Friday, July 18, 2008

Lost in New Orleans

Whenever I walk in Audubon Park in New Orleans, it's for my father. My mother tells me that as a child I asked my dad to swing at the park which was segregated. He couldn't grant my wish. The shame associated with his political impotence ended our stay in New Orleans. In 1962 we were heading cross country where we stayed, never visiting New Orleans or the south as a family ever again.


At the family reunion I noticed the friendliness of relatives towards one another. I'd met some of them in January at my great aunt's funeral, but I didn't know them, know them. I was missing the context and even after writing it down, several times, I still get the relationships confused.

If ever black people needed another tea or coffee party, Jim Crow was it. The irony is Crispus Attucks, the first to die in the Revolutionary War, his ancestors are still fighting the same battle.

New Orleans is evidence, post-Katrina, post levees, that somethings in America don't seem to change, and if they do, don't change for long.

Yesterday, I went to visit my friend who lives in the rich area of town, where he said, not long ago, the only black people you saw were chauffeurs and maids. Loyola and Tulane are out there, along with million dollar homes. It's ritzy--but not flashy. The homes are antebellum palatial--with the requisite columns.

I'm not lost in New Orleans. How can one be lost at home, but I am lost in the sense I am still working out the details of what happened to place me here...why I'm still here and what I'm supposed to be doing. Am I a messenger or is there a message? I have been establishing relationships with artists and strong women in the New Orleans community, which is always good.

The Community Book Store is one such place; really cool I had fun talking to the sister about a book I was reading Edward P. Jones' The Known World, a fascinating tale about black people who owned slaves; one of the principal characters, Henry, a former slave himself.

The term, "known world," frames what each character thinks and how he or she acts, what choices they make or don't based on the limits of "their world" and what they know about this world-- it's interesting to see certain characters slip between the two worlds. A character names Alice does this as does Henry's brother-in-law, Calvin. There are so many characters too, the book gives us a recap at the end; I wish I'd known about the addendum earlier.

It often seems as if the behavior of both enslaved African and free person, black and white is bond by the rules of the known world--white people have certain privileges and black people, free and enslaved can only go so far up the food chain, so when one sees characters like the sheriff who applies the law to both black and white, enslaved and free, if not equally, pretty conscientiously, his eventual murder is not unforeseen when one sees how unsupportive the known world is of such consideration.

Edward P. Jones' Know World plays out like a chess game, only pieces get up after they've fallen or been taken away. Pieces like Moses, who is crushed early one when his only family is taken from him, followed by his only friend.

I love Henry's father, Augustus, who when sold as a free man back into slavery refuses to work for anyone else and how dignified and absolute he is. I love the way his spirit travels to his wife and touches her heart and she feels it and runs outside, the house too small to contain her sorrow. The strangeness of this world is also an aspect of the tale that make it most intriguing. The characters make one wonder where Jones found them all, yet their world could easily be ours with different challenges.

The dilemma of white men and black women, their attraction to black women, even children, one character, the sheriff struggles with his attraction to a black girl whom he and his wife raised as a child, while his cousin would rape her if he had a chance-- the contrast between the two men in this world the author (Jones)has created is an aspect of the book that lends credibility to the complexity one has to consider when looking at chattel slavery and it's impact on the perception on black women's sexuality, as well as black humanity and human rights.

Last night at The Porch, an organization located in the 7th Ward in New Orleans, an area still devastated by Katrina's aftermath. Houses falling down...debris piled up, businesses boarded up, there was an African Film Festival. The celebration was planned to coincide with Nelson Mandela's 90th Birthday celebration today. The South African director, Zola Maseko, was in the house...really yard, and entertained questions between films which explored colonialism's impact on Africa and how the economics of neocolonialism is reflected in France's claim to the body of Sara Baartman, the Khoisan woman who forms the basis of the pseudo-science which uses brain size and other anatomical aspects of this African woman to prove the inferiority of women and black people.

This was a film I really wanted to see and I wasn't disappointed. Documentary style, I wondered how the director was able to capture so much of the story which spanned two continents. He never spoke of budgets, but no expense seemed to be spared once he knew the Sara Baartmaan story and her significance to the African feminist movement. I thought how strange when I'd known her story from art and literature, for a long time. Suzan Lori Parks play, Venus, which I saw a long time ago; Elizabeth Alexander's book length poem...there are so many references. I don't know how I found out, but I've known about her and other Africans, like Obenga, for a long time.

Europeans are just sick--their history is sick. I don't know of anyone outside of Europe that has exhibited such aberrant behavior towards other human beings. In South Africa, colonizers made handbags from people's flesh. The scientific use of Sara Baartman's remains is not inconsistent with the use of a certain black woman's DNA after her death, without her permission to research cures for disease. Her family was never consulted or compensated to date (UCBAM).

Baartman's burial and her trip back to South Africa was so beautiful. It reminded me of another film, Banished (, which looked at African Americans who were ran out of town by white vigilantes at will from the early 17th century through the 20th. These citizens often escaped with just the clothes on their backs and anyone caught home after sundown, were killed. Homes were burned and then white people sold the property or took it. One profile was of two brothers who wanted to get the remains of their relative, and were refused.

The deputy character tried to do this in the novel, The Known World, but the courts made him give everything he took from the house back, not before he burned the house to the ground though.

I don't know where the mentality comes from that makes one person think he or she can own another person. I don't understand the thinking that makes a person give away their power so easily. A little dog was approaching some geese at the park yesterday, and before he arrived all of them had crossed the road when they could have stood their ground and scared him away. It is the same with enslavement. When one looks at the numbers of how many Africans were here in New Orleans, compared to how many French, the Africans outnumbered the French several times, yet they didn't take over. Henry's father Augustus tried to get his black captor to join him in liberty, the captive was afraid. He hadn't known freedom and couldn't think outside his known world.

The films were great. The first one, The Foreigner (1997) was about xenophobia, the second, my favorite, about art and the discourse it opens even in a situation where there is no active interracial or intercultural dialogue. A Drink in the Passage,(2003), shows how art transcends such artificial stratification because it speaks to the heart and the heart doesn't lie.

Earlier that day I drove by the clearing where the projects stood--football field size. Other portions of the projects occupied--it's a similar story in the Lower 9th Ward where houses sit next to empty lots, weeds almost taller than me occupy the spaces houses stood. Occupied homes are sprinkled sparingly among its apparitions. Mwalimu said he could smell death...dead bodies decomposed. I had to watch where I walked so as to not disturb contaminated matter.

We passed volunteers cleaning up, cutting weeds, gutting houses. As we drove through the huge area, street after street, Mwalimu spoke of the history and grew angry as he thought about his displacement and that of others not as fortunate as him to still reside in New Orleans.

I missed Geno Delafonse in concert. I was looking forward to dancing last night, but we finished at The Porch at 11:40 p.m. and I went back up to N Claiborne to I-10 W to cross the river. I stopped by Malik Rahim's in Algiers first to meet Kone, whom I hadn't seen yet this visit.


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