This week the broader culture “celebrates” the 10-year anniversary of the horror known as Hurricane Katrina. I have written and spoken about this event ad nauseum and argued that Katrina exposed the despair that was ALREADY present in New Orleans before the storm hit. I also made some predictions about what would happen as a result of the storm and I am sad to report I was right on all counts. Because I was correct about the way Black people would be disadvantaged by the “re-development” and “renewal” of New Orleans I am in no mood to “celebrate.”
What I have to say in this blog post has been confirmed by a recent survey conducted by the Public Policy Research Lab at Louisiana State University. Black people have a distinctly different perspective on New Orleans’ “recovery” than Whites. Four out of 5 White residents believe the city has mostly recovered while 3 out of 5 Black residents say it has not. These disparate perceptions were echoed in other surveys such as the Kaiser Family Foundation and National Public Radio. Below I share a few of the differing views.
While most White New Orleans residents rate the quality of life as “about the same as before Katrina” (NY Times, Aug. 24, 2015), a least one-third of Black folks say it’s gotten worse. Black residents, especially Black women, say they had a harder time returning and rebuilding their lives after Katrina. The primary reason for this perspective is that African Americans were more likely to have lived in a flooded and flood impacted part of New Orleans. And, of course, areas like the Ninth Ward have taken much longer to recover.
The “new” New Orleans is whiter and more expensive and has all but eliminated public education as we know it (…you do remember what “eliminating welfare as we know it” meant for Black people?). New Orleans, once an incredibly affordable city, is becoming one of the nation’s most expensive. New Orleans, the most African of American cities—from its culture, customs, art, food, music, and architecture—has become a place where voyeuristic Whites can “experience” blackness without becoming subsumed by it. It has become the site of “Negro-tourism” where Whites can say, quoting Franz Fanon, “Look a Negro” without having any fear of or responsibility for incorporating blackness into their daily calculus.
My first visit to New Orleans over 30 years ago made me feel strangely uneasy. It was everything everyone told me about but there was something more. Like most convention goers or tourists I was ushered into the downtown and French Quarter area. There I saw the trinkets of Mardi Gras, voodoo, and Black iconography. I was warned not to travel far outside of the area but of course I discounted that warning and got to see the “other” New Orleans. Having grown up in segregated West Philly I understood the phenomenon of living “across the tracks.” But, I have never seen poverty in a major US city as entrenched and as widespread as I saw it in New Orleans.
On one subsequent visit to New Orleans I was walking down Chartres Street and noticed a restaurant named, “The Slave Exchange.” I was walking with a Jewish colleague as I marched boldly into the restaurant and asked for the manager. I told him how deeply offended I was by the name of the establishment. He of course claimed no responsibility for the restaurant’s name but shared with me that it was on the site of an actual slave exchange. My colleague told me that I was “over-reacting” and I turned to her and said, “Oh, so you are telling me you would sit and eat in a place called Dauchau, Auschwitz, or The Concentration Camp?” She remained silent…and we still do not talk. [Incidentally, the name HAS been changed and now a historical marker designates it as the site of a former slave exchange.]
The next day, I went back to the site of the restaurant and looked down the intersecting street. There I could see the Mississippi River and I started walking toward it. When I got there I stood and bowed my head. I know what happened at that place. I know that under those waters are countless, unnamed Africans and African descent people whose sacrifice makes my entire existence possible. I understood my uneasiness with New Orleans is linked to the overwhelming sense of the suffering that surfaces whenever I am there.
Hurricane Katrina brought all of that suffering back to me in a stark and painful way. I know President Obama, President Bush, and President Clinton will all visit to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the storm. I will not be celebrating. Instead I will be having a memorial and remembering from the time we Africans appeared in the Crescent City they have been trying to wash us away!
Stay Black & Smart!