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(DV) Howell: Walking With the Ghosts of New Orleans







Walking With The Ghosts of New Orleans
by Lydia Howell
September 11, 2005

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When I finally wrenched myself out of Texas, I almost moved to New Orleans. However, like many Southerners -- usually Black southerners -- I made my northern migration instead. But, watching the abandonment of that city and the especially brutal betrayal of its black citizens has overwhelmed me with a weeping rage.

New Orleans has always been a city of magic and memory, in the midst of a nation of materialism and amnesia.

Ghosts always walked the streets of New Orleans after midnight or in the pearly beginning of dawn: men, women and children on the slave auction block, gamblers and dreamers, the lynched and lost, lovers forbidden by race or gender -- all now joined by the drowned souls we still have not counted or named. Voodoo, like all non-monotheistic Indigenous religions, recognizes the debts that the living owe to our dead, no less than to each other.

Those debts are still owed, not only in New Orleans but here in Minneapolis, where 60% of the already homeless several thousand people are African-Americans and Indians.

To watch the catastrophe unfold in New Orleans was to watch the convergence of a past not faced with a potential future few are prepared for. Seeing the Black people trapped in the Superdome, I glimpsed the horror of the Middle Passage: those ships packed with Africans, wretched with hunger, thirst, disease, terror, on their way to slavery. The people, again, mostly African-Americans, trudging down the empty freeway with the sun beating down reminded me of other forced migrations -- such as Indians on the Trail of Tears. I saw the desperation during the Great Depression (and it's looming repeat as America's economy is auctioned off to the lowest bidder by transnational corporations).

The utter chaos was a glimpse of what things will look like when we face social and economic collapse triggered by the spiraling prices and diminishing oil supplies -- at least, it's what it will look like for most of us. The government will take care of the privileged, those who Bush remarked are "the haves and the have-mores ... my base". Like the black people endlessly waiting for help, the rest of us will be on our own.

How many know that ordinary people tried to bring food and water to those corralled by the thousands, but were refused entry by law enforcement and the National Guard? How many know sheriffs stopped people from continuing out of the city because an exodus of Black inner city residents alarmed people in white areas? Adding insult to the George Bush administration's inept response to the massive injuries in New Orleans, Cuba offered 500 doctors with medical supplies -- at no cost to the U.S. Although, the Convention Center had one doctor with a stethoscope for 15,000 people, the State Department ignored the Cuban humanitarian aide that's helped in countless other disasters around the world.

Lou Dobbs to George Bush Sr. sputtered angry denials that racism was operative in this grotesque failed governmental response. (Some of the best eyewitness accounts of events after Katrina are at:

Even at the beginning of the 21st century, much of white, middle-class America reduces Black people to minstrels or criminals (when it's not wallowing in a perverse fascination with those it chooses to fulfill both roles--like Michael Jackson). How could starving, dehydrated people taking food and water be labeled "looters"? Covered by insurance, food would have spoiled in 90-degree heat without power. Is property so prized and poor people's lives so denigrated?

The true looters are the Bush Administration with Republican and Democratic collaborators, who have plundered all elements of the public interest. They have created a gluttonous crony capitalism as corrosive to democracy as any corrupt dictatorship. They are the gentrifiers that would turn every city (including our own) into a blank Big Box, racially homogenous corporate fiefdoms, with a bit of ethnic cosmetics -- of the culinary kind.

Unfortunately, too many white middle-class Americans have colluded in the "no taxes" mantras that make theft at all governmental levels possible, thinking only the demonized poor losing social services will bear any costs (kept out of sight and out of mind).

The catastrophe in New Orleans ripped away the brick wall that blinds middle-class America to the ugly realities of class and race. On indicators of well-being from infant mortality to lifespan, people of color (especially, African Americans and Indigenous people) were already at the bottom, at "Third World" levels. A new United Nations report reveals the state of American poverty, deepened to 20% of our children, 12% of Americans. Reverse Robin Hood social policies shovel billions to corporations and wealthy elites while dumping children off healthcare or allowing their schools to crumble, escalating homelessness, and locking the exits.

The guardian saint of New Orleans, prayed to for protection against hurricanes, is Our Lady of Prompt Succor -- meaning quick help. Some say "the Divine works through people". Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff claimed he didn't know people were caged by the thousands in the Convention Center without supplies when CNN had reported it for four days. The government, which had the resources to take immediate action, obviously declared the lives of poor and black people to be utterly expendable.

Displaced African-Americans scattered across the country should not be expected to "depend on the kindness of strangers" (in the words of one of New Orleans' most famous fictional characters, Blanche Dubois, of Tennessee Williams' Streetcar Named Desire). Charity is not what's ultimately needed -- justice is. Race and class are not just New Orleans' challenges -- they are America's.

An integral part of what created the magical Crescent City was the practical genius of what poet Amira Baraka called “the blues people” -- by which he meant not only black musicians but also an essence of African-Americans. It's expressed in their musical forms: oppression endured and tenacity against great odds that clings to the capacity for intense ecstasy. It's the ability to "make somthin' outta nothin'" -- as my mother always said -- an essential survival skill all poor people have. It’s the spicy sustenance of the red beans and rice that was what I could afford when I visited New Orleans.

New Orleans is a city beloved for its music -- especially jazz, blues, zydeco. Reduced to bar entertainment, there's too often little appreciation, much less knowledge, for what the music is made out of: blues rooted in slavery, sharecropping and Jim Crow segregation; jazz was a cultural challenge to European hegemony; zydeco synthesized French and black acoustic music, creating a new folk art from black and white poverty, in southern Louisiana.

Living for experience defined New Orleans, expressed in the annual Mardi Gras, often misunderstood as a frat party writ large, by vulgar and loud tourists that a beautiful city depended on (as so many "Third World" cities depend on such Americans) for economic survival. George Bush simply exemplified such ignorant insensitivity by remembering he "got drunk there once".

But, Mardi Gras celebrates vibrant, sweaty life, honors the bawdy creative force while recognizing death and human limitations. It is like Mexico's Day of the Dead, blues music, joy, and sorrow entwined. Mardi Gras echoes something of the medieval "servants' holidays," where daily restrictions are thrown off for a time. After all, the etymological roots of libation and liberation are the same.

In a country built for cars, New Orleans welcomed walking. I strolled French Quarter streets in 1981 through cherished 18th century architecture, lacey, French wrought iron, all built by enslaved labor. Shadowy shops promised herbal spells, charms, a "mojo". Nearby is Jackson Square's magnificent Catholic cathedral, where I bought a medallion of St. Jude: the patron saint of lost causes. Courtyards of lush plants were a sanctuary against hot air, heavy with scents: tropical flowers and hot spices, spilled wine and the perfumes of lovers lost and yet to come, tantalizing.

New Orleans repudiated America's bland "melting pot", in favor of a earthy gumbo of cultures: French, Spanish, African/Caribbean and African-American. Congo Square was the only place that slaves were allowed to openly play their drums and those ancient rhythms still reverberate. Mardi Gras costumes referenced the 18th century French court and African ritual. The city was one of America's biggest ports and the world rushed in, too.

My maternal grandmother's people come from New Orleans, shrouded in mysteries I am still uncovering: the color line crossed, mixed-race identities and “passing” for white. As a white Southerner, I recognized the legacy of slavery and segregation, but, also the spaces where some redemption and reconciliation of that history seemed possible. The culture that made New Orleans known around the world -- and that was the city's primary economic engine -- would not have existed without Black people.

The 78-square-blocks of the French Quarter, being on higher ground, survived. Besides the wreckage of the rest of the city, a toxic soup of corpses, petroleum and other chemicals is only slowly draining away. But, as an oil refinery center, New Orleans had environmental problems before the levee broke.

We're assured that "New Orleans will be rebuilt better than ever". But, who will decide what “better” means? The many unique elements of New Orleans I've tried to intimate here should be at the forefront of rebuilding the city.

The word hurricane comes from Hurakan, Mayan god of wind and storms in southern Mexico and central America. Within his turbulence, one word is repeated: "earth, earth". While no scientists claim that global warming created Katrina, many do say such storms appear to be growing more frequent and more intense due to climate change as result of human activity. One opportunity we could create out of this crisis is to take as our guide, Hurakan's fierce chant.

Not only addressing the toxic mess that surrounds the fairly unscathed historical heart of New Orleans, we could rebuild an environmentally sustainable city, leading the way for the rest of the country. We can resurrect a city made to be a model of economic equity inclusive of all, addressing the race-class inequalities from the ground up. Black people transported hundreds of miles away could return and be trained to help restore their home city.

The Wall Street Journal quoted some wealthy white residents as being glad Black people were shipped off to other cities. Halliburton already has some contracts for reconstruction, in spite of $8 billion “unaccounted for” in Iraq.

We could refuse to allow the corporate looters to betray New Orleans (and us) again. We could reply to all the ghosts of New Orleans (and our country) with a transformative vision.

Lydia Howell (an exiled Southerner from Texas) is a Minneapolis-based independent journalist, poet and host/producer of Catalyst: Politics & Culture, which
airs Tuesdays at 11am on KFAI Radio at:

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Other Articles by Lydia Howell

* The New Inquisition

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