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The Diaspora

August 28, 2006

Nick Marinello
Michael DeMocker

During those initial, ugly days of Katrina's fallout, "reality TV" became more than an oxymoron as millions of Americans sat slack-jawed in their living rooms watching the New Orleans drama play out 24/7 in the Louisiana Superdome, the Morial Convention Center and on thousands of island rooftops. So this is how a city dies when you pull it off life support. Images of the city's poor, caught in the entropy of an urban nightmare because they could not or would not evacuate, played in a continuous loop through the American psyche.

tulsum_06_diasporaCommentators compared the images from the Crescent City to those from Third World countries. Were they referring to the swelling squalor and desperation inside the Dome or the fact that that desperation was written on the faces of a largely black citizenry? Where were the buses? Where would the people go once they were gotten out of town? And when will they come back?

So many questions. Trying to understand New Orleans without considering the infinite complexities of race is impossible, even on a good day.

The string of bad days after Katrina calls with greater urgency for a dialogue in which most people would rather not engage. There's an elephant in America's living room and he's growing impatient. He's turned off "Extreme Home Makeover" and he's wondering if anyone's following the ball. He's concerned about "Katrina fatigue" or rampant ADD or whatever it is that keeps urgent things in soft focus and hushes important questions: What happens when a large segment of a city's population -- particularly one that is as racially and culturally defined as the New Orleans African- American community -- is suddenly picked up, blown out, scattered like straw?

In what ways does a city change when so many holders of its cultural identity are gone? What is the interplay between white and black in New Orleans and how has that dynamic changed? What is culture, anyway? Who are we?

A one-mile radius

Nghana Lewis and her mother probably shouldn't have driven back into the metro area the day after Katrina, but Lewis' mother had to see if her house in Jefferson Parish survived the storm. As they approached the Interstate 310 bridge that spans the Mississippi River 30 miles above downtown New Orleans, Lewis, an assistant professor of English at Tulane, newly hired, spotted a slow-moving station wagon just ahead on the desolate stretch of super slab. The vehicle, jammed with what easily could have been 10 people, was barely making it up the incline.


Nghana Lewis, under the I-310 bridge in Luling, La.

"On the face of things," says Lewis, "they appeared to have not much more than the clothes on their backs and this vehicle," which, as it turns out, was about to run out of fuel. The two families stopped their cars, commiserated on what was surely the worst day that anyone could remember, and Lewis' mother handed over the few gallons of gasoline she had set aside to power an electric generator.

The larger group was fleeing the floodwaters that had made their homes in the Iberville Housing Development, adjacent to the French Quarter, uninhabitable.

And now to accommodate a wrinkle in their unplanned pilgrimage to somewhere -- anywhere -- began to scrape together a payment. "They tried to give my mother $2," says Lewis. "And we all just broke down." Something in the initial aftermath of the storm made everyone affected by it feel as if they were sitting on the edge of the world, feet dangling above a dark and scary abyss.

For these two black families, living in different bands of the American socioeconomic spectrum but headed for the moment in a common direction, the myriad lessons from Hurricane Katrina were just beginning. "They asked us how to get to Airline Highway," recalls Lewis, "and we were thinking, well it's just right down this bridge, make a left and you are there."

But sociologists have long known that for many people who have lived their lives in public housing, a trip out of the neighborhood may as well be a trip to the edge of the world. "One thing about class and race is that low-income minority populations live in environments where they don't come into contact with other group members," says James Elliott, associate professor of sociology. In reviewing surveys conducted in the city's C.J. Peete Housing Development, Elliott says he was "stunned" by the number of respondents who reported never venturing beyond a one-mile radius of the development in 10 or 20 years.

While severe flooding in the eastern section of New Orleans displaced thousands of middle-class and professional blacks, it is the large group of poorer blacks who will be most challenged to return to the city. With public housing still closed and square miles of the Lower Ninth Ward and other impoverished neighborhoods obliterated by flooding, many simply don't have a place to which they can return. Based on data from a Gallup survey, the people most likely to return to New Orleans are its homeowners.

"In a sense, it is who will be allowed to return and under what circumstances," says Elliott. "If you are not in control of your property because it is run by the Housing Authority of New Orleans -- public housing -- or because it is run by a landlord, then you don't have much say." "If you want to come back then nobody should prohibit you; you don't really need someone's permission," says Lewis, who teaches African-American literature and African Diaspora studies.

Still, "if you are to come back, you have to have space." Why did it take eight months before a rebuilding was announced? Where are the FEMA trailers and who is getting them? When will public housing be back on its feet? And how much can a landlord jack up the rent? "I am not one who tends to subscribe to conspiracy theories," says Lewis, "but I wonder to what degree systemically things are working against people who can't afford to come back. I can say, frankly, that regarding people who are dependent on public housing, there seems to be some deliberate efforts to prohibit or at least make it as difficult as possible for them to come back."

Most folks would agree that to prohibit people from returning to their homes, even if done passively by not acting quickly enough to provide them housing, is downright un-American. But is it racist? "Well, nobody wants the thugs back," says Lawrence Powell, professor of history, an outspoken activist for civil rights. "But I hear from a lot of white people that they are glad black people aren't back because they think they are criminals."

Powell, who is white, says the "attempt to keep black people out by doing nothing" will only serve to keep away the working poor who will find options elsewhere. "People who don't have options are the poor poor, who have always lived by the hustle, both licit and illicit," says Powell. "They are the ones who will be coming back. By default, we will be victims of our own racism, I think."

Earlier in the year, Oliver Thomas, the president of the New Orleans City Council, who is black, went on record saying that if displaced residents had no intention of coming back to the city to work, then they should stay away. Such comments, says Elliott, tend to distort reality and perpetuate social myths. "The truth is that most people who live in public housing work," says Elliott. "They don't work full time because jobs aren't structured that way and they work for low wages."

According to the official rolls, only 10 percent of public housing occupants are men, says Elliott, which means that the majority of public housing is occupied by poor working mothers and their children. "We say we only want working folks back and we don't want to open up public housing," says Elliott. "All this stuff gets conflated and you lose out on the fact that what you are saying is that single moms in low-paying jobs and their kids aren't welcomed back."

With the public dialogue so affected by inaccurate perception, teasing out the extent to which race plays into when and how people return to the city is difficult to do. "You can't do it analytically," says Elliott. "People package so many ideas and they are so fluid. You go from the idea that black folks are these men who are criminals and drug dealers to, 'Oh, they are freeloading moms who have an excuse to get welfare.'"

Carolyn Barber-Pierre, Tulane's assistant vice president of student affairs who oversees multicultural affairs on campus, has observed that biased attitudes are often based on perception rather than reality. Barber-Pierre, who is black, has had conversations with white people who admit that they fear crime will return to New Orleans as displaced blacks return home.

"People will assume that with poor black people you get crime," she says. "Without poor blacks there will be less crime." Lewis, however, points to other factors contributing to the public mood. "If I am a taxpayer in a city like New Orleans at this point, then I want as many taxpayers as possible." Lewis doesn't believe it is inherently racist but admits that there is a bias against people who are perceived as not contributing to the tax base and are dependent on public support.

A political conservative, Lewis is a black voice that is not always welcomed by some members of the black community. Earlier in the year she was a vocal critic of attempts by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and others to delay the April mayoral election on the grounds that it would unfairly prohibit the participation of blacks who have not returned to the city. "It is to me an insult to suggest that African Americans are in need of special accommodations [to cast ballots] in the cities where they are currently residing.


Larry Powell, in front of a Charles Gillam mural, Algiers Point.

It suggests that they know nothing about the voting process procedurally or are unable to fill out an absentee ballot. It also ignores the glaring evidence that disproportionate numbers of African Americans were not voting prior to the storm." Entering the public debate on race can be bruising.

"People make disparaging remarks," she says. "As a black person I can't say certain things because it upsets the traditional narrative about race in our country, which needs to be upset."

Culture is community

And what about those who have as yet not returned to the city, who are living in ad hoc conditions in Houston, Atlanta and wherever else the winds of Katrina cast them? After eight, nine, 10 months when does displacement become placement? When does "here" become home and "there" become a memory? And how does it change who we are?

"Historically, we know that there is a great deal of resistance initially to forced migration," says Lewis. "But then, almost at the same time there is adaptation and what I would call a kind of acculturation, a process by which the people who move into other spaces begin to influence the places they end up populating."

Don't expect to see the Wild Magnolias chanting "Honda Wanda" during a Dallas Cowboys halftime show anytime soon, but those who never return to the city will in small ways preserve some of the city through their habits and customs, wherever they end up. According to Shayne Lee, assistant professor of sociology and an observer of religious ministries, one of the most significant post-Katrina exports out of New Orleans may be its spiritual life. Lee notes that the Rev. Paul Morton, the hugely popular pastor of the Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church, has moved to Atlanta.

"I find this a symbolic event that lets me know things are going to change in New Orleans," says Lee, who believes that many among the 20,000-member congregation will follow Morton to Atlanta. And blacks now living in other cities will seek out local churches similar to the ones they affiliated with in New Orleans. For those remaining in the city, Morton's absence will have a profound effect. "In the black community, the pastor is more than a pastor," says Lee, who is black.

"He is more like a tribal chief, a surrogate father." For many blacks in New Orleans, the church is the center of social activity. "If you have been going to the same church for 15 to 20 years, then your friends, family and a large element of your support system is embedded in the four walls of that church. There are huge implications when you take that away."

Those who are back in town and looking to spiritually reconnect are having to go farther away to do so. "Before, you would go to church in your neighborhood," says Lee. "Now you have to drive to go to a place that meets your spiritual needs." Location is everything. Generally speaking, in American cities, people with limited means tend to live in close proximity to each other. "Either they are living in the same household or they are living in units that are close together or homes that are close together and that is their world," says Lewis. "That is community. Family is community."


Carolyn Barber-Pierre, in the heavily flood-damaged Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood.

Barber-Pierre names to a few of the large swaths of New Orleans that before Katrina were occupied by lower- and middle-income black families: Gentilly, the Lower Nine, Mid-City.

"You go out into the community," she says, "and they are like ghost towns. New Orleans is like no other city; it's not like you've lost a person or a house. The people you know tend to live near each other. You can have 20 or 30 people gone."

"You hear stories of people trying to get their extended families together, their neighbors together and recreate their communities somewhere else," says Elliott.

Whether it be in small, ever-evolving pockets of New Orleanians organizing across the country or in the efforts of those returning to "gut" their waterlogged, mold-ridden houses with tenuous expectations to resettle, the need to restore and recreate that which is familiar -- whether to whom you pray or what you eat -- is vital to the human experience. "Culture is community," says Lewis. "It's what you know. It's what you live. And if you don't have it you are pretty much left with a sense of complete isolation, dislocation and displacement."

A Disneyland version

In New Orleans, culture has always been a palpable thing, a thing that a visitor will travel a thousand miles to see, smell and taste. Sure, the city has a zoo, an aquarium and even a casino, but the real draw is its personality. "This city is important to people in a way that other cities aren't," says Powell, who says he doesn't want to knock St. Louis or Omaha, but really.... "This one seems to occupy a place in the imagination of the world. And it is the way in which the human spirit has flowered here."

But whose culture is it? Black? White? Both? Is it borrowed from time to time? Handed back and forth? If it is repackaged for tourists and exported for profit, is it still culture? And if the Mardi Gras Indians are dancing in Dallas, will New Orleans ever be the same? New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (B '94) seemed to touch a nerve in the white community when he assured a black crowd gathered for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event that, at the end of the day, New Orleans would once again "be a chocolate city."

Though most folks now write it off as ham-handed political posturing, the mayor had a point. "New Orleans is a city that more so than other places has accounted for the African-American presence substantively," says Lewis. "There is a clear sense of what it was then and what it is now." The city has apparently been generous to both its forced and willing immigrants. "Historically, you have had Spanish, French, American and Afro-Caribbean influences moving against each other in a fairly tight space," says Elliott. "The essence of the culture is these interactions."

"It is a truly multicultural city," agrees Powell, "and jazz itself couldn't have evolved except in an immigrant pressure cooker like New Orleans. But the dominant ethos is African American."

If so, then it's an ethos extruded as much out of pain and denigration as it is out of the triumph of the human spirit to survive -- a "creative adaptation," as Powell puts it. "I don't want to say that it is synonymous with down and dirty poverty, but a lot of the culture has been a response to racial poverty and oppression, but other things as well -- just the precariousness of existence in a city beneath sea level, on a flood plain and in a hurricane target area."

That paradox of pain and pleasure, the yin-yang of everyday life, is somewhere at the core of the New Orleans experience. "There is something about American culture in general -- and I think it is focused and concentrated here -- where white Americans have released themselves in blackness," says Powell. "They can step outside of the conformist straitjackets of their own culture and become hip, become cool." The thought of white Americans traveling to the Big Easy to dip into and sample a culture directly and indirectly shaped by slavery and oppression is charged with irony and pathos.


Shayne Lee, in front of the Old Pathway Baptist Church, Lower Ninth Ward.

Will this quirky, nuanced, singular culture survive after Katrina? "I'm not sure a city that is really a product of history can be put back together again now that its history has been so fundamentally shattered," says Powell, who fears the city may wither into a Disneyland version of itself.

What would New Orleans be without a vibrant black community and that community's interaction with other groups? Atlanta? Houston? A cup of gumbo served at Red Lobster?

Lewis, however, is confident about the survival of the city's cultural integrity. In New Orleans, she says, the black culture is not a subculture but is, rather, reflected in the city's mainstream cultural identity. "I wonder to what extent that spirit is lost if the African-American people are not here in the large numbers that they were previously?" Unlike Powell, Lewis doesn't view white participation in a second-line parade as "dipping" into another culture.

"I don't think anyone can 'own' a culture, because culture is learned," she says. And as for the gentry who live on St. Charles Avenue and in the Garden District, Lewis acknowledges that they lead exclusive lives, but when they turn out to the Jazz Fest to wave white handkerchiefs, they are not borrowing from the Lower Ninth Ward or Treme but, rather, expressing a connection that they fundamentally have with the city and its people.

As a sociologist, Elliott sees the notion of a single "New Orleans culture" as a kind of misnomer. "It's something we make up. We say we are from New Orleans and that means something compared to other places and makes us special, but I don't think we have one culture or one history." Because cities are better described as a mosaic or kaleidoscope of communities, the thought of "New Orleans" coming back is an abstract one, says Elliott.

Looking at culture and community as monolithic entities prevents identifying the nuances of change. Certain communities will come back, certain neighborhoods will re-form -- and certain communities are being created. Part of the post-Katrina phenomena has been the influx of new residents -- many of whom are Hispanic -- who came into town to work in the massive rebuilding effort. What Elliott finds interesting is that New Orleans has been a town that has been historically resistant to the kind of fluidity and circularity that defines most urban centers.

The increasing migration of workers into town comes at a time when the footprint of the city will certainly be smaller than it has been in many decades. "What does that do," asks Elliott, "when you shrink the place and run more juice through it?" So many questions.

Sensual and organic

While the news media may have initially ignored -- or misunderstood -- the fact that thousands of white, middle-class-owned homes in the city's Lakeview area received from seven to 10 feet of water, studies have shown that blacks in New Orleans (as opposed to the entire Greater New Orleans area, which includes predominantly white St. Bernard Parish and Slidell) were harder hit by the storm and subsequent flooding. A New York Times poll released in late March indicates that blacks were more likely to have had their homes destroyed or to have lost a close friend or relative. Blacks also were more likely to have been separated from family members.

Published in late February, a Gallup poll of residents who had returned to New Orleans found that 53 percent of blacks said they had "lost everything" after Katrina, as opposed to 19 percent of whites. That same poll also depicted a city whose demographics had been turned upside down. According to the survey, the city's racial mix six months after Katrina was 52 percent white and 37 percent black, as opposed to the 67 percent black and 28 percent white racial mix of the 2000 census.

Yet in New Orleans, race is so much more than pie charts and bell curves. Numbers can take you halfway there, but are apt to leave you in a high, dry, remote place where the view is clear but the other senses are left wanting. Leave it to words to fill in the sensual, organic, squishy details of life. Leave it to words to really confound things. Elliott recalls a conversation with a cab driver who reported on how an uptown socialite explained the city's dismal public education system to a visiting friend by saying, "Down here we don't believe in education for the masses. You don't need a college degree to fold sheets and plump pillows."

Was the woman being facetious? Things get murky in the Land of Dreamy Dreams. "It's not that inequalities don't exist elsewhere," says Elliott. "It's just that the tolerance that makes the city so great culturally spills over into this tolerance of inequality and a lack of organization." Still, the pleasures are sublime. "One of the things I love about this city is its neighborhood landscapes," says Elliott. "My next door neighbor is an 80-year-old African-American woman.

Across the street is a 70-year-old African-American couple. There's a group of ex-cons who sit on the street and drink and carry on. We don't go to the same parties and the same restaurants, but there is daily interaction with people who aren't like yourself, and that is the essence of the city. It's a beautiful thing." A beautiful thing. Yeah, you right. Leave it to the guy who loves numbers to put it into words, finding what is common amidst all the differences.

Meanwhile, throughout Gentilly and Pontchartrain Park and Lakeview and Broadmoor and even in the Lower Nine, tiny white trailers sprout like mushrooms across the checkerboard landscape of this wonderful, woeful town, where the Krewe of Humility is set to roll, and anyone can join.


Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000