Along with the rest of the nation, the rest of my hometown’s residents, and my friends and family, I’ve flown through a lot of emotions in the past week since Hurricane Katrina wrecked my city of New Orleans: fear, rage, anxiety, and grief. While the bodies are still being counted, I’ve currently settled on shame.
I am ashamed to be an American. We are a people who constantly avow belief in various gods, in liberty and justice, and yet our fellow American citizens, ancient ladies and four-day-old infants, were left to die in the streets for lack of food and water as though they were born in the slums of Mumbai or the favelas of Brazil. We tell ourselves and the world we can do anything, be it grow crops in the desert or bring democracy to Iraq, yet we can’t land a helicopter on Interstate 10 or get buses to a convention center.
I extend that shame to those trapped who turned to violence. Even the guerrillas of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, laid down their arms after the tsunami for the greater good. Our young men raided the ammunition section at Wal-Mart. What kind of culture have we made?
And as for our government? For shame, Mr. President. With the deep inadequacy of your response, you have disappointed even the lowest expectations. It’s worse than your most vociferous detractors could have predicted.
Even our smooth-talking, reform-minded, businessman mayor could not contain himself after three days of being where you and the other federal leaders should have been—on the ground, among the desperate people, your constituents. “They flew down here one time two days after the doggone event was over with TV cameras, AP reporters, all kind of goddamn—excuse my French everybody in America, but I am pissed,” Ray Nagin told a local radio station on Thursday.
Mr. Nagin said he told Mr. Bush that “we had an incredible crisis here and that his flying over in Air Force One does not do it justice. . . . I have been all around this city, and I am very frustrated because we are not able to marshal resources and we are outmanned in just about every respect.”
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.”
Even during this deluge, signifiers of New Orleans class structure have stayed intact. Two reporters from Salon who slipped into the city this week described on Friday a scene of owners and employees of the legendary Brennan’s restaurant on Royal Street drinking Cheval Blanc and delivering chocolate layer cakes to the Eighth District Police Department even as the desperate scene at the Convention Center unfolded a half-mile away. “We take care of them, they take care of us,” the chef actually, in real life, said. Laissez les bons temps rouler, yeah you right.
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.
One Mardi Gras at sunset, I was sitting stoned on the riverbank by the Quarter in a torn-up butterfly costume, and an old black man rolled up to me right out of Morgan Freeman central casting. He was singing, “I’ve got PE-can Pra-LEENS and sweet potato Pi-eye!” I bought a palm-sized pie and engaged him in a conversation about the nature of the universe, and instead of laughing he told me sweetly, liltingly, “You want to know what I think? Now it APPEARS, we are all SEParate from each OTHer. But that’s an ilLUsion. That’s just time, messing with you. It’s just a sign of how FEARfully we are made.”
I hope he’s right.