It is 4 in the morning and it is rainy season in Oaxaca. Everyday around 5 p.m. the sky opens up and it pours. Sometimes it stops. Sometimes it goes on and on until at some point in the morning you are awakened by the sound of water on your roof and you can’t go back to sleep wondering, is this the same water that drowned my town and caused my family to flee?
I’ve set up a one-woman command center down at the D-Spot, my internet café in Oaxaca. I’m on the phone and the computer for four hour stretches locating my family and tracking their movements. I go to bed and a few hours later, I am up thinking of contacts making connections and suggestions, drafting emails that beg for help. Anyone with family in New Orleans knows the phones were useless. Just as on 9/11 when none of us in NYC could be reached by phone, it was a waste trying to call 504 (although one person did get through to my father’s voice mail, she doesn’t know if he’ll ever get the message). Email was the saving grace. Not only for me here in Mexico, but most especially for the lost and stranded fleeing the city. My family kept tabs on each other through email and posted phone numbers where they could be reached. I might be on a plane back home right now were it not for email’s power to put me in immediate contact with my family.
The reports read like notes from the underground railroad. My grandmother, two aunts, an uncle, a grandaunt, a cousin, her partner and their children turned up in Memphis. Other aunts and uncles were on the road to Atlanta, settled in St. Francisville, lodged in Opelousas, and housed wherever there was an open door for them. I have two aunts who are nurses, they had to stay behind and work. One uncle remained to be close to his wife and the other returned as soon as he realized how unstable the situation in the city was. Yet another uncle, his partner and one cousin decided to ride out the storm. They were safe in the French Quarter, but in Katrina’s aftermath, they found themselves in a worse position than the relatives who got out. Thankfully, they found each other and made their way to Baton Rouge.
My father reported himself fine with his wife, her daughter and granddaughters at her brother’s house in Houston. The 5 remaining members of my immediate family—mother, 2 brothers, and 1 sister (with the exception of 1 sister who lives outside of New Orleans)—reported themselves holed up in a hotel in Birmingham with my sister-in-law, nieces and nephews. My brothers were jovial, my sister indignant, my mother non-communicative. After quietly sitting on the phone, she passed it on to my brother saying, “I just don’t have much to say.”
I have not seen the images most of you have. My brother told me of each monument and memorable place that was shattered or destroyed or underwater. I felt stressed, strained, depressed and shocked. And then, as I read more and more, I began to feel blessed. My family got out. They had (and have) resources, vehicles and destinations. I thought of Grenada and the many Caribbean islands that withstand such disasters on a regular basis—where can they drive to? If the whole island is hit, there is no refuge. We are blessed to live on such a huge piece of rock.
On Tuesday, my family sounded a little lost. They had their vehicles and whatever they grabbed on Sunday when they evacuated. When they were choosing what to take and what to leave behind, there’s no way they could have known they wouldn’t be back. Hurricanes are a way of life for New Orleanians. The city has had countless close calls over the years. The last hurricane saw my brother evacuating and the rest of my family staying put, doubting the storm’s impact. My sister’s car floated and my father’s car stalled—waterlogged—and he walked home holding his harddrive, drenched to the bone. But the city was fine.
One of the city’s classic drinks is the hurricane—a huge concoction that I have never made it through on my own. That will give you some idea of how New Orleanians think of hurricanes. The last big one was Betsy. Back then, the residents of the lower 9th ward (where I grew up) were stung by the city’s decision to sacrifice their neighborhood by detonating dynamite to create a an exit for the swelling river waters. They chose to rupture the levee that protects the 9th ward and let the ward’s poor, black residents fight for the lives due to flooding, so that the water levels threatening other parts of the city would subside.
I remember only one major hurricane during my childhood. I don’t know the name of it, I just remember being rowed in a boat across the street to a house with two stories and an attic. Since then, the city hasn’t suffered any severe damage despite countless hurricanes.
One of my friends told me by email that the Hurricane Katrina situation was “racial.” I laughed out loud. How could a hurricane be racial? But then I did the research. Started reading and asking questions and I learned that many of the people left behind didn’t “choose” to stay. They had no resources, no vehicles, and no destinations. So they are remained in the city—dead or dying or fighting to survive and praying to get out.
In describing what made Hurricane Katrina a death sentence for the poor—who make up a sizeable portion of the New Orleans population—Anne Rice writes in her New York Times editorial:
“Thousands didn’t leave New Orleans because they couldn’t leave. They didn’t have the money. They didn’t have the vehicles. They didn’t have any place to go. They are the poor, black and white, who dwell in any city in great numbers; and they did what they felt they could do—they huddled together in the strongest houses they could find. There was no way to up and leave and check into the nearest Ramada Inn.”
As it turns out, the question of where to drive to next, how to raise money, how to start over is actually a privilege. Those who had no choice are still drowning. My friend writes:
“They knew about this for a week. A mandatory evacuation in a state like Jeb Bush’s includes transpor-fucking-tation. This shit is so raggedy and I just broke down today looking at our people down there. Folks had expectations and they are so on their own. If this don’t show folks that WE are on our own as a people I don’t know what will. And the NERVE of the press to even bring up “looting.” Are they crazy? People are taking damn diapers and stay free pads for Gods sake. Shit from K-Mart which is INSURED. Yeah, how you gonna get out with no damn car AT THE LAST MINUTE? Or a unreliable one? A woman on line brought up a good point, so many resources army etc. are devoted to Iraq or the moon there is nothing left for the folks that live here. Especially the poor and black and brown ones….”
What could have been done differently? Well, plenty. In an article called “The Two Americas” Marjorie Cohn writes:
Last September, a Category 5 hurricane battered the small island of Cuba with 160-mile-per-hour winds. More than 1.5 million Cubans were evacuated to higher ground ahead of the storm. Although the hurricane destroyed 20,000 houses, no one died.
What is Cuban President Fidel Castro’s secret? According to Dr. Nelson Valdes, a sociology professor at the University of New Mexico, and specialist in Latin America, “the whole civil defense is embedded in the community to begin with. People know ahead of time where they are to go.”
“Merely sticking people in a stadium is unthinkable” in Cuba, Valdes said. “Shelters all have medical personnel, from the neighborhood. They have family doctors in Cuba, who evacuate together with the neighborhood, and already know, for example, who needs insulin.”
They also evacuate animals and veterinarians, TV sets and refrigerators, “so that people aren’t reluctant to leave because people might steal their stuff,” Valdes observed.
So now, I sit here meditating on how I would take the news of a mandatory evacuation if I had no means to evacuate. It certainly puts looting in a new light. From what I have read, most people are looting for necessities, but there are those who are grabbing sneakers and DVDs and electronics and whatnot. But when I put it in context, how can I judge? They were left for dead, so I guess they’re getting theirs, just in case they survive.
Regardless, the pace of a hurricane—or any other natural disaster—is breathtaking. Homeowners are now homeless. Wage earners are unemployed. And children are knocked off their educational tracks. When you’re looking at spending a month to three months out of your home, a hotel bill is not the place to spend your cash. My family didn’t have the luxury of catching their breaths. By Wednesday, they had left the hotels and scattered in four directions—west, south, east, then north—each taking a different path to reestablish some sense of balance and normalcy to their lives. What it comes down to for the evacuated residents of New Orleans is that their city will not be inhabitable for a long while. Many have accepted the reality that they must establish themselves somewhere else, raise funds, and be ready when the city is ready for their return.
It is painful for anyone to be uprooted and disconnected from their homes, but it is especially painful for people like New Orleanians—very few of whom ever choose to leave the city. I remember running into someone from high school on the subway in NYC. She didn’t remember me and in fact told me that it was impossible that I was from New Orleans because there was no one from New Orleans in New York. She was wrong, of course, I know quite a few of them, but her point was people from New Orleans generally stay home. For the majority of us, leaving our beloved city behind has never been an option. One artist who travels all over the world with his art said during a t.v. interview: “I have my corner store, my poboys and my Big Red, why would I ever leave?”
Yet thousands were forced to do just that.
A friend who was doing fundraising suggested that I create an email to raise funds and get clothing from other parts of my family, those who may not have been living in New Orleans during the time of the hurricane. I just shook my head. He doesn’t get it, I thought, they are ALL in New Orleans. Each and every aunt and uncle are in New Orleans, half of their children and grandchildren are in New Orleans.
My younger brother is one who never wanted to leave. He is now realizing that he does not need a temporary solution. He needs—as he calls it—a “semi-permanent” solution for himself and his family of 5. The situation calls for a complete about face. Resumes, apartments to be rented, schools to be found, whole new lives to be formed… but on a “semi-permanent” basis because who knows when they will be able to go home.
As I thought about what this post-Katrina life is going to require of so many, I visualized a steep hill, a hill that no one had time to mentally, spiritually, emotionally and financially prepare for. My thoughts were with my grandmother, Aline St. Julien, especially. For my grandmother’s generation, New Orleans is literally their entire lives. They know nothing else. They have no desire to know anything else. They have not equipped themselves to know anything elese. At 80, how do you make a new start in a world you never got acquainted with? My friend Lynn Pitts writes:
“We talked about Miss Aline, how utterly devastating this must be for her…her family, her neighborhood, the city of her birth, the city of her heart… And she is New Orleans to the core, meaning she never would have left that city for another place… There’s nothing that could have lured her away… A cousin of my mother’s used to live in New Orleans, who was more like an aunt to me. She’s in a nursing home in Houma now, but this week my thoughts kept wandering to her friends, the ladies in her Social Aid & Pleasure Club. They were ladies like your grandmother. Francis who had a huge fig tree in her back yard. Ollie, the party girl. Mrs. Drummond with her house full of plastic-covered imitation Louis XIV furniture. They were all New Orleans to the core too. My chest tightens and my eyes water when I think of those ladies—and they were all Ladies with the capital ‘L’ — trying to survive the horror of the Dome or the Convention Center or even miles away, safely ensconced in some hotel room or the home of a relative, watching their city die on the evening news. How will they survive? It’s unlikely I’ll ever see or hear of them again.”
My cousin tells me of another death count that she is sure will be invisible. Those of the sick and elderly who were successfully evacuated, but died later of depression or heartbreak as her grandmother did this Friday. She had survived cancer, a mastectomy and a stroke earlier this year. Then came Katrina. My cousin’s grandmother left the city and was with family in Georgia, but she started telling people she didn’t want to live. She refused medical care. Her son—a firefighter who had stayed behind to help keep the city going—left to be by her side. All her grandchildren flew in to see her and she crossed to the other side, preferring to die than to live through the pain of a forced relocation. It is a heavy enough blow for the healthy, but for those who are already fragile, being kicked out of the only place they have ever called home may literally be a death blow.
I am at a loss for words. Especially when I watch the news, when I hear of the destruction in my home town, when I wonder how big a role race had to play in the abandonment—not only the race of the hurricane victims, but also the race of the young mayor whose rage is righteously focused at those who did nothing to help.
Anne Rice writes:
“But to my country I want to say this: During this crisis you failed us. You looked down on us; you dismissed our victims; you dismissed us. You want our Jazz Fest, you want our Mardi Gras, you want our cooking and our music. Then when you saw us in real trouble, when you saw a tiny minority preying on the weak among us, you called us ‘Sin City,’ and turned your backs.
Well, we are a lot more than all that. And though we may seem the most exotic, the most atmospheric and, at times, the most downtrodden part of this land, we are still part of it. We are Americans. We are you.”
My friend Dana Vincent has a concern with a group’s cultural currency vs. their buying power/value. She talks about how hip hop culture is imported all over the world and how much revenue it generates and how few of those dollars end up translating into better education for the communities that created hip hop, better health care, career options or a quality of life. I see the same thing happening in New Orleans and this is what Anne Rice’s piece touches on. The culture of the city—the jazz, the cuisine, the joie de vivre—is so celebrated, and will continue to be, but the people who animate that culture have no currency, no value as far as the powers that be are concerned. It is one of the bloodsucking contradictions of capitalism—you’re only valuable if you have capital. Beauty and/or culture won’t bring the helicopters back from Iraq.
Many of my family have taken a quantum leap and chosen to view the hurricane in an empowering fashion. Perhaps they can use the disaster to make some changes they’ve always wanted to make regarding career and lifestyle. For the evacuees, the hard work of rebuilding is just beginning. But, that, as it turns out, is the good news. The bad news is what has happened to the city—lack of electricity, contaminated water supply, no access for food delivery, fires, confusion—and what those who lacked the resources to evacuate endured (and will continue to endure).
The majority of my family didn’t go far. They are in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Slidell, anywhere nearby so they can have a hand in building the city back up. As they take refuge in the city’s shadow, a few breaths shy of the death stench drenching New Orleans; they, their fellow New Orleanians, and the entire nation is reminded how fragile the fabric of reality is. As the reality of so many evacuees have been ripped to shreds, thousands of people have reached out and provided shelter, clothing, and money. Everyone is shaken, everyone knows it could have been them who lost it all so quickly and so devastatingly.
As everyone moves to do what they can to help smooth the transition for those shocked and wandering around the country, this quote comes to mind: “We all want to be cared for out of pure love, but love does not come pure in this world. It comes stained, and sometimes stinking of urine…. In this world, love comes mixed with pity and anger and guilt and all those other less-than-noble emotions that we are not supposed to have.”
I pray that our rage and outrage, our pity and anger and guilt will not drive us crazy. I pray that the insanity can lead us to build a world more humane than the one that was destroyed.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam
FOR THE RECORD
Spirit Still Here
“Bless my eyes this morning. Jah sun is on the rise once again.” Bob Marley from “So Much Trouble in the World.”
Perhaps New Orleans was really never meant to be, should never have happened. Or maybe New Orleans was never meant to endure. What if there was never supposed to have been any slavery or racism or poor people or jazz? Perhaps the world as we know it is just one huge cosmic joke. Perhaps it is all just a dream. Have we slept through what seems like too many alarming wake up calls? Are we exhausted and unconsciously snoozing when it’s really time to awaken? There is obviously a victory to be gained. This is the work of facing life on life’s terms. There is the work of showing up at those intimidating environments, putting on our best face, a pair of those sixteen-ounce boxing gloves and strapping on the head gear. And even though it seems we are the better fighter we are always out-matched. The best we can ever hope for is a draw because if we ever win we will ultimately lose because evil cannot be killed without a real human cost. I wish I were a better man. Better in the sense that I wish I could take an amalgamation of everything I have inherited from my people’s struggles, successes and triumphs and make some type of real difference for Black people and people of all races that have been dispossessed. As of yet, I haven’t done that. But, as a child of God, I am not afraid or ashamed to tell anybody what I know to be true:
To understand the rich and resilient culture of Black people in New Orleans you got to know how it feels to know that our African ancestors, the Mande, Bambara, Mandinka, while still enslaved, came together every Sunday and reinforced their African spirit in Congo Square by doing traditional drumming and dancing. Africans in New Orleans kept the spirit of the music alive with the rhythm of the Bamboula and the spirit still pulsates here.
The glorious 1811 revolt that started at the Destrahan Plantation is evidence that our warrior spirit never died. Brothers and sisters from upriver took on and overtook any and everyone in their path to New Orleans—leaving a red and white trail of blood and bodies in their fight for freedom. Their destination was New Orleans City Hall, which at the time was located at Esplanade and the river. That revolutionary spirit is still here.
The spirit of resistance continued to manifest itself in escapes to states up north. There were also a significant number of enslaved Africans who went south to Mexico where Africans fought ongoing battles with Spain until the Spanish finally gave up. Enslaved Black people from coastal areas along the Gulf of Mexico such as Pensacola, Mobile and New Orleans settled in Mexico and controlled the land. The spirit of freedom is still in us, going wherever we go.
In grand Faubourg Treme, Black people, referred to as free people of color, wrested freedom from the institution of slavery. These Black people, comprised of carpenters and ironworkers, artists, writers, musicians and professional and crafts people of various sorts, used their skills to purchase freedom for themselves and their loved ones. The invisible bond of familial spirit is still here holding each other close through the toughest times.
In 1866 some 200 determined Black men met to reconvene the constitutional convention of 1864. Neo-Confederates, aided by local police, slaughtered them in cold blood as government officials stood by and did nothing. Yet the thirst for law and justice burns inside of us and we continue to stand for what we know is right.
At the turn of the century a man named Jelly Roll Morton tore up the scene with a style of piano playing that had everybody jumping and Marie Laveau saw more faithful followers at her back door then priest heard in up front confessions. New Orleans is Buddy Bolden serenading the Seven Sisters in Algiers; Louis Armstrong blazing a trail, laying tracks for every jazz musician to ride on. And the spirit of creativity mixes with the oneness of the juju and empties out of us into this bowl of humanity and we eat the body of it and drink the blood of it—we become one with it. The spirit bounces when we walk it in crepe soles on Claiborne Avenue and sings when we talk it in stories told bout how he rambled.
New Orleans is pride and pain. It is a Black king in black face and a grass skirt. It is your brother or cousin, wearing a white t-shirt and carrying a flambeau, the torch that lit the way for others when we were not allowed to be part of the show. It is watching him sweat while carrying that long pole with the leaky kerosene lamps on top. It is smiling with pride as he turns and spins that pole of lamps before gracefully bowing to pick up coins thrown at his feet. New Orleans is St. Augustine’s Band being spat on by Rex’s followers when we were finally allowed to join their parade. The spirit of carnival is in us, lighting the way and marching home like truth.
If you never woke up before sunrise on Mardi Gras and stood in the cold twilight while your feet got numb waiting to see the Indians come out, you don’t know what it means to miss New Orleans. If you’ve never seen Tootie Montana’s golden crown coming from way down the street and the crowds of men, women and children running towards him while Tootie is turning all graceful-like, letting everybody from all angles see how pretty he is and you just bow down because you know you ain’t never seen a three dimensional Indian suit before. Then you hear somebody’s palm slap tambourine and all of a sudden the blood races up your spine to the base of your brain and you realize that, at this point, right here and now, everything else in the world is just shallow water. And you scream,”Ohhh!” And you release the coil that binds you to the white world cause on carnival day you got an Indian name. You ought to know of the special bond that exists between Black people in New Orleans and Native Tribes of the Choctaw, Natchez, and the Tunica. Indians helped Africans and we, in turn honor them by masking on Mardi Gras and St. Joseph Day. New Orleans is matte black people with high, sun-kissed cheekbones. The spirit of respect for our brothers is still here.
New Orleans is my Aunt Vera’s crawfish bisque on Good Friday, my daddy’s seafood gumbo as an appetizer before every Sunday dinner of every month that has an ‘r’ in it. Hot oyster po-boys on soft French bread, beignets and coffee with chicory and condensed milk. Its red beans on Monday. New Orleans is huckabucks from the lady next door and snowballs from round the corner. New Orleans is Big Shot pineapple. If you ain’t never been so hot you don’t even want to move from off your mama’s front porch—that is—until you hear that boomp-baboomp-baboompboomp-ba-boompboomp, and your head snaps in the directions of that bass drum and you hear that first blast of the tuba and no matter how hot you thought it was you know yo feets ain’t gon fail you now. The blood can run hot in the spirit of Black New Orleans.
New Orleans is standing at the bus stop at 11:00 at night, drinking Night Train outta the same bottle with another Black dude you don’t even know, just because y’all both going cross the water. New Orleans is a wobbly streetcar ride down St. Charles on a crisp fall evening and the smell of electricity as it pops at the intersections. It’s hot boiled crabs on newspaper on the lakefront on a hot summer night, it’s flies. Around Christmas, New Orleans is a cool and misty walk in leaves through City Park under elderly oaks embellished with Spanish moss. It’s flying kites in emerald clover on the levee under a few puffy, white clouds in springtime. It is mosquitoes. New Orleans is live, round ‘skeletons’ and grown women in bloomers calling themselves ‘baby dolls’ on a cool clear Mardi Gras on Orleans and Claiborne. And, before they built the interstate, it was a sprawling, tree-lined neutral ground on N. Claiborne. New Orleans is Straight Business School. New Orleans is an overweight, cigar-smoking, big shot called Zulu floating through tree branches down Jackson Avenue on Fat Tuesday. New Orleans is Black shoppers crowding Dryades St. on a Saturday afternoon in the ’60’s and Eddie 3-Way record van bouncing down bumpy streets selling records with a turntable out the back door and a loudspeaker on top and not missing a beat. New Orleans is Fats Domino building a mansion in the same damn neighborhood he grew up in. Yeah, New Orleans is the ninth ward—”the mighty nine and don’t mind dyin” ninth ward. New Orleans is the seventh ward where they say “a la-ba” and call everybody Cher. New Orleans is Black people with curly, brown hair. New Orleans is grease and water.
In New Orleans we get Picou’s donuts at 2:30 in the morning and pralines after the first pecans fall in autumn. It’s stuffed shrimp at Dookey Chase and red beans and fried chicken at Chez Helene and picking out a cowan at the Circle Food Store. In Black New Orleans we have just as many churches as liquor stores and just as many church ladies as crack ho’s. We got big fine-assed women in size 14 pumps in canary yellow with matching neck scarves that don’t quite hide the big, protruding Adam’s apples. If you’re Black and live in New Orleans you try to avoid Tulane and Broad as well as the broads from Tulane.
It’s Papa Celestin explaining St. James Infirmary to a live audience. Danny Barker saving his bones while feeling only Blue Lu’s leg. New Orleans is the spirit of jazz music at the Dew Drop Inn and Mason’s and Lu and Charlie’s on Rampart. It’s Ellis Marsalis, Nat Perrialat, James Black and Kidd Jordan. New Orleans is the William Houston Big Band swinging a waltz at the Young Men of Illinois Ball and New Orleans is also laughing at debutantes try to act seddity as though they don’t notice that Kidd is taking one of them crazy-assed “Kidd Jordan” solos. New Orleans is the Meters and a drummer named Zigaboo at the I.L.A., Willie T and the Gators at Shakespeare Park in the summertime. New Orleans is Wynton and Branford with afros.
New Orleans is ‘vege-table’ trucks, “I gots watermelon, watermelon red to the rind. I hate to tell ya baby but you sho ain’t fine.” In New Orleans you turn left on Ba-gundy and nobody drinks burgundy. It’s Caronde-lette and Mel-pha-mean. In the Treme they say “Tre -me, ya heard?” In that third ward they got them uptown rulers and soldier rags. But then New Orleans has its self-regulated communities—the Desire, the Florida, the St. Bernard, the Lafitte, the Iberville, the St Thomas, the Magnolia, the Calliope and the Fisher. The spirit of New Orleans is in us; we carry it with us wherever we go. We take it with us in horn cases, drum kits and pack it in dry ice. We are the spirit of New Orleans, it is deep in us, no one can kill it and it will never die.
—AumRa Frezel, September 2005