RE: [xmca] Do You Know What It Means to Lose New Orleans?

From: Peg Griffin (
Date: Sun Sep 04 2005 - 15:54:12 PDT

Thanks for sending this.

-----Original Message-----
From: [] On
Behalf Of David Daniel Preiss Contreras
Sent: Sunday, September 04, 2005 5:10 PM
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Subject: [xmca] Do You Know What It Means to Lose New Orleans?

September 4, 2005
Do You Know What It Means to Lose New Orleans?
La Jolla, Calif.

WHAT do people really know about New Orleans?

Do they take away with them an awareness that it has always been not only a
great white metropolis but also a great black city, a city where
African-Americans have come together again and again to form the strongest
African-American culture in the land?

The first literary magazine ever published in Louisiana was the work of
black men, French-speaking poets and writers who brought together their work

in three issues of a little book called L'Album Littéraire. That was in the
1840's, and by that time the city had a prosperous class of free black
artisans, sculptors, businessmen, property owners, skilled laborers in all
fields. Thousands of slaves lived on their own in the city, too, making a
living at various jobs, and sending home a few dollars to their owners in
the country at the end of the month.

This is not to diminish the horror of the slave market in the middle of the
famous St. Louis Hotel, or the injustice of the slave labor on plantations
from one end of the state to the other. It is merely to say that it was
never all "have or have not" in this strange and beautiful city.

Later in the 19th century, as the Irish immigrants poured in by the
thousands, filling the holds of ships that had emptied their cargoes of
cotton in Liverpool, and as the German and Italian immigrants soon followed,

a vital and complex culture emerged. Huge churches went up to serve the
great faith of the city's European-born Catholics; convents and schools and
orphanages were built for the newly arrived and the struggling; the city
expanded in all directions with new neighborhoods of large, graceful houses,

or areas of more humble cottages, even the smallest of which, with their
floor-length shutters and deep-pitched roofs, possessed an undeniable
Caribbean charm.

Through this all, black culture never declined in Louisiana. In fact, New
Orleans became home to blacks in a way, perhaps, that few other American
cities have ever been. Dillard University and Xavier University became two
of the most outstanding black colleges in America; and once the battles of
desegregation had been won, black New Orleanians entered all levels of life,

building a visible middle class that is absent in far too many Western and
Northern American cities to this day.

The influence of blacks on the music of the city and the nation is too
immense and too well known to be described. It was black musicians coming
down to New Orleans for work who nicknamed the city "the Big Easy" because
it was a place where they could always find a job. But it's not fair to the
nature of New Orleans to think of jazz and the blues as the poor man's
music, or the music of the oppressed.

Something else was going on in New Orleans. The living was good there. The
clock ticked more slowly; people laughed more easily; people kissed; people
loved; there was joy.

Which is why so many New Orleanians, black and white, never went north. They

didn't want to leave a place where they felt at home in neighborhoods that
dated back centuries; they didn't want to leave families whose rounds of
weddings, births and funerals had become the fabric of their lives. They
didn't want to leave a city where tolerance had always been able to outweigh

prejudice, where patience had always been able to outweigh rage. They didn't

want to leave a place that was theirs.

And so New Orleans prospered, slowly, unevenly, but surely - home to
Protestants and Catholics, including the Irish parading through the old
neighborhood on St. Patrick's Day as they hand out cabbages and potatoes and

onions to the eager crowds; including the Italians, with their lavish St.
Joseph's altars spread out with cakes and cookies in homes and restaurants
and churches every March; including the uptown traditionalists who seek to
preserve the peace and beauty of the Garden District; including the Germans
with their clubs and traditions; including the black population playing an
ever increasing role in the city's civic affairs.

Now nature has done what the Civil War couldn't do. Nature has done what the

labor riots of the 1920's couldn't do. Nature had done what "modern life"
with its relentless pursuit of efficiency couldn't do. It has done what
racism couldn't do, and what segregation couldn't do either. Nature has laid

the city waste - with a scope that brings to mind the end of Pompeii.

I share this history for a reason - and to answer questions that have arisen

these last few days. Almost as soon as the cameras began panning over the
rooftops, and the helicopters began chopping free those trapped in their
attics, a chorus of voices rose. "Why didn't they leave?" people asked both
on and off camera. "Why did they stay there when they knew a storm was
coming?" One reporter even asked me, "Why do people live in such a place?"

Then as conditions became unbearable, the looters took to the streets.
Windows were smashed, jewelry snatched, stores broken open, water and food
and televisions carried out by fierce and uninhibited crowds.

Now the voices grew even louder. How could these thieves loot and pillage in

a time of such crisis? How could people shoot one another? Because the faces

of those drowning and the faces of those looting were largely black faces,
race came into the picture. What kind of people are these, the people of New

Orleans, who stay in a city about to be flooded, and then turn on one

Well, here's an answer. 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.

What's more, thousands more who could have left stayed behind to help
others. They went out in the helicopters and pulled the survivors off
rooftops; they went through the flooded streets in their boats trying to
gather those they could find. Meanwhile, city officials tried desperately to

alleviate the worsening conditions in the Superdome, while makeshift
shelters and hotels and hospitals struggled.

And where was everyone else during all this? Oh, help is coming, New Orleans

was told. We are a rich country. Congress is acting. Someone will come to
stop the looting and care for the refugees.

And it's true: eventually, help did come. But how many times did Gov.
Kathleen Blanco have to say that the situation was desperate? How many times

did Mayor Ray Nagin have to call for aid? Why did America ask a city
cherished by millions and excoriated by some, but ignored by no one, to
fight for its own life for so long? That's my question.

I know that New Orleans will win its fight in the end. I was born in the
city and lived there for many years. It shaped who and what I am. Never have

I experienced a place where people knew more about love, about family, about

loyalty and about getting along than the people of New Orleans. It is
perhaps their very gentleness that gives them their endurance.

They will rebuild as they have after storms of the past; and they will stay
in New Orleans because it is where they have always lived, where their
mothers and their fathers lived, where their churches were built by their
ancestors, where their family graves carry names that go back 200 years.
They will stay in New Orleans where they can enjoy a sweetness of family
life that other communities lost long ago.

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.

Anne Rice is the author of the forthcoming novel "Christ the Lord: Out of

David D. Preiss
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