A few years back, after I returned from my first post-Katrina visit to New Orleans, I picked up a slim book called Letters from New Orleans, by New York Times Magazine columnist Rob Walker. The book is a collection of e-mails that Walker wrote to friends after he relocated to New Orleans for several years prior to the great deluge.
I found it such a remarkable and succinct document for explaining such a bizarre and misunderstood place to the rest of America. Enough so, that when teaching about New Orleans, I have students read it right away; first week, first paper. It provides the uninitiated with the pegs of understanding upon which they can hang whatever content or concepts I throw at them afterwards.
Walker’s greatest gift to me was his description of New Orleans folk as “so completely unselfconscious.” Unselfconscious, an uncommon word, because it is so un-American. Without pretense; without worry about appearances, without concern over what others might think. But it is so apt in describing the people of New Orleans. And my students latch onto that description, as well; it becomes a cornerstone of many of their first papers. And more importantly, when they make the trip to New Orleans, it helps them to understand a people who are wired so differently from New Englanders, and from most other Americans, for that matter.
I like unselfconscious places: San Francisco, Seattle, and Austin come to mind, but only New Orleans is unselfconsciously unselfconscious. They don’t need bumper stickers, or t-shirts, or slogans. They just need to be themselves. They drink too much, they talk too loud, and they don’t think twice about moving below the waist when the music starts. Whether it’s the waitress who talks openly about her unfortunate incarceration, the cop who interrupts an accident investigation to recite the history of the sidewalk, or the musicians who unflinchingly start playing at 11:20pm – right on time for a 10:00 show, they are just being themselves.
However, I’m seeing some cause for worry. I am seeing far too many references to New Orleans’ unselfconsciousness. And if this recognition continues to grow, won’t the city be forced to become self-conscious? Terry Teachout, in his brilliant new biography of Louis Armstrong calls the New Orleans native a “very unselfconscious man.” The author of a new book on New Orleans’ eclectic architecture calls it “unselfconscious.” And it goes on and on: New Orleans displays an “unselfconscious local culture;” a hip new café uptown has an “unselfconscious vibe;” yet on the other end of the restaurant scale, the tried and true menu at Galatoire’s displays an “unselfconscious grace.”
The New Orleans Saints have won the Super Bowl. A new mayor has been elected with an unprecedented level of racial unity and bipartisanship. According to political consultant and local resident James Carville, New Orleans has a new can-do attitude; it’s on the way back; it will be better.
All of this is great, but only if the people of New Orleans do it their own way. They can’t worry about what others think; they need to do it for themselves. The residents of Austin have to sport bumper stickers that read: “Keep Austin Weird.” The people of New Orleans need to keep that mantra in their hearts and in their actions. They need to come back, but only if they remain themselves and the city remains a distinctive presence on the American firmament.
And above all else, maybe there should be a moratorium on the use of the word “unselfconscious.”