Saturday, September 03, 2005


anya kamenetz

i just discovered the village voice blogs of anya kamenetz (daughter of rodger, of jew in the lotus fame, and a good writer in her own right). her reflections on the situation, grounded in her time growing up as young, progressive jew in new orleans developing a sense of class and race consciousness, echos my experiences at tulane. so far, her three posts are when the levees broke, my flood of tears, and by the waters of babylon (which brings in psalm 137, and the book of lamentations as tools for responding to collective tragedy and trauma). i now have the bob marley version running through my head...

the descriptions of the 2-tiered class society of new orleans, that only gets mixed up into a big pot of gumbo at jazzfest and mardi gras, are also very accurate:

But in the end I am ashamed, once again, to be from this city. The people who have suffered the worst, the people who died for a lack of basic compassion, are my neighbors. And the same factors that trapped them—being poor, being black, having no other options, no way out—are the forces that make the city what it is.

I lived in Louisiana from the age of one till I left for college. It’s no surprise any conscious white person feels guilty growing up there. Our grade school field trip was to Nottoway Plantation, where a young docent in crinolines pointed out the “servants’ quarters” back behind the big house. The first time our state comes up in the big social studies book is when they explain the expression “sold down the river.” (It was a common threat, since it was known that the work on Louisiana’s cotton plantations was the hottest and the masters the cruelest.)

But the guilt doesn’t just come from history. It comes from enjoying the spoils of history today, as every visitor and every resident inevitably does. You can see it when you stroll beneath the scrollwork in the French Quarter; it’s written in every column of every mansion on St. Charles Avenue. You can feel it when you clap your hands to a young man tap dancing for change with bottle caps in his shoes on a square of cardboard, or throw a quarter to a transient blowing a saxophone on a cobblestone street. As Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Because here’s why I feel so bad right now. I’ve chased the Mardi Gras Indians when they’re stepping out in their peacock jewels under the expressway, and I’ve shaken my ass at a thousand
Rebirth Brass Band shows, and I’ve eaten a pile of red beans and buttermilk biscuits and yelled till I was hoarse for a Zulu coconut, and I’ve been fed all my life in the bosom of this culture made up of people who have been kept down by the weight of poverty and misery and the whole American trip. That’s the wellspring for all of us in America, really, the dark roux. Race is the central dynamic of American history. Jazz and blues, it’s unbearably trite but true, are the American art form—the jazz of New Orleans and the blues of the Mississippi Delta.

New Orleans, the City that Care Forgot, has stood out more and more from the rest of the country in past years because of the number of people who don’t leave it, who stay generation after generation. You could say that’s because they are kept down, or because they’ve put down roots—that’s what keeps the city what it is, a little out of the mainstream of time.

Now we who dance and drink and play together forgot to stand up when it counted. We were waiting for the big storm, and we knew our city was full of people who had no cars, who were living in the same old
camelbacks and shotgun shacks for a hundred years in the poorest part of town, and we didn’t send buses and we didn’t send vans and we didn’t stop our family SUVs on the way out of town to let in a single mother and her child.

and this picture is worth 1000 words:

An aerial view of flooded school buses in a lot, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2005, in New Orleans, LA. The flood is a result of Hurricane Katrina that passed through the area last Monday.(AP Photo/Phil Coale)

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