has to be given to sustained, longitudinal analyses of pre- and post-Katrina political and social dynamics that provide a reasonable foundation for beginning to understand what is right and wrong with this city. Truth be told, New Orleans matters for all of its inhabitants. Nevertheless, the city matters in a painful way for those of us who are utterly disgusted with hypocrisy, legalized corruption, and the asinine fantasy that the city's patron saints are Carnival, Mardi Gras and the pimps of misrule and self-renewing lust. We do not live inside a fairytale. What matters more than New Orleans as a gentrified work-in-progress is the possibility that the resurrection of white supremacy locally and nation-wide may force many African Americans to intensify their struggles to protect and maintain the rich historical culture they contributed to the city. And this time, the struggles will not be televised or social networked as "# Whatever Matters." Praying daily to Our Lady of Prompt Succor "to help us in the battle of today against violence, murder and racism," and asking Mother Henriette Delille to "pray for us that we may be a holy family" may provide temporary relief. The family prayer authored by the Archdiocese of New Orleans promises that one day we shall have "human dignity in our community." Nevertheless, the revenant of race relations must appeased by rituals more ancient than prayer before that day arrives.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
January 12, 2016