In the Gaze of New Orleans

“Katrina was the act of God. This was actually a good thing. There were too many Black people in New Orleans before. Too many of them. Katrina took care of this. New Orleans will be a better city in the future. You know, people call this a disaster. Katrina was not a disaster. Tsunami was a disaster. This was not.”

— a Texan I interviewed in New Orleans.

The old metal bridge behind us, our teary eyes gazing with awe at the world outside, occasional sighs breaking the heavy weight of a deadly silence in the car, we drove at a crawling speed through blocks of rubble and destroyed homes, rusted bicycles and broken toys, capsized cars, loose cables and wires, and overturned lamp poles. A badly damaged truck had found a home in what was once someone’s living room. A mud stained white jacket stood on a coat hanger on a broken sofa. A large stuffed animal sitting alone on a pile of rubble momentarily kidnapped me to the imagined laughter of a happy child holding the animal with affection, speaking to it, telling it childhood stories.

A small cat rested on the hood of a rusty truck, gazing under the afternoon sun. Howling wind rudely entering and leaving people’s homes through the broken doors and windows, picking up dust, plastic bags, and small pieces of rubble, slamming broken doors and windows. An unending cycle of deafening wind, silence, occasional sound of slow running engines, and distant pounding, and silence again—an unbearable silence telling stories of the dashed dreams and memories in what was once the Lower Ninth, a predominantly poor and lower middle class black neighborhood in New Orleans. This was March 20, 2006, seven months after the Lower Ninth was hit by Katrina.

Located close to the mouth of the Mississippi River, and originally a plantation area, the Lower Ninth was home to African slaves and poor Irish, German, and Italian immigrants, the working men and women who unable to find affordable housing elsewhere, took the risk of living in an area under the constant threat of flooding. Drainage systems and canals were built in the twentieth century to protect the area from flooding, but the Lower Ninth remained poor and underdeveloped enclave housing impoverished African Americans.

Among them were retirees, bus drivers and cooks, homeowners, those who had paid off their loans after many years of arduous labor, manual laborers, and the poor Black working class. In 2005, nearly 100,000 people, mostly African American lived in the Lower Ninth, nearly 40,000 below the poverty line. Despite their widespread poverty, the residents built homes, schools, and churches. They practiced their culture and rituals, produced world famous artists and musicians, and became an important part of the cultural and political life of New Orleans, a predominantly African American city in the United States. Katrina became the last chapter in that history. The population movement that followed ended the African life in the Lower Ninth and the predominance of African Americans in New Orleans.

Seven months after if was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the Lower Ninth symbolized the pains, hopes and disappointments, and the frustration of the men and women that gave New Orleans its unique character. Once the life and soul of New Orleans, they were now uprooted, displaced in their country of birth, dispersed in strange places. Many had lost hope for returning to their old neighborhoods, schools and hospitals, and all that made the Lower Ninth their beloved home.

Accompanied by a small group of colleagues, I visited the Lower Ninth and other devastated areas of New Orleans in March 2006. Strolling in the deserted streets of the Lower Ninth, I noticed a family from afar. Old and young, all wearing masks, they stared at a boarded up house, picked up garbage from the sidewalk, moved back and forth. Approaching the family I introduced myself to an older man looking in his sixties, wearing a white T-shirt with a picture of a Harley Davidson bike, an eagle, and words reading, “Ride with Pride.”

A blue baseball hat covering his gray hair, a salt and pepper mustache adding to the charm and friendliness of his chubby face, he shook my hand. Antoine, he introduced himself.
“Sorry to intrude,” I said, explaining that I was in the Lower Ninth to gain a better understanding of life after Katrina.

Excusing himself, and calling the rest of the family, his wife, daughter, and grand children, he said, “They will be happy to speak to you.” Smiling kindly and welcoming me to the Lower Ninth, a woman in her thirties waked towards me. “We will talk to you,” she said. Standing outside a damaged home, wearing heavy gloves, and a mask to protect her from dust and diseases, she said, “We came here today to see what happened to our home. We cannot even get in. It is all destroyed inside. We are here to pick up a picture, anything…But everything is destroyed,” she said, pausing, looking at the house again, and turning back to me. “We cannot even get it,” she said again.

Her first return home, she had driven all night with her parents and her three children from Arkansas in a car donated by a local church to collect pieces of memory she left behind when Katrina forced her out of the Lower Ninth. “We were at the convention center,” she said. “We were there for a week before they got us out. We suffered enough there. We were in the convention center when we heard the explosion. Everybody was sobbing, picking up their children and running.We thought they had blown the levees. We did not know where the explosion came from. We just heard the sound. We just know that there was an explosion. We were taken to Arkansas after that,” she said, staring at her home, shaking her head, playing with the braids of her beautiful young girl. “People are very nice in Arkansas. But that is not home. This is our home. It is hard,” she continued.

Her large almond eyes shining with unending childhood joy, seemingly unaffected by the destructions surrounding her, the little girl calmly listened to her mother telling stories to a stranger. Amused by my presence, she greeted me with her shy smile. Holding her mother’s hands, she curiously listened to my questions and her mother’s lament answers. Pulling out my camera and asking for permission to photograph her, she stood in front the ruins of her home, staring into the lens.

Zooming in on her beautiful braids, her single gold earring, and the innocent smile on her face, I pressed the shutter release. She remained staring at my lens. Minutes later, she walked away, skipping, laughing with her younger brother. The family dispersed and Antoine returned from the corner. “Have they been helpful to you?” he asked. And I asked him about his feelings being back in the Lower Ninth.

“I cannot talk about it too much. I don’t know how I am talking to you right now,” he replied with tearful eyes. Pausing, staring away, he said, “I have been down here all my life. I came here to the Lower Ninth in the 1950s. I used to drive a bus here, driving senior citizens around. We had everything. I feel empty now. I have been trying to keep myself together. I miss my senior citizens.” Embracing and shaking his hand, I left Antoine, waving to the girl and her brother, jumping up and down and playing amidst the ruins and the rubble in the neighborhood.

The destruction of Lower Ninth stole from Antoine his home, his personal memories, and his past. His silent gaze standing in front of a destroyed church across from the home of his daughter was a loud cry breaking the howling wind, the quiet weeping of a bus driver grieving his shattered memories. It was that same gaze that I found on the face of Ronald Dorris, a professor of African American Studies at Xavier Uiversity, in a photograph I took of him in the Lower Ninth. Motionless and silent, he stood gazing in front of the ruins of a stranger’s car, a displaced person’s home. Emotions overcame him when, a few days later, when I showed him the photo. Touching his face after a long pause, he gave me a fake smile, a smile to hide his grief. I asked about the gaze and the grief. His was the sorrow for the spiritual displacement, the disruption of the African American collective memory, and the end of a community and its practices that he cherished all his life.

Katrina severed the connection between the African Americans and their past. It erased an important part of American history, a history that was kept alive through church sponsored festivals, jazz masses and jazz funerals, concerts and festivals, rituals and cultural practices that largely centered around the everyday practices and lived experiences of the African population of New Orleans. Their displacement ended that long tradition. Katrina affected the American music, and severed a long history of how jazz and blues were reproduced, conveyed from generation to generation.

“You don’t learn to play this way in the academy,” Ronald Dorris told me one evening, listening to a fine live jazz performance in an outdoor café in the French Quarter. Jazz was learned on the streets, in people’s living rooms. It was mastered by listening, paying attention, and picking up the instruments and playing from the heart at a very young age.

It was learned by living jazz, breathing jazz. Katrina and the population displacement that followed disrupted that tradition. Antoine and the tens of thousands who left New Orleans were unlikely to return. Their displacement was permanent, many others feared.

“Evacuees,” the language used to describe them by the media and government officials, disguised their status. Like the victims of draught, famine, or civil war in Ethiopia, Somalia, and elsewhere in Africa, the majority of those dispersed by Katrina had become internally displaced people, men and women removed from their places of birth by forces beyond their control. “They have nothing to come back to. They have been permanently forced out. The city is not going to rebuild the Lower Ninth,” he said in our last meeting. New Orleans was to become a White City.

Seven months after Katrina, no concrete action was taken towards rebuilding the Lower Ninth. There were no local or federal plans to facilitate the return of the internally displaced people. While spending billions of dollars in Iraq, the federal government had yet to dispatch an army of civil engineers and construction workers to help fix or rebuild the destroyed homes, restart the schools and hospitals, and build the infrastructure that would make the return of the “evacuees” possible. Instead of government paid workers, the Ninth Ward was crowded with college students from across the country who spent their spring break in New Orleans to help those devastated by the hurricane. With bare hands, they removed rubble, selflessly fixed walls, painted, and worked day and night to compensate for the failures of their government. The scene of the tired young men and women in the Ninth Ward was a fresh reminder of the ideals that were still upheld by many Americans. At the same time, it demonstrated the neglect and failure, or perhaps the unwillingness to help on the part of the government of the richest nation in the world.

What happened after Katrina “was not an evacuation. It was an invasion,” Ronald Dorris repeated. His view was not uncommon among the African Americans. The oldest African American city of the country was stolen from its residents.

is a professor of political economy at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He is the author of Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West (Delacorte, December 2005). He can be reached at behzad.yaghmaian@gmail.com.




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