Saturday, September 27, 2008


or "I've learned to...wear nice pants to protect the dignity of others"

My last post I referred to a letter I keep from a Volunteer in New Orleans.
It was posted over at Charm School two years ago.
There is a lot here.

"Hurricanes and typhoons have always struck me as expert dancers do. I admire them from afar and tremble violently when their beauty and passion brush up inches from my face. Living as we are in a nation that kills many a passion, it's only reasonable that we remember the times when the ferocity of a Category 5 Passion lays us low. It's only fair that we give them names.

But this, if nothing else, needs to be understood. I did not come to New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina.

I came here because of something very un-beautiful--something so cruel and vicious that, when unleashed, snapped all our bodies in half on August 29, 2005.

As you might guess, such a monstrous thing is simply too difficult for God or nature or the winds to pull off successfully.

I came, like many, repentant. You can only apologize to a point—for the people you and your ancestors elected and protected and pampered and blindly followed and falsely trusted, for the levees they didn’t build right and the money that wasn’t there to get them right, for the incompetence of Emergency Managers, for the folks like Barbara Bush who believe that the hundreds of thousands of evacuees are better off displaced than in their 'underprivileged’ lives back home.

After that, you get on your knees.

You pray.

You hurt.

You think it's better for your eyes to be just a little farther from the harsh sunlight. You want to bend your nose to the earth to taste the moldy debris, the taste of rotting death. Maybe once you understand, you will begin to appreciate, and mourn more openly.

Well, that’s pipe dreams for ya. Almost a year in this city now and I feel even further from understanding, even though during that same year I have grown and evolved and learned more than I fully realize. I’ve learned what it means to have a home and a family and a love for them, a place to be proud of because you helped build it. I’ve learned all the dreary yet fascinating details of the medical world, of running a nonprofit, of engaging in anti-racist work, of basic neighborhood planning. I’ve learned how to say ‘etouffee’ correctly, end my
conversations with "Alrightyallhaveablestdaynow,” wear nice pants to respect the dignity of others.

More exactly I’ve witnessed the consequences of a man-made disaster, the successful outcome of centuries-old racist and capitalist policies that were all too painfully predictable and unsurprising to the residents here. I’ve seen politics at its ugliest, from photo ops to FEMA to cops to vigilantes to Bring New Orleans Back By Turning Black Neighborhoods Into Golf Courses. I’ve participated in hundreds of meetings, a segment of my life I sometimes wish I could rescue from the abyss.

I’ve marveled at how people use insanity (Mardi Gras) and blasting noises (brass bands and second line parades) as means of revival after a hit that many are STILL mourning each passing day. I’ve fallen in love with a city and its people, so financially and developmentally poor, so spiritually and culturally and creatively rich, and I’ve doubted often whether those less-trumpeted riches are enough to get us through. I’ve been swallowed by a large relief organization and its many arms that entice me and revolt me, make me question everything I’ve ever believed about ‘relief’ and‘solidarity’ and ‘radicalism’ and ‘THE WORK.’ I’ve criticized less the Other Enemies and more our own (power, privilege,sexism, racism, unaccountability), took a lot of heat, discovered what it really means to be strong. I’ve focused on patience, patience for a slow rebuilding; yet
there is urgency, urgency to get people back home while they still can. I’ve wondered whether, for the betterment of everyone, I shouldn’t be here at all.

All this, and I am still annoyed at how infantile I feel, how little I know. It will take me years in this place before I start getting it. But I don’t have the resilience of these people, some who’ve lived through the great floods of 1927 and 1965 AND this one too. You can’t cultivate that will-do spirit overnight. Some days I stare at this crazy mess and just want release from it. Like, give us a break, dammit.

I mistakenly offered my phone to a man at a bus stop who ‘needed to
call his girl, except it was his ex-girl, and most of the ensuing 30-minute conversation was him begging her for forgiveness. He wanted a bus ticket to go back to her home (only she had the money for it). He wanted to start again fresh. He wanted to marry her. He just wanted her. She wasn’t having none of it. Eventually he got stuck on repeating one desperate line—“Don’t do me this Tanya!” Over and over. It’s amazing how much you can say “Don’t do me this!” while you’re sobbing. I felt sorry for him, then I just thought he was pretty pathetic. Come on man, try harder. Say something different. Win back her trust.

Now, one year later, this city has made so little headway it’s embarrassing. Everyone’s getting hit while they’re down. Rent goes up, gas goes up, trailers aren’t available, eviction notice gets posted, friends and parents die, cousins go to Jail and definitely don’t pass Go. The hits keep coming, unrelentingly, and you’d laugh at how ridiculously bad it is if you weren’t so pissed off. Don’t do me this Tanya. Please. Don’t do me this.

I’m looking back at all I’ve just written and I’m frustrated. I don’t even know what I’m trying to say here. It totally shows. This is not quite a lecture, nor is it an apology. This is not a recruitment drive for the Movement to Rebuild New Orleans (if there is, or ever was, one). This is not a request for funds or volunteers. (It’s not that simple anymore.) This could be interpreted as just trying to impress people with my mediocre writing skills, which I would concur with if I wasn’t so desperate to reach you all through the computer screen, grab you by the shoulders and not let go. Maybe this is me trying to
paint a picture, but words, alive as they are, are not colors, and this picture is for my eyes only. I’ve long since given up trying to imprint this image on the minds of others.

I think, in the end, I am asking for some recognition. Not necessarily the precise date. Recognition of this place, of these
people, of these atrocities and hopes, of what happened here a year ago, on a Monday morning. I think most of you have already done that. You’ve probably found the same struggles and experiences in everything you do, in who you are. We’re all trying to understand and there’s no reason for making Katrina a Bigger Daddy than it already is. There’s just been a devastating war in Lebanon, for gosh sakes. And the number of poor in the US keeps growing. And people keep organizing
and resistance keeps getting stifled and timelessness and changes and so on. All, all must be recognized and appreciated. And in some cases mourned.

And, I am asking you to keep such energies and memories alive by teaching them. Tell the stories, tell what we’ve learned and what we don’t know, inspire others to avoid the same old mistakes, to denounce the injustices. We’re never too young (or too old) to begin. I have a 2-year-old niece. I chat every day with an 82-year-old man just down the block. I can start
with them. And I will keep my ears attuned to what they teach me."

No comments: