Friday, March 25, 2011

New Orleans: Epic.

The tour of New Orleans was really fascinating. The new houses built by Jolie and Pitt were neat, glad to see solar power, and interesting architecture. The musicians’ village was also beautiful, I loved the colors. I was glad to hear that the houses have been given free to the poorest families, or provided with no-interest mortgages and so forth, so that they can be lived in by the same people who used to live in the lower ninth. I know that it’s been a lot harder for poor black families to return to New Orleans, and Katrina and the way the recovery was handled is causing a whitening of the city. I felt uncomfortable in the garden district, the disparity between the wealth of that area and the poverty of the lower ninth was incredibly stark.
That’s a real shame, because New Orleans is the only place with visited so far that really feels like the contributions of African-Americans are honored as central to the history of the city. I’m definitely going to find out more about Congo Square, the fact that the enslaved African people were able to hold on to aspects of their culture was obviously incredibly important in making New Orleans the culturally vibrant place it is today.
A couple of other things I learned on the tour. Both the tour guide and the guide at the enslavement museum mentioned the expertise that enslaved African people had brought to America, in building and agriculture for example. That’s something I hadn’t thought about before: I’d just taken for granted the image of enslaved African people as brute labor – which is of course the image imposed on them by their kidnappers.
It was great to see the site of Homer Plessy’s act of civil disobedience. The Harlan dissent in Plessy v Ferguson is well worth reading. He argues not from the 14th (the Equal Protection Clause, on which Brown v Board is based), but from the 13th (the Amendment ending slavery). He argues that segregation is, in effect, preserving slavery, and that the 13th Amendment was intended not just to end the practice of slavery narrowly defined as the direct ownership of human beings, but to create a state of freedom for all Americans, a freedom upon which segregation infringes. It’s a beautiful argument, and also applicable to exploitative economic arrangements like sharecropping which effectively preserved the power relationships of slavery under another guise.
The other thing Harlan argues is that the constitution should be color blind. This is a really difficult question. Certainly, in a perfect society we would want the laws to be color-blind. But we do not live in a perfect society. And color-blindness is often used as a tool to maintain the white supremacist system. This portion of the Harlan dissent and selected lines from MLK’s “dream” speech are often quoted by the right wing when attacking programs which attempt to redress the damage of racism. I think one obvious lesson from this trip is that we can’t ignore racism, we can’t just make-believe we’re color blind and expect it to go away. By “we” here, I mean white people, because people of color are no afforded the privilege to engage in the color-blind fantasy.
On the subject of blindness, I sincerely hope that the people didn’t completely remove critical lens while having fun in New Orleans. In particular, Bourbon street is steeped in male privilege. I know it’s easy to get caught up in the bacchanalia there. But we should maintain and critical thought about the messages that are being sent, specifically about the purpose of women’s bodies in providing entertainment, and the economic relationships at play.
I want to end on a high-note. We had an epic two nights. The first night in New Orleans, we walked along the riverfront, headed up to Jackson Square where we saw a brass band playing cutting-edge new style music on the street. We then walked down Royal dropping into the artists collective where there was some beautiful art. I love the artists collective model, and was fascinated to hear about the route an artist could take “off the square” to the collective to their own gallery on Royal. We then ate at “Eat” which serves new dishes in the Cajun style. From there we headed to the Palm Court Café for a couple of hours of live traditional New Orleans jazz, and we found out that the night before a segment of Treme, the David Simon show about New Orleans, was filmed there. If anyone hasn’t seen the first season of that show, I highly recommend it, it’s superb. We ended the night at the Pirate Alley Café and Café Du Monde.
The second night I finally made it to Vaughns, a bar in the lower ninth that became famous after Katrina for handing out food to survivors. We saw the BBQ Swingers, and despite the absence of trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, they were amazing. They played a really thrilling mix of traditional jazz, jazz funk, modern jazz with a touch of hip hop. The joint was, as they say, jumping. They give out free red beans and rice, and we bought a pound of crawfish in a bag from a grocery store on the corner as well as Hubiqs pies. The band played some of my favorite tunes, including Lady Be Good, Bye Bye Blackbird, Chameleon, Down in the Treme, St James’ Infirmary, You Got Me, Pretty Young Thing, Crazy, Fuck You, Caravan, Blue Trane, just to give an idea of the range. We danced for hours – I love dancing. So that was a truly epic experience.

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