Oh, my mind is reeling. On Friday, I learned that my New Orleans class was going to be working in the Lower Ninth Ward next spring. In eight trips to New Orleans since Katrina, I’ve only had the chance to work in the Lower Ninth for one wonderful day. After a brief celebration, I’m now riveted to the Weather Channel and hoping for the best,as Hurricane Isaac approaches.
As I have noted before, I was in New Orleans a few days before Katrina hit. It was my third visit to New Orleans and the one in which I fell madly in love with this complicated and dysfunctional city. And that is what fixed my attention to Katrina and its aftermath. I watched from 1500 miles away, but I took it personally. Forget the architecture, the food, and the music (all of which I love deeply), I watched as the most gregarious and generous people in America took a direct hit from a storm and then the governments that were supposedly established to protect them. I, a 50+, overweight, college professor vowed at that moment to help try to make it right.
I have been back numerous times since then. In the grand scheme of things, it is an anemic effort, but I have gutted homes, cleared lots, put up walls, scraped paint, painted homes, and cooked for volunteers. I know it’s not much, but in recent years I’ve brought my students. And I’d like to think that this has made some small contribution to the rebirth of New Orleans and the Gulf. And just this year, while walking through the diverse neighborhoods of the city, I had the sense that New Orleans had finally rounded the bend in the river. While there is much to be done, especially in places like the Lower Ninth, I have begun to think that New Orleans has found its mojo.
A couple of weeks ago, after much anticipation, I finally saw “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a post-Katrina, apocalyptic film. I found it anarchic, dystopian, and difficult to watch. My wife left the screening after watching what she rightly considered abuses upon a child. I stayed. The ending strove to pull this messy allegory together towards a meaningful conclusion. I left vaguely satisfied and much confused, and it took days for me to see the brilliance of it all. To me, it represented that in the midst of chaos, the forces of family, no matter how dysfunctional and ill-defined, and community, no matter how strange, can come together for the benefit of all. And the government or society cannot rightly legislate either.
And this, I believe, is a metaphor for New Orleans. Whether it the Uptown establishment or the Creoles of Treme or the working class folk of the Lower Ninth, they have a bond of proximity and purpose and they form a community. And in their own way, however slow-paced and impractical, they move to make things
better. I look to the resurgence of the Mardi Gras Indians as yet another symbol of this. It represents a unique cultural affect that was nearly lost with the attack on working class, black New Orleanians, but bead by bead, drum beat by drum beat, they have collectively come back stronger than ever. And it was because they were forced to look extinction in the eye. They said no. And they responded. And from their example, and that of the social aid and pleasure clubs and the musicians, New Orleans learned a powerful message. You not only pick-up, you grow, and you move forward.
Hushpuppy, the pint-sized force of nature in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” survived and so will her neighbor, New Orleans. It has come too far not to. It’s spine is stiffer and more resilient than before. And while it is far from perfect (it wouldn’t be New Orleans if it were), it will withstand Isaac and, once again, move on.
And I will be happy to add my small part to the process.