When I woke up today, the only thought that came to
mind was Reverend Jesse Jackson's indignant cry, "This is the
bottom of the slave ship we are looking at."
I think Jesse actually put his finger on what happened to all of
us this week. Those shots we've seen are, as he said, the bottom
of the slave ships. I think that really goes to why all the
rest of us watching are so traumatized. And I think it is
necessary to repeat what he has said about how the people in this
country have a high tolerance for viewing "black pain."
Yes, while we are asking the unheard question as to why a third
of New Orleans' population is poor and all black, everyone from
the president on down is comfortable with these realities of our
ongoing unemployment, overcrowding, homelessness, drug and alcohol
addiction, neighborhood crime and despair.
Jesse's metaphor is also so apt in that you only had to listen to
five minutes of reporting to know families had been separated in
ways that could be irreparable – across states, even mothers from
month-old babies...just evacuating babies without contact with the
parents is such a nightmare, I hate even hearing about it.
These are the people who were marginalized from the Internet as
well; are they going to run to a computer site?
African Americans in this crisis are further having
the devastating experience of watching parents suffer and die right
in their faces on sidewalks where people were forced to stand, not
even sit for days. And the people crowded next to them experienced
the same deaths. And like our ancestors, the poor today will have
no access to therapeutic treatment. This is where you just have
to agree with Jesse that the people in charge have the capacity
to tolerate scenes of suffering they know have been suffered by
blacks for generations.
At the same time, people among the stranded have been made aware
that they are being portrayed as lawless by media people who are
freaking out at the idea of thousands of black people not guarded
by police. That in itself is a legacy of slavery. And even as we
watched, the reporters and anchors on both NBC and CNN last week
both misidentified Congressman John Lewis as Congressman Elijah
Cummings for hours. This is one of the staples of the era
when I was young and black people first appeared on TV and no one
could tell one of us from another. This is really tired, old
nonsense. I found myself filing email complaints to the networks,
even though I know John Lewis and many others probably told them.
Lastly, there is now what is called the Katrina Diaspora.
This diaspora of people without resources puts the restoration of
families and community at risk, and in the case of New Orleans'
black community, probably makes that impossible. Even people who
own land there are going to be in deep trouble trying to hold onto
it when the real estate boondoggle gets in the courts. I'm afraid
we'll be reading a lot of stupid crap about how they couldn't be
found, taxes were owed, etc. as in times past throughout the South.
That's why I hope Jesse gets someone to bring people like Congressman
Bennie Thompson into the fold, as he is familiar with the commission
that had to be set up in the Delta because people are still trying
to get back land stolen in the 1930s. And the developers are probably
asking for eminent domain to be declared even as I'm typing.
Will Jackson, Rev. Al, Rep. Elijah Cummings, et.
al. be asking after the fact, after they've read about development
plans in the papers that the black community be represented at the
table of planning "the NEW New Orleans?" The cultural
heritage of New Orleans, which is so singular, is in serious jeopardy.
The perfect mix of forces and cultures was based in a particularly
unique feature of the dispersion of Africans during slavery:
a disproportionate share of the Yoruba brought here (who were a
minority within the groups in Middle Passage) landed in that area.
What happened after that in encounters with the French, the Caribbean
and the peoples of the States, cannot be replicated. Replacing
the architecture with vinyl versions of shotgun and camel back houses
will not produce any Buddy Boldens, Jelly Roll Mortons or Louis
Armstrongs. As a writer, I myself have used the invaluable records
kept there of this unique heritage. Just as one had to worry
in the several rounds of the bombing of Baghdad that not only were
untold people being killed but some of the oldest treasures of human
life, I feel even more concerned that no one will care that thousands
have died in New Orleans, others thousands dislocated and that one
of our own cultural treasures, the city of New Orleans itself, will
be deprived of its cultural engine.
This is a tragedy not only for the millions there on the ground,
and the national economy but for the culture at large. We are
witnessing in a matter of days a dislocation one-fifth the size
of Middle Passage – which took place over more than 200 years. And
all those conveniences of modern social organization which would
mitigate its effects for most of us – phone, internet, cars, gasoline,
and family with ample housing – do not apply to this country's poor.
For them, getting lost may mean not being found any more easily
than in 1865 when people went on foot and in wagons following word
of mouth leads to find where family members may have been sent.
It is unbearable, and unconscionable.
Thulani Davis's work as a writer includes theater,
journalism, fiction, and poetry. She is the author of two novels,
Maker of Saints and 1959, and Malcolm X, The Photographs
(1993). She has written and narrated several television and radio
documentaries. Ms. Davis is the librettist for three operas: Amistad
(1997); X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1986) with
Anthony Davis, and The E & O Line (1991), with Anne LeBaron.
In 1993 she won a Grammy for album notes for Aretha Franklin, and
was nominated for a Grammy for the opera X. Her play, Everybody's
Ruby: Story of a Murder in Florida, premiered in 2001 at the
New York Shakespeare Festival.