There is broad consensus that post-Katrina New Orleans is a divided city, racially and economically, the poor are not top priority, and, the city will never be the same. Many also believe the mayor and the federal government have failed to deal effectively with the problems, especially regarding poor Blacks. (The agonizingly slow pace of recovery efforts in New Orleans compels me to revisit an earlier analysis.)
The nation was awed by the extent of poverty and New Orleans’ “Blackness.” Less apparent, given the track record of local, state, and federal officials, on social and infrastructure issues, was the predictability of the current morass. The emphasis has been on face-lift, i.e. image, not assisting the neediest victims.
Rebuilding New Orleans requires visionary thinking and resolve not yet evidenced. Katrina exposed long—neglected conditions amounting to what has been called apartheid. Government’s fumbling and indifference has left critical areas unattended and help for the neediest, totally inadequate.
The Association of Black Psychologists addressed Katrina’s ramifications for New Orleans’ Black population. It asserted Black people in New Orleans essentially experienced an event of catastrophic death and destruction beyond human comprehension.
“The disproportionate degree to which our people have to bear suffering and loss is clearly attributable to the economic and social stratification that exists within society at large. This disparity exists because of our people’s systemic economic and social oppression.”
Post-Katrina events bear out the Association’s analysis. This includes mainstream media’s biased coverage of Black survivors and public officials’ poor planning and tepid response to the catastrophe. The psychologists ask, “What happens to a people who have been dispossessed, despised and disinherited when tragedy occurs?”
Valued cultural traditions had faded in New Orleans even before Katrina. I was born there, maintain ties, and can attest to the importance of the city’s rich cultural heritage: Katrina compelled me to reflect on my past in relation to the city’s legacy.
My father died when I was two years old and my brothers helped our mother keep the family together through the Depression. She and I came to Los Angeles in 1942; in 1950 I returned to New Orleans to attend Xavier University.
When I was a child in New Orleans, de jure segregation contaminated every aspect of life. (I had trouble reconciling the silent, segregated Catholic Church with its doctrines of hope, faith and charity.)
My father was a letter carrier, active in the church. He had four brothers and two sisters. His eldest brother was a physician in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century; the others, a pharmacist, letter carrier and accountant. One of his sisters, for whom I was named, was a nun in the Holy Family Order, (a Black Order). My mother’s family (three brothers, one sister) was similarly close-knit and enterprising. The Cambres were carpenters, store owners and entrepreneurs with businesses in New Orleans and Los Angeles.
New Orleans Creoles were (many still are) fiercely independent and prone to clannishness. They are generous people with strong cultural, religious and family ties. Like America itself, however, many do discriminate on the basis of color, hair, etc.
Visiting New Orleans for the first time in many years, I resonated instantly with people in my native 7th Ward—the impact of that trip still endures:
Corpus Christi Church, “Backatown,” Aubry Street, First Communion, the Circle Show, Two Sisters, the Pentagon and Anybody’s, Haspels, Bruxelles, Crescent Pharmacy, the Neutral Ground, St. Bernard Market, Autocrat Club, beer parlors, long bread, Jax and Falstaff Beer, Xavier Prep and Xavier University.
Vivid family memories: Uncle Robert and Edwin’s Sunday visits after my father’s death; Nunc Henri and Taunte Mellie, Aunt Georgie’s house with its big cistern and old coffee grinder; Uncle Bud’s daily dealings at the market on St. Claude; fritters, snowballs, icebergs and P’s Barber Shop and Ice Cream Parlor, and years later, his bowling alley.
Kicking off post Katrina recovery by sprucing up the French Quarter was an ominous, prophetic signal. It seems Mayor Nagin’s top priority is the developers and upscale, (mostly white) French Quarter revelers rather than poor folks still trapped outside of uninhabitable buildings.
The New Orleans of old will never be the same. However, political will (and novenas?), could preserve a significant measure of its magnificent legacy and accord high priority to those most in need.
Larry Aubry n can be contacted at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.