Wednesday, January 18, 2006

It's official: our mayor has gone bonkers. And if ONLY the results of his MLK-Day speech were as amusing and harmless as this feature on MUST-READ), or as Chris Rose's column in today's Times-Picayune. Unfortunately, his calling New Orleans a "Chocolate City" has given every closeted (white) bigot permission to out themselves publicly. One need only read a few of the letters submitted to in response to his speech to see that white New Orleans is piping-mad. It feels to me almost as if these people--these reactionary people who cannot call a dumb speech when they hear it--are HAPPY to be "free to be racist" now. Hoo-F-ing-Ray!

Oh, C-Ray, What the!?

You really must read it to believe how utterly foolish and ill-advised this speech was. And I am someone who WANTS this to be a "chocolate city."

Last Friday, during one of our periodic blackouts, Simon and I took a moonlit, midnight stroll through the neighborhood, and I stood at the corner where Terence and Gaynelle once lived and started to cry. "We'll never have black neighbors anymore," I said.

It's true. It's a real fear. With rents in the city averaging $1,200 (for even the smallest apartment), one would be hard-pressed to find black residents able--nevermind willing--to return. If Simon and I didn't already live in an undamaged house with affordable rent (and friendly landlords,) we, too, would be screwed. It's the poor--and yes, even the privileged poor--who can't live in this post-Katrina city. This city that once belonged to them... to us.

And that's what makes ME piping-mad at all of the property-rights a-holes these days. It is NOT the property that matters now, it's the people.

Oh, and the FOOLISHNESS coming out of everyone's mouths in response to this dumb, dumb, dumb speech of the mayor's! In addition to the threatening letters on (where white tourists and evacuees threaten to take their "vanilla money elsewhere," Senator Lieberman said he'd been talking to Senator John Breaux and that they'd like to point out that "there's dark chocolate and there's white chocolate." Puh-lease.

The mayor, too, tried to wash away the damage with some bullshit "chocolate milk" story: when he was a boy, he used to mix the chocolate syrup in with his (white) milk and get a beautiful, delicious brown.

Again: puh-lease.

Mr. Nagin, you said that God wanted New Orleans to be a black city--and you are free to say that! And free to mean it, too! But don't--please, please DON'T--blame it on some milk-and-cookies rhetoric. Call it what it was: a dumb thing to say that, nonetheless, was based on real concerns that this city may lose the black residents--and culture--that made New Orleans, New Orleans. Why can't the man see that now that he's SAID it, he could actually make something productive come out of it? He could start a REAL DIALOGUE about race in the city. Instead, he apologized, he bullshitted, and now we look dumber than ever, and racial tensions are worse than ever.

I wish Mr. Nagin's speech had gone something like this, instead:

My fellow citizens, evacuees, relief workers, contractors, and lovers of New Orleans, I stand before you on the day we commemorate the life of the great Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. a worried man. I worry that we will lose the culture that has defined this city for centuries. And I worry that those who have the power to stop that from happening don't share my concern.

The great racial diversity that made New Orleans the cultural gem that it is today--or was before Katrina--is now at risk. The black population--a population born of free blacks and Creoles--bore the overwhelming brunt of the devastation, and now we face the daunting task of convincing the rest of the country that these displaced residents are more than just "those people." Because it seems that the country--and maybe even some of you--thinks that this city is better off without them. I remember in the days immediately following Katrina the images that the whole country saw on their screens were those of black people--black families, black children, and our black elders--but what the media chose to focus on was black looters. Our black residents became "Those People"--those criminals, those refugees, those helpless, hopeless New Orleanians. It's no wonder that the country--and that Barbara Bush--thought Those People would be better off somewhere else. And some of Those People--some of US--may, in fact BE.

Which is why I stand before you, pleading, asking that you imagine a New Orleans that Martin Luther King might have. Imagine a New Orleans in which Those People are Our People. Imagine a city in which Our People own homes--insured homes--homes above the flood plain. Imagine a New Orleans in which our people are not dependent on decaying public housing and federal handouts. Imagine a New Orleans in which ALL of us could provide for ourselves. In this New Orleans, rivalries between warring factions wouldn't exist. In this New Orleans, a second line would truly be a celebration of life, of coming together, not a battleground for the despair and anger that is borne of poverty. In this New Orleans, we would see that poverty and despair are not just Their Problem--they're Our Problem. And in This New Orleans, the one we MUST imagine if we are to make it a reality, we would work not just for ourselves, but for Our New Orleans--for each other.

We can have this New Orleans, but we cannot have it unless we--the privileged few who have the resources to return and to rebuild--take it upon ourselves to help others. We can have this New Orleans if we recognize that those Others are Us.

...And so on and so forth (I'm tiring of the glossy rhetoric. I feel these days like a Speech is a Speech is a Speech, anyway.)

I'll say this: I moved to New Orleans partly because it IS a Chocolate City, and I'll stay only IF it remains one.

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