As we approach the fifth anniversary of Katrina, we encourage you to read these reflections on race and recovery by brilliant poet, writer, organizer and educator Kalamu Ya Salaam. Please see Kalamu Ya Salaam's blog: wordup.posterous.com for this entire piece, as well as poetry, essays, and other writings.
There is a secret hidden in the heart of New Orleans, a secret hidden in plain sight but ignored by all but the secret citizens themselves. Before Bienville arrived in this area in 1718, Native American scouts informed the adventurous Frenchman that there were groups of Africans—they probably said “blacks”—living over there in their own communities and that these self-ruled women and men would not talk to whites.
Although how the Native Americans knew that the blacks would not talk to whites remains unexplained, the report seems accurate on the face of it. After all, close to three centuries later in post-Katrina New Orleans there remain a number of us who are reluctant to talk truthfully to outsiders—not out of fear of repercussions or because of an inability to speak English but rather we remain reticent on the general principle that there’s no future in such conversations.
Indeed, I am probably breaking ranks simply by writing this although what I have to say should be obvious. Whether considering our 18th century ancestors who inhabited the swamps of the North American southeast from Florida to Louisiana, or unsuccessfully trying to question a handful of staunch holdouts among the Mardi Gras Indians, there have always been blacks who were both proud of being black and determined to be self-determining—not just constitutionally free as any other 21st century U.S. citizen but independent of any higher authority whether that authority be legal, religious or cultural; whether that authority be other blacks, wealthy whites, politicians of any race or economic status, or whatever, none of that mattered. We recognized no higher earthly authority than ourselves.
Sometimes when it looks like we are doing nothing but waiting on the corners, sitting quietly on a well-worn kitchen chair sipping a beer in the early afternoon shade, sometimes those of us people pass by as we hold court on one of the many neutral grounds, i.e. medians, separating the lanes of major streets and avenues in Central City, sometimes those blank stares you see at a bus stop, sometimes what you are witnessing is not what you think it is.
We are not waiting for the arrival of a messiah or for a government handout. We expect nothing from our immediate future but more of the past.
Our talk will seem either fatalistic or farcical, and certainly will not make sense to you. The weary blues etched into our cheeks and coal-coloring the sagging flesh beneath our eyes; the mottled black, browns, greys and streaks of blond or red on our woolly heads and the aroma of anger clinging to our clothes has nothing to do with our failures or with failed expectations. We never anticipated that we would be understood or loved in this land ruled by men with guns, money and god complexes.
No, what you see when you look at us looking back at you is a resolve to keep on living until we die or until someone kills us.
* * *
The history of New Orleans is replete with the inexplicable in terms of how black people lived here. In the late 1700’s before the Americans arrived as a governing force in 1804, a nominally-enslaved black man could be seen walking to his home, which he owned, carrying a rifle, which he owned, with money of his own in his pockets—yes, I know it seems impossible but the impossible is one of the roots of New Orleans culture.
Under the Spanish there were different laws and customs. We had been offered freedom in exchange for joining the Spanish in fighting the English. Join the army and get emancipated—all you had to do was shoot white men… and avoid getting shot.
The Black Codes guaranteed Sundays were ours. All the food, handicrafts, services or whatever we could sell, we could keep all the proceeds. If you study the colonial administrative records you will notice that our economy was so rich that the city merchants petitioned the governor to be able to sell on Sundays (like the slaves did).
Prior to the Civil War the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that one man had to pay back money he borrowed from a slave. Not to mention, a shocked Mrs. Latrobe, the wife of the architect who designed and built New Orleans waterworks—imagine “…how shocked I was to see three Mulatto children and their mother call upon me and say they were the children of Henry.” Henry was the dearly departed son of Mrs. Latrobe. He died of yellow fever and was buried in New Orleans in 1817, three years before his father who also died of yellow fever and was buried next to his son in St. Louis Cemetery. Much like many, many people today, Mrs. Latrobe had no idea about what was really going on in New Orleans.
You can read the papers all day and sit in front the TV all night and never get the news about a significant and shocking subculture in New Orleans. A subculture that not only is unknown to you but a subculture that really does not care to be known by most of you.
Our independently produced subculture is responsible for the roux that flavors New Orleans music, New Orleans cuisine, New Orleans speech idioms, New Orleans architecture, the way we walk down here and especially how we celebrate life even in the face of death. From the African retentions of VooDoo spiritual observances to the musical extensions from Congo Square, this subculture has made New Orleans world renown.
I don’t remember the black sufferers ever receiving a thank you or a blessing. Instead of recognizing our contributions, the black poor and those who identify with them have been demonized. When the waters came, those who were largely affected and eventually washed away were overwhelmingly black. Our saviors gave us one way tickets out of town. Four years later there have been no provisions to bring blacks “back here”—I say back here instead of back home because “back here” is no longer “back home.” Post Katrina New Orleans is not even a ghost of what our beloved city was.
What is gone is not just houses or pictures on the wall, not just the little neighborhood store we used to frequent, or the tavern where we hung out on warm nights; not just the small church in the middle of the block or even the flower bed alongside the house; not just the old landmarks or some of the schools we used to attend, not just the jumble of overcrowded habitations or the storied stacks of bricks we called the ‘jects (aka projects), housing schemes we knew by name and reputation. No, it is not just brick and wood that is missing from the landscape. What is gone, what we miss most of all is us.
We the people are not here. What is left is an amputated city ignoring its stumps. Moreover, even if it were possible, our city does not desire to re-grow or replace what was “disappeared.” Good riddance is what many of the new majority says.
“Good riddance” is sometimes proclaimed using the coded language of “a smaller footprint” (reductively, smaller footprint means fewer black butts). At other times, “good riddance” is spewed forth as the uncut racist cant of “lock all those savages up.”
* * *
Although poor blacks controlled none of the city’s major resources, we were blamed for everything that was wrong—from a failing school system to rising crime; from ineffective and corrupt political leadership to an “immoral” street culture of drugs, sagging pants and loud music; from a rise in sexually transmitted diseases to deteriorating neighborhoods. When responsible citizens wrote to the Times Picayune daily newspaper suggesting what ought be done do address these concerns, high on the list of panaceas was our incarceration, as if so many—indeed, far, far too many of us—were not already in prison.
How convenient to ignore the glaring statistic: the largest concentration of black women in New Orleans is located at Xavier University and the largest concentration of their age-compatible, male counterparts exists across the expressway in the city jail—dorms for the women, cells for the men. The truth is disorienting to most: what has been tried thus far, whether education or jail, has not worked.
The people who complain the most about crime in the city, or should I say the voices that we most often hear in the media complaining about crime are from the people who are the least affected.
However, worse than the name-calling is the fact that New Orleans is now a city that forgot to care. In the aftermath of the greatest flood trauma ever suffered by a major American city, New Orleans is devoid of public health in general and mental health care in particular.
In the entire Gulf South area that was directly affected by Katrina, only in New Orleans were 7,000 educators fired. The Federal Government guaranteed the salaries of teachers in all other areas and guaranteed the same for New Orleans teachers but the state of Louisiana made a decision to decimate the largest block of college educated blacks, the largest block of regular voters, the largest block of black home owners.
The denouement was that the entire middle class black strata was disenfranchised. Black professionals, the majority of whom lived in flooded areas in New Orleans East, whether government employees or independent professionals (doctors, lawyers, dentists, accountants and the like), black professionals no longer had a client base. Most professionals could not re-establish themselves in New Orleans. What was left of the black New Orleans social infrastructure was nothing nice.
* * *
How does anyone explain why in post-racial America economic inequality gaps are widening, not closing?
In a city that prior to Katrina had one of the highest rates of native residents, why are so many young adults leaving rather than staying?
Why is spending nearly twice as much per pupil to service half the pre-storm population called a success in education innovation, especially when the current status quo is economically unsustainable, not to mention that comparable pre-storm health care and retirement benefits are no longer offered to teachers?
I don’t even know how to identify what is happening to us without sounding like a cliché of class warfare, without sounding bitter about racial reconciliation or ungrateful for all the charitable assistance New Orleans has received.
I know that my voice is a minority voice. I know I don’t represent all blacks, nor most blacks, nor educated blacks, nor your black friend, nor Malia and Sasha, nor… I know it’s just plain “stupid” to talk like I’m talking…
I know. I know we blacks are not blameless. Indeed, we are often a co-conspirator in our own debasement. Too often we act out in ways for which there is no sensible justification. Yes, I know about corrupt politicians and a seeming endless line of street level drug dealers, about rampant gun violence and an always for pleasure, 24/7 party attitude.
But amidst all our acknowledged shortcomings, I ask one simple question: who else in this city has contributed so much for so long to this unique gumbo we call New Orleans culture?
Like the state of Texas finally admitting that “abstinence only” sex education has led to higher, not lower, rates of teen pregnancy, unless we materially address the realities of our social situation, we may find that the short-sighted solutions we have put in place will, in the long run, worsen rather than solve our problems.
* * *
Most days I am resolved to soldier on, to suck it up and keep on keeping on, but sometimes, sometimes I feel like Che Guevara facing a summary execution squad of counter-insurgency soldiers.
Sometimes after working all day in the public schools or after hearing Recovery School District administrators refusing to allow us to teach an Advanced Placement English Class because “we don’t have any students capable of that kind of work”; or sometimes after finding out that a teacher we worked with last year is no longer employed not because she was not a great teacher but rather because (as they told her without a note of shame or chagrin in their voices): you are being surplused (i.e. terminated) because we can get two, young, straight-out-of-college, Teach-For-America instructors for the same price we paid your old, experienced ass; sometimes when the city accidentally on purpose bulldozes a house that the same city issued a building permit to the couple that is struggling to rehabilitate that property and this happens while this insane city administration that, four years after the flood, has yet to come up with a coherent plan to address the 40,000 or so blighted properties that dominant the Ninth Ward (Upper Nine, Lower Nine and New Orleans East) landscape; sometimes, I just want to calmly recite Che’s command: go ahead, shoot!
Just kill us and get it over with.
* * *
But until then: a luta continua (the struggle continues)!
Photo above by Peter Nakhid.