This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life

February 9, 2010

Hi-Tech Fruit and Strange Lynchings

This is another post from my old blog. I was reminded of it recently when I read this excellent post at Sociological Images. Lately my mind has been on all things NOLA. (Our Colts’ loss to the wonderful and well-deserving Saints is only part of the reason.) So this post caught my eye. In particular, this slant makes me ponder my old post in a new way:

For someone who was harmed by a hurricane, using the imagery is a way of reclaiming the hurt they suffered, even appropriating the strength of the force that hurt them.  But, for others to use it, it is trivializing that same hurt, re-imagining the destruction they suffered.  It is not funny, from this perspective, to imagine that New Orleans could be hit again.

I was reminded while reading that of some of my (Black) family and friends using “slave” in an in-group, joking kind of way. I’m OK with that, but bristle when I hear others use it. For example, at a recent swim meet, one of the other parents (a White woman) said something about not doing “X” because we would get yelled at by the person in charge of the meet. She said, “We’re liable to get lynched behind that.” All of my crew sitting there—me, my husband, and my father—were taken aback. My father said, “Oh, you probably don’t want to say that.” The woman totally didn’t get it: She thought he was talking about not saying that the person would be angry with us. He kept at it: “No. I mean, you shouldn’t be saying that—to us [motioning to him, my husband, and me].” The woman, light dawning, turned all shades of red.

The in-group/out-group dimension was not something I considered when I first wrote this piece years ago. But I’m thinking of it today. And today I am (still) wondering: What’s in a song? What’s in a phrase?

"Broken Branch" PPR_Scribe

I. Some Background

The summer before I left home for college I raided my parents’ music collection, choosing dozens of albums (yes, albums: black vinyl, 12 inches, 33-and-a-third rotations per minute: LPs) that I wanted to “borrow” and take to Boston with me on my great adventure in adulthood.

One of those albums I chose from that raided collection was by Billie Holiday. One of the songs on that album from that raided collection was “Strange Fruit.”

That song is something I could not ignore. At the time, I was not too enamored of Lady Day’s voice: It seemed a little scratchy to me, and wispy…without the force, range and rhythm of female jazz vocalists like Ella and Sarah and Dinah and others who I was getting into at the time. (It didn’t help, I guess, that my image of Billie Holliday and what her voice must have sounded like was colored by my having first seen and heard her in the guise of Diana Ross in “Lady Sings the Blues.”)

But that song, “Strange Fruit,” I had to listen to.

Since that time I have come to appreciate Billie Holiday. And I have continued to be fascinated by that song. I have recordings of it by at least three different artists. And a recent search of the song on iTunes revealed more than a dozen different versions, by a very strange and eclectic mix of artists. There is even a group, The Strange Fruit Project, hailing from Waco, Texas.

In addition, I am glad to see that there is a scholarly interest in the song as well as the phenomenon “Strange Fruit” so eerily bore witness to: the widespread lynching campaigns of African American men, women, and children in this country. (See resources below.)

II. But, What Does (Can) It Mean?

I have to admit, I am not sure what all these artists intend when they invoke these images:

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

What is it about these words that makes the song relevant for an artist—of any background—living today? What does the history of the lynching of Black Americans mean to a 50-something White European rocker, or a 20-something Black American rapper?

Is it even about “lynching” at all?

III. Lynching as Metaphor

Whatever you think of Clarence Thomas, his was–hands-down–the most brilliant use of lynching as a metaphor ever. In one swoop he galvanized a deep memory in African Americans and scared off White Americans who saw themselves as exactly opposite of those Whites of days gone by who were the perpetrators of lynchings with ropes, guns, fire, and tree branches.

Hard to believe that almost 15 years have passed since Thomas’s confirmation hearings. A little memory-refresher from the 10/11/91 hearing session (Note the words I emphasize in bold):

Mr. Chairman, I am a victim of this process and my name has been harmed, my integrity has been harmed, my character has been harmed, my family has been harmed, my friends have been harmed. There is nothing this committee, this body or this country can do to give me my good name back, nothing.

I will not provide the rope for my own lynching or for further humiliation. I am not going to engage in discussions, nor will I submit to roving questions of what goes on in the most intimate parts of my private live or the sanctity of my bedroom. These are the most intimate parts of my privacy, and they will remain just that, private.

In that evening’s hearing session he evoked this metaphor again in his now (in)famous and classic “high-tech lynching” statement:

There was an FBI investigation. This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It is a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity-blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that, unless you kow-tow to an old order, this is what will happen to you, you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree.

One book specifically takes on the idea of the use of “lynching” in metaphorical contexts, “Legacies of Lynching: Racial Violence and Memory” by Jonathan Markovitz

...Examines the evolution of lynching as a symbol of racial hatred and a metaphor for race relations in popular culture, art, literature, and political speech. Markovitz credits the efforts of the antilynching movement with helping to ensure that lynching would be understood not as a method of punishment for black rapists but as a terrorist practice that provided stark evidence of the brutality of Southern racism and as America’s most vivid symbol of racial oppression. Cinematic representations of lynching, from “Birth of a Nation” to “Do the Right Thing,” he contends, further transform the ways that American audiences remember and understand lynching, as have disturbing recent cases in which alleged or actual acts of racial violence reconfigured stereotypes of black criminality. Markovitz’s original and brilliant reinterpretations of the media spectacles surrounding Bernhard Goetz, Susan Smith, and Tawana Brawley provide subtle and compelling examples of the continuing stakes of political battles waged over imagery of race and gender nearly a century ago. Markovitz further reveals how lynching imagery has been politicized in contemporary society with the example of Clarence Thomas, who condemned the Senate’s investigation into allegations of sexual harassment during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings as a “high-tech lynching.” (Source)

If you do a little window shopping in the blogosphere and other media you’ll find Thomas’s “high tech lynching” metaphor/accusation invoked all over in all sorts of situations, by both those on the political left and those on the political right. In no case are any of these uses about actual people being burned, their genitals cut from their bodies, their necks broken from being snapped by a rope looped over a tree branch. In these cases, like that of Justice Thomas, the appeal is to the perception that “mobs” of media folks or government officials or university professors or other elite others in positions of power are using sophisticated tools and tactics to unfairly attack the ideas and integrity of some “victim.”

Whatever you may think of the individual cases, is this deployment of “lynching” as a means of description an appropriate use of history? Not: “effective” use–appropriate

I am all for the use of metaphor in rhetoric. But in most of these cases this particular use of lynching as metaphor sickens me. Comparing a “good name” or a well-paying job to skin, genitals and a beating heart is definitely a case of evaluating apples in terms of oranges.

Very strange fruit, indeed.


Other Resources:

October 16, 2009

@President Obama: “Why do people hate you?”

Filed under: NOLA Post-Katrina Levee Break — Tags: , , , — pprscribe @ 1:51 pm

Well, you might have missed it—what with little kids being aloft in balloons (or not being aloft in balloons) and interracial couples having the nerve to get married in Louisiana (or not getting married in Louisiana), but yesterday was the President’s town hall meeting at the University of New Orleans during his first trip to NOLA since becoming president.

Not a whole lot of solid or new information from the meeting. (The White House does have an 8-page document detailing recovery progress in the region thus far; scroll to bottom of the press release.) But the town hall was worth the price of admission because of this interchange, straight from the From-the-Mouths-of-Babes files:

THE PRESIDENT: …All right, I’ve got time for one more question. It’s a man’s turn, isn’t it? It’s a guy’s turn. Okay, here’s — this young man, right here. I’m going to let him use my special mic. Hey, this is a big guy — don’t go “awww.” Come on, man, I mean, this is a — all right, what’s your name?

Q Terrence Scott (phonetic).

THE PRESIDENT: Terrence Scott. What do you have to say?

Q I have to say, why do people hate you and why — they supposed to love you, and God is love and —

THE PRESIDENT: That’s what I’m talking about. (Laughter and applause.) Come on. That’s what I’m talking about. Terrence, I appreciate that. What grade are you in?

Q Fourth.

THE PRESIDENT: You’re in fourth grade? Well, now, first of all, I did get elected President, so not everybody hates me, now. I don’t want you to — (laughter.) I got a whole lot of votes. I want to make sure everybody understands. But you know, what is true is if you were watching TV lately, it seems like everybody is just getting mad all the time. And, you know, I think that you’ve got to take it with a grain of salt. Some of it is just what’s called politics, where once one party wins then the other party kind of gets — feels like it needs to poke you a little bit to keep you on your toes. And so you shouldn’t take it too seriously.

And then sometimes — as I said before, people just — I think they’re worried about their own lives. A lot of people are losing their jobs right now. A lot of people are losing their health care or they’ve lost their homes to foreclosure. And they’re feeling frustrated. And when you’re President of the United States, you know, you’ve got to deal with all of that. That’s exactly right. And, you know, you get some of the credit when things go good; and when things are going tough, then you’re going to get some of the blame and that’s part of the job.

But, you know, I’m a pretty tough guy. Are you a tough guy? You look like you’re pretty tough. And so you’ve just got to keep on going even when folks are criticizing you. Because as long as you know that you’re doing it for other people. All right? (Applause.) So thank you. You’re a fine young man. I appreciate you. (Applause.) Give Terrence a big round of applause.

October 15, 2009

High Hopes: Obama’s First Presidential NOLA Visit

Filed under: NOLA Post-Katrina Levee Break — Tags: , , , — pprscribe @ 9:43 am
"9th Ward in black and white." cbanck,

"9th Ward in black and white." cbanck,

President Obama travels to New Orleans this week for a town hall meeting — and for a look at the recovery in the city battered by Hurricane Katrina four years ago.

It will be Obama’s first visit since the presidential campaign, when, as a candidate, he had a long list of promises for the city.

In early 2008, Obama told an enthusiastic crowd at Tulane University in New Orleans that his administration would restore their trust in government.

“This will be a priority of my presidency,” he said at the time. “And I will make it clear to members of my administration that their responsibilities don’t end in places like the Ninth Ward — they begin in places like the Ninth Ward.” (Source)

Previous post-levee breech NOLA posts here. BTW, is Gov. Bobby Jindal’s recovery chief really named Paul Rainwater?

September 3, 2009

“The single most costly catastrophic failure of an engineered system in history”

Filed under: NOLA Post-Katrina Levee Break — Tags: , , , , — pprscribe @ 4:39 pm

You and I, federal taxpayers, had paid to flood New Orleans….

Mr. Burns, Smithers and Ned Flanders (aka, Harry Shearer, NOLA resident)


This report is dedicated to the people of the greater New Orleans region;
to those that perished, to those that lost friends and loved ones,
and to those that lost their homes, their businesses, their place of work,
and their community.

New Orleans has now been flooded by hurricanes six times over the past century: in 1915, 1940, 1947, 1965, 1969 and 2005.

It must be our goal that it not be allowed to happen again.

~Investigation of the Performance of the New Orleans Flood Protection Systems
in Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005

A “somewhat unorthodox but committed priesthood”: Gumbo, Revisited

Filed under: NOLA Post-Katrina Levee Break — Tags: , , , — pprscribe @ 12:59 am

This week I have dedicated my blog posting to observing the 4th anniversary of the post-Katrina levee breaches in New Orleans, Louisiana. Monday I linked to a gumbo-like mix of posts from mainstream and alternative media about progress (and lack of such) in the region, and Tuesday I re-posted from a former blog my reflections about what it means to be New Orleans—from a cousin (me) a couple times removed. Today I want to follow-up on a distant relative that I introduced to you in Tuesday’s post, Father Jerome LeDoux.

Let me just say at first that I beg your forgiveness and ask you to indulge me. I usually do not go on and on about my kin. But here I just cannot help it. Simply put: my late grandmother’s first cousin is a Bad Ass—in the most complimentary sense of the word. It may be disrespectful to describe a man of the cloth in that manner. But there it is.

Next, let me recap how I first met Father LeDoux. Although I grew up hearing about him, I never actually met him until he delivered the eulogy at my maternal grandmother’s funeral. His service was rousing. Beyond delivering the Word, he told heartfelt family stories about my grandmother that made her come alive once more for all of us. He told of seeing her at a family function celebrating the ordaining of his older brother, when she was a twenty something young woman and he just a young buck…of his like-aged cousin remarking how “fine” my grandmother was and being chastised by an older relative: “Boy, don’t be talkin about her that way! That’s blood!” He talked about her music and her way of bringing people together and making people happy—even in times when she herself was suffering. He called her “peacemaker” and proclaimed, after Matthew 5:9, her to be “bless-ed.” He led us all in singing joyous songs celebrating her life, sending her home in style.

What I recall most, though, was how he looked. He looked vibrant, glowing with health, much younger than his years. And he wore sandals. Birkenstocks, I think. Had I not known any better, I would have thought he was an illustration of the carpenter Jesus, stepped off of a page of an illustrated Bible.

The fact that he impacted me so much, in just a few hours of knowing him, makes it unsurprising to me how strongly his parishioners reacted when they heard, in 2006, that Father LeDoux was going to be ousted, and that St. Augustine—the oldest African American Roman Catholic Church in the United States and the church he led for 16 years—would be “consolidated”:

Father LeDoux, 76, one of few Black Catholic priests in New Orleans and undoubtedly the most beloved, will be replaced by a white priest, Rev. Michael Jacques.

The fact that Jacques is being brought in is a clear indication that the Archdiocese wants to get rid of LeDoux, who is know for hard-hitting but God-inspired columns in the Louisiana Weekly newspaper and other publications.

…His weekly celebrations of faith spoke to the souls of all parishioners. So popular were his masses that his Sunday mass attracted visitors from all over the world. And because LeDoux speaks at least five languages, he greeted and often conversed with celebrants from France, Germany, Sweden, Russia, and Rome in their own languages.

From jazzy versions of the “Our Father” prayer to the incorporation of the Negro spirituals, “This Little Light of Mine,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and “We Shall Overcome,” and even the soul-stirring Motown hit, “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” when you attended Rev. LeDoux’s masses, you left with the gospel within and a respect and love for all humanity.

…[T]he wholesale gentrification and ethnic cleansing that is going on in New Orleans today – from voter disenfranchisement to FEMA’s lack of response to developers and their redevelopment plans – is catching, and the Roman Catholic Church is doing its part to repel Black leadership such as LeDoux’s. [Source]

Supporters, however, did not let this action move forward quietly.

In response, St. Augustine’s was reopened for a time:

Archbishop Alfred Hughes said Saturday that he will reopen historic St. Augustine parish for 18 months, giving its parishioners a chance to meet recovery benchmarks they and the archdiocese worked out in two days of behind-the-scenes meetings last week.

The agreement, which all sides praised as a “win/win,” ends the most contentious public dispute in recent memory within the local Catholic community.

Under the agreement, a handful of protesters on Saturday left the St. Augustine rectory they had occupied for 20 days.

…The archdiocese said St. Augustine had been limping for years, unable to offer its relatively few families a full array of ministries, and regularly subsidized by an archdiocese that, after Katrina, could no longer afford to do so.

Parishioners protested. Standing on high ground near the French Quarter, St. Augustine had not flooded, although it reportedly received about $400,000 in roof and top-down water damage.

Supporters said that because of damage to surrounding churches, St. Augustine was attracting more people and more income after the storm than before. They launched an unsuccessful appeal to Hughes and were readying another one to the Vatican.

Their relatively thin ranks were significantly swelled by self-described barely Catholic and non-Catholic friends of St. Augustine. The newcomers said they valued the church as an anchor for the Treme neighborhood, for LeDoux’s somewhat unorthodox but committed priesthood, and for the parish’s historical importance in the cultural and spiritual life of the city. [Source]

The story of Father LeDoux and St. Augustine’s reached far beyond NOLA, including becoming the centerpiece of a documentary. In August of 2007 Variety reviewed Shake the Devil Off*:

St. Augustine Church, built by freed slaves, forms the heart of the city’s Treme district. During the hurricane and its tragic aftermath, residents and parishioners looked to both the church and its priest, the Rev. Jerome LeDoux, for stability and comfort. However, in February 2006, the local archdiocese, led by Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes, decided to transfer LeDoux and unite St. Augustine with the neighboring parish.

Unsurprisingly, the decision was deeply unpopular with the locals, many of whom view the historic parish and its pastor as a constant element in their devastated lives. LeDoux, an energetic man in his mid-70s with a shock of white hair and a warmly resonant voice, refused to criticize the move, but his disagreement was clear.

Multiracial parishioners rallied to the cause, petitioning the diocesan council, but their appeals were ignored until word leaked out and everyone from local students to Al Sharpton made clear the archdiocese had better prepare for continuous acts of civil disobedience. By docu’s end, St. Augustine has been saved, but a final title makes it clear the Catholic Church was simply buying time before cleaning up business.

Though there’s no overt editorializing, the filmmaker sees race as the major factor in the Church’s decision: Apparently all but one member of the archdiocese’s panel was Caucasian, and the Rev. Michael Jacques — the painfully white-bread, seemingly arrogant priest slated to replace the charismatic, dashiki-sporting LeDoux — surely should have realized the conflict of interest inherent in writing up the parish plan. Whatever the reasons behind the consolidation, docu makes clear the archbishop and his spokesmen had no idea how to work PR, allowing the resulting fracas to resemble a case of rich white folk once again marginalizing poor blacks.

I’ve not seen the documentary. But it is interesting that this description of it mirrors my own in-person interaction with my distant relative:

In the film, Fr. LeDoux talks about post-traumatic stress, but he then describes it as post-Katrina stress, which is to say that suffering it still going on to this day. Many people died after the storm and many people are still dying prematurely because of the storm. Many people have just given up. Family members died, homes were destroyed, people lost their jobs, and sometimes it was difficult for people to go on. Over the course of filming for five weeks, Fr. LeDoux was involved in many funerals, sometimes three in one day. And when you watch the film, you notice that funerals pace the story. The film begins with a funeral. [Source]

In my original “Gumbo” blog post I asked, “What is this really a story of?” Peter Entell, the Shake the Devil Off filmmaker, says in an interview: “Every story has an address.” So I know the address of the story—New Orleans, Louisiana, USA–and I know some of the players. And I have a sense of Father LeDoux as one (of many) storytellers.

Maybe that is enough to know for now.

*Father LeDoux also makes an appearance—or, at least, his words about Katrina do (scroll down under Danny Glover)—in the film based on the work of historian Howard Zinn, The People Speak.

September 1, 2009


Filed under: NOLA Post-Katrina Levee Break — Tags: , , , — pprscribe @ 5:47 am

[Yesterday I posted many excellent links about the 4th anniversary of the NOLA post-Katrina levee breaches. I am following that up today with a post from my old blog, written in February of 2005—prior to Hurricane Katrina. I apologize that several of the links are no longer functional. If I locate more updated links with the same information, I will make further edits. Coming up tomorrow—Please see my separate post with updates about further drama with one of my Father-cousins.]

As drafts of this entry were sitting around my blog entries list, I wondered: “What is this entry about? What is its point?” Is it about making a personal, family connection to Black History? Is it about African Americans and our place in the history of organized religion? Our place in the American Catholic church? Is it about Louisiana and Blacks? Louisiana and Catholicism? Louisiana and race? (Some) Blacks’ denial of race?

In the interest of not spending any more time than necessary on a simple blog post, I’m gonna call it a day and say “The point of this blog is…all of the above. And more.” Hence, the title: “Gumbo.” Defined on this site, gumbo is a word derived from various Bantu dialects in southern and central Africa. It’s a soup-like dish with hundreds of variations, most famously a Louisiana specialty. It is spicy. It is a bunch of ingredients mixed up together. Its making is a long day-long affair, not to be undertaken by the microwave set.

Gumbo is what I think of when I think of my late maternal grandmother—who, in her day, threw famous gumbo dinner parties—and when I think of her native Louisiana.

To me, Louisiana is the closest thing we’ve got in this country to having a separate country-within-a-country. Forget about Texas being a nation onto itself. Or California. Louisiana is the true American nation-state. It has an extremely complex history–including a complex racial/ethnic history.

A huge part of Louisiana history and culture is its Catholicism. And my family history is very tied up in that. My grandmother Rhona’s mother had a female first cousin, and this first cousin had a son, Harold Perry. I grew up hearing stories of this distant cousin. At the time I was more interested in (and somewhat concerned about) the fact that this maternal relative had the same last name as my paternal side of the family than I was interested in his place in history.

But here, I will rectify that childhood lapse of interest—just in time to observe the anniversary of my late grandmother’s birth.
And along the way, just a taste of the complicated gumbo that is race and religion and skin tone and freedom and slavery and history…

According to the Diocese of Louisiana : “Beginning in 1966 with the appointment of Bishop Harold R. Perry as auxiliary bishop of New Orleans, the diocese was honored with the selection of several native sons to be bishops. Bishop Perry, a native of Sacred Heart Parish, Lake Charles, was the first 20th century black bishop appointed in the U.S.”BishopPerry.jpg There is a boys’ middle school named after my distant cousin, the Bishop Perry Middle School. [Sadly, the BPMS was one of the casualties of the Katrina Levee Breaches. See stories here and here. ~PPR_Scribe, 9/1/09]

I don’t know what it is about the men on my maternal grandmother’s side of the family and the priesthood: I have two other famous Father-cousins (who are also brothers to each other): the Rev. Verlin LeDoux, U. S. Air Force Chaplain, and the Rev. Jerome LeDoux, a national columnist and evangelist. The latter Father LeDoux delivered the eulogy at my grandmother’s funeral, and he is the only one of the Father-cousins I have met. (See this site for more.)

Interestingly, the LeDoux family traces their history way-way back. I should make clear: The White LeDoux family traces their history way-way back. As I was exploring the ‘Net, I found this from one LeDoux descendant:

“I ran across a historical article in the Lake Charles American Press regarding Louis Verlin LeDoux. He was to be ordained as a priest at the Sacred Heart Church in Lake Charles according to the article that was originally printed Dec 23, 1952. According to the article he was/is black. This article stirred my memory from childhood.

Also, I remember my grandmother telling me about the black LeDoux family in the Sulphur area and my aunt remembers calling a black lady “Grandmaw LeDoux”. I think this family ran a cafe. My aunt remembers going to the cafe to visit them.

Our particular clan is considered white and I don’t know anyone living in our family that can remember anything more about this black family line or where they trace their roots. So, I am curious as to whether anyone has any knowledge of this or if this line still continues or do they consider themselves Creole/Black/French, etc…”

Eventually a LeDoux of color contacted these other LeDoux. They had several exchanges of electronic correspondence, but I don’t know if the two sides ever met up in person.

Likely another distant relative, and yet another Father-cousin, is Bishop Curtis Guillory. (My grandmother’s maiden name was Guillory.) On this site I read of his meeting with Pope John Paul II–and here’s a photo: guillory.jpg

And here I learned that “in the run-up to the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Bishop Curtis Guillory of Texas becomes the first Catholic prelate to carry the Olympic torch.”

There is much more on the Creole culture of Louisiana at this site: There, Guillory is listed as one of the common surnames of free people of color in the state. I felt a little guilty about seeing this: My grandmother used to always insist that her ancestors were not slaves—at least not in this country…that two brother-forebears escaped from bondage in the Caribbean on a stolen boat and set up shop as free men in Louisiana… I always dismissed this story as an example of a complicated (and, unfortunately, common) denial of painful history and rejection of African past. But now, well, who knows? Maybe it is true. —And yet, any “truth” of my grandmother’s origins does not erase those complicated feelings—feelings all tied up with skin tone, hair texture, and facial features…

On that same site is info on other famous Creoles, including Creoles of color—although that distinction “of color” is not so clear cut in LA, more so, even, than in the rest of the nation. Included in this list are Fats Domino, Jelly Roll Morton, Jean Baptiste Du Sable, Greg and Bryant Gumbel.

Also included is a major name in Black American History, Homer Plessy:

“A light-skinned Creole, Homer Plessy was arrested and jailed in 1892 for sitting in a Louisiana railroad car designated for white people only. Plessy had violated the 1890 state law that called for racially segregated facilities. Plessy went to court, claiming the law violated the 13th and 14th amendments, but Judge Ferguson found him guilty anyhow.

By 1896 the case had gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, who also found Plessy guilty by an 8-1 majority. The resulting doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ institutionalized segregation in the United States until overturned in 1954 by the case of Brown v. Board of Education.”

A previous draft of this post ended there. And that seemed strange. However, I think it’s as good enough of a place to end things. Knowing what I know—both from personal experience, from contemporary observations, and from some knowledge of history—I wonder about who Mr. Plessy really was. And by this, I do not mean to ask was he “more” “black” or “white.” I mean to say: Who was he fighting for in this legal case? What did he hope to gain? Who did he think would gain with him? Who did he want to gain with him?

But also: Who do we see when we retell the story of this case every year during February? (And, do the visions differ depending on the “we.”) What is this really a story of?

I’m sure the answers, if we dared to explore them in depth, would be a complex, spicy gumbo. No matter how complex, though, there’s probably some simple key, some basic core–something like what my grandmother used to say in explanation of her gumbo-cooking proces: “It’s all in the roux…”

August 31, 2009

An Unhappy Anniversary: NOLA Four Years After the Katrina Levee Breaches

Filed under: NOLA Post-Katrina Levee Break — Tags: , , , , , , — pprscribe @ 6:06 am


May 4, 2009

14 One Hundred Days

Filed under: NOLA Post-Katrina Levee Break — Tags: , , , — pprscribe @ 11:04 am

Grove Parc has become a symbol for some in Chicago of the broader failures of giving public subsidies to private companies to build and manage affordable housing – an approach strongly backed by Obama as the best replacement for public housing. [Source; Dubbed “Obama’s Katrina” in this 6/30/08 Slate piece]

A CHARMING visit with Jay Leno won’t fix it. A 90 percent tax on bankers’ bonuses won’t fix it. Firing Timothy Geithner won’t fix it. Unless and until Barack Obama addresses the full depth of Americans’ anger with his full arsenal of policy smarts and political gifts, his presidency and, worse, our economy will be paralyzed. It would be foolish to dismiss as hyperbole the stark warning delivered by Paulette Altmaier of Cupertino, Calif., in a letter to the editor published by The Times last week: “President Obama may not realize it yet, but his Katrina moment has arrived.” [Emphasis added; Source]

Will swine flu turn out to be President Obama’s Katrina times a thousand? [Emphasis added. Source]

I am not one for making political predictions. But I will make an exception this once. The “swine flu” will not be President Barack Obama’s Hurricane Katrina. His past affordable housing policies will not be his Katrina either. Nor—as important and intractable a problem it may be—will the national economy.

Instead, Katrina may be Barack Obama’s Katrina.

Let me back up:

The “Obama’s Katrina” meme reminds me of the ever popular (in some quarters) claims that “_______ is the new Black.” In this case, there really is no “new” there. We haven’t solved racial issues involving Black folks in such a way that it is so passe that being gay, being (a White) female, being disabled, or being anything else has replaced Blackness as a new symbol for bias, discrimination and hate. (Although they may rightly be called different symbols of bias, discrimination, and hate all their own.) Thus, the old Black remains the symbol for the new Black.

“Katrina,” too, has become a symbol. Probably, much to the chagrin of people who happen to posses that same name as the 2005 hurricane. It has become a symbol for two things: first, how government—at all levels—can so comprehensively and so visibly fail our citizens following a national crisis, and second, how key representatives of government (especially, in this case, the President) can react to the crisis in a manner that reveals such a lack of empathy, competence, and awareness.

It is important here to say that the economy or swine flu containment or public housing cannot be “Obama’s Katrina” not because these are human-made and Katrina was a “natural disaster.” On the contrary, it is clear to most of us if we are honest that the impact of Katrina on New Orleans was also human-made. NOLA largely survived the hurricane. It was devastated by the levee breaches and the numerous failures in planning and response. The city’s devastation was aided by longstanding approaches to poverty, education, and race relations that left a city’s city within, isolated and abandoned. Furthermore, the issues with the city design of New Orleans had been documented for some time. Not just the spectacularly inadequate levee construction for a city below sea level, but the eroding of coastal ecosystems that may serve as natural protections against severe weather conditions such as hurricanes.

No. Swine flu or the economy or any other problems cannot be the new Katrina for the similar reason that other -isms cannot be the new Black: the old Katrina problem is not yet resolved.

Then-President Bush’s response to the post-hurricane levee breaches was singular not just for revealing an administration out-of-touch, but for making us Americans look bad in the eyes of the world. Even if the administration did not care about poor and (largely) Black people in the 9th ward, for example, it could scarcely afford to look inept in the international news. Already, before August of 2005, some around the world and in our own country were starting to question the mission in Iraq. Even some who had previously supported the armed response to the Hussein regime. More than two years after President Bush declared “mission accomplished,” many were questioning why resources were still over there when they might be better used over here.

“Bush’s Katrina” was, then, a failure on multiple levels. Our response to poverty and race. The way in which we plan, long term, for our nation’s infrastructure and environmental protections. The ability of our leaders to appear to be in touch with us. Our standing on the international scene. “Katrina,” then, is now a symbol for all of this failure.

Obama’s Real Katrina:

President Obama seems, so far, not much closer to righting George W. Bush’s—and many other presidents’ before him—legacy that resulted in Katrina-as-symbol.  Thus, without action that is a lot more specific than the vague goals on the White House website, Barack Obama may end up sharing Mr. Bush’s legacy regarding the Gulf Region generally and NOLA specifically.

I generally do not subscribe to the “100 Days” of a presidency nonsense. It is an arbitrary marker that does not recognize the complexities of the issues a new president must face, nor the need to prioritize goals. Having said that, though, I do believe this: of all of the things the the new administration needs to tackle, post-hurricane levee breach restitution and rebuilding in NOLA  should be high on President Obama’s priority list. Barack Obama won the election in large part because he was running against George W. Bush. Righting the Katrina levee breach failures is, thus, a key symbol of failed Bush policy and governing. Not to mention the fact that relief and rebuilding efforts touch on every area of policy that President Obama has held up as dear to his heart: health care (the continuing long-term medical problems faced by survivors, including as a result of “relief efforts” themselves), urban policy, the environment, crumbling infrastructure, response to potential terrorist attack, and on and on.

Here is a sketch of Obama and administration progress with this issue so far:

That was then…

We’re gonna have to do some hard thinking about how we could have failed our fellow citizens so badly, and how we will prevent such a failure from ever occurring again.

It is not politics to insist that we have an independent commission to examine these issues. Indeed, one of the heartening things about this crisis has been the degree to which the outrage has come from across the political spectrum; across races; across incomes. The degree to which the American people sense that we can and must do better, and a recognition that if we cannot cope with a crisis that has been predicted for decades – a crisis in which we’re given four or five days notice – how can we ever hope to respond to a serious terrorist attack in a major American city in which there is no notice, and in which the death toll and panic and disruptions may be far greater?

Which brings me to my final point. There’s been much attention in the press about the fact that those who were left behind in New Orleans were disproportionately poor and African American. I’ve said publicly that I do not subscribe to the notion that the painfully slow response of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security was racially-based. The ineptitude was colorblind.

But what must be said is that whoever was in charge of planning and preparing for the worst case scenario appeared to assume that every American has the capacity to load up their family in an SUV, fill it up with $100 worth of gasoline, stick some bottled water in the trunk, and use a credit card to check in to a hotel on safe ground. I see no evidence of active malice, but I see a continuation of passive indifference on the part of our government towards the least of these.

September 6, 2005
Statement of Senator Barack Obama

Well, “we” must do a lot more than think hard. We Americans are not really that good at thinking hard for any length of time. So unless another category 4 or 5 storm comes whipping through the Gulf Region, Katrina’s NOLA is not likely to be back on our national radar any time soon.

Timeline, Barack Obama’s record on rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, September 2, 2005-February 16, 2008:

It is nice that everyone is giving speeches and putting out ten-point plans to commemorate Hurricane Katrina. However, I’m more interested in knowing what people have been doing when the cameras were off. What is your record on this issue? [Source, including time line]

In January, 2009, at least one person is hopeful:

President Obama’s inaugural address Tuesday also did not mention Katrina, but his passing reference to Americans’ duty “to take in a stranger when the levees break” was a siren call clearly aimed at the Gulf Coast in general and New Orleans in particular to let us know we had not been forgotten. By the time the new president finished his inaugural address, the official White House Web site had already been updated with the Obama agenda for Katrina relief. In unusually blunt terms (which, predictably, infuriated conservatives), it began: “President Obama will keep the broken promises made by President Bush to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.”

How Obama proposes to translate talk into action remains to be seen, but there are two obvious places to start: Category 5 levee protection and a fully funded coastal restoration plan. The administration does not promise that, but in his campaign Obama did promise “a levee and pumping system to protect the city against a 100-year storm by 2011.” We’ll hold him to that.

…Louisianans hope for swift action on other campaign promises: the immediate closure of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has promised to complete by June 1), the appointment of a FEMA director who will serve a single six-year term and report directly to the president, and the establishment of a “Cops for Katrina” program to help rebuild damaged law-enforcement agencies. We see no reason why the first two can’t be accomplished by the beginning of hurricane season, if not sooner. [Emphasis added. Source]

A month later, an executive order:

“We must ensure that the failures of the past are never repeated,” President Obama said in a statement today, announcing the extension of the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding and his decision to send two cabinet members to the region.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan are heading to the Gulf Coast and New Orleans in early March to evaluate firsthand the progress that’s been made and assess the region’s needs.

“The residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast who are helping rebuild are heroes who believe in their communities and they are succeeding despite the fact that they have not always received the support they deserve from the Federal government,” the President said. “This executive order is a first step of a sustained commitment by my Administration to rebuild now, stronger than ever.”

New Commitment to the Gulf Coast,
The White House Blog

Accountability and a Way Forward:

So the President’s first 100 days are past and everyone has issued their “report cards”—for whatever these are worth.

Meanwhile, 14 one-hundred-day periods will have passed this summer on the anniversary of 2005’s levee breaches in New Orleans. What kind of report card will the people of the Katrina diaspora be able to give the Obama administration then? Who will hold President Barack Obama and his administration accountable for seeing that the “first step” leads to many others? How will we make sure that such “active malice” or “passive indifference” will not happen again?

April 23, 2009

DVR Alert: Trouble the Water

Filed under: NOLA Post-Katrina Levee Break — Tags: , , , — pprscribe @ 5:14 pm

The day before Hurricane Katrina hit, 24-year-old Kimberly Rivers Roberts, a resident of New Orleans’ 9th Ward, turned her new video camera on herself, declaring, “It’s going to be a day to remember.” With hardly any supplies and no way of leaving her hometown, Roberts taped her harrowing ordeal as Katrina raged and the levees failed. Directed and produced by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, TROUBLE THE WATER opens with this unforgettable home video footage, then follows Kimberly and her husband Scott on a two-year odyssey – from the devastation of the storm to their escape from the city, to resettlement in Memphis, to an eventual return to a decimated New Orleans – telling a story of transformation, heroism and love. A 2008 Academy Award® nominee for Best Documentary Feature. (Source)

Begins airing tonight on HBO. Check your listings.

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