It has been said, mostly by those who watched the 24 hour news coverage of the aftermath of Katrina, that the storm revealed a side of New Orleans that no one wanted to deal with. Some even went so far as to say it revealed a side of our nation that had been unnoticed. I call this the ‘Pandora’s Box metaphor.’
The Pandora’s Box metaphor is powerful both in its imagery, and its
suggestiveness. One major problem, it suggests, is that we have been
ignoring major problems in New Orleans, problems that have festered and
grown insidiously worse over the years: Poverty. Government
ineptitude. Social callousness. Economic naivete. And, of course,
Yes, Katrina exposed us. We always knew that we were a place where
people danced behind funeral processions with funny umbrellas. We
thought it was charming to dance behind death, or to laugh at it as it
approached. We have always known how to have fun, but now the world
completely understands that we are very bad at doing work, at making
the hard decisions, at planning well for the future as opposed to
enjoying the gaiety of the moment.
We built a city of straw because it was easy and we ignored the threat
of the wind. And like the story of the Three Little Pigs, our house
wasn’t able to stand the fury. Now, in the wake of the disaster, our
leaders have risen up and started to give sermons. Ray Nagin’s
speeches, particularly his latest goofball goop of demagoguery, are
becoming symbols of the piggish mentality that we have about our
rebuilding strategy. We want someone else to pick up the complete tab
for repairing and rebuilding our city. Obviously, this isn’t likely to
happen. But not only do we strive for an unrealistic goal, in our
effort to attain it we shoot ourselves in the foot.
Nagin said, at a Martin Luther King rally, that New Orleans should
become a ‘chocolate city’ once again and that it would be majority
black because that was God’s will. We don’t need to dissect this
statement any more than it has already been dissected in the mainstream
media. It was little more than a foolish attempt to tap into racial
passions. At best, it was poor judgment because in New Orleans ‘racial
passions’ are usually expressed in the form of ‘racial prejudice.’
That’s something that Katrina exposed, and which statements like
Nagin’s help to keep exposed. New Orleans has always been a town of
deep racial division. And this is the most insidious and difficult
problem of all. We can’t throw money at this problem, like we can with
the levee problem. We can’t bring in the military to solve it, like we
did for the crime problem. No, this problem is here and no one can
help us fix it. We have to fix it ourselves.
I remember a dream I had (an actual one, not a metaphorical one) while
I was away from the city after Katrina. In the dream I was returning
to my neighborhood, running down Henry Clay like someone let loose in a
supermarket for a 60 second shopping spree. I found my house and it
was in pretty good shape (just a little roof damage), which as it
turned out was exactly how my house was. While I was in my house
catching my breath and counting my blessings the doorbell rang.
At the door stood a group of black people. I wasn’t sure what they wanted, but they seemed friendly and I asked them to come in. We started sharing our emotions about the storm and we were bonding when I realized that they hadn’t said why they were here. I thought to myself, ‘Oh oh, they want something from me.’ That moment hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity and then slowly one of the group approached and offered to help me fix my house. He said they lived in the neighborhood and had been in town for a few days and wanted to help. I started to cry, realizing that I had misjudged this person.
The dream went on, but the gist of it was that I realized (after I woke up and thought about it) that I was guilty of the same bias and pre-judgment that I often criticize others for. I also came to believe that the dream was a powerful message: that New Orleans would have get past its racial problems if it was going to rebuild. White people can criticize Nagin’s comment (that’s easy), but we have our own racial problems to address.
So, that’s my dream. It’s not as powerful as Martin Luther King’s dream, and it’s not prophetic. But it helps me focus on something that I can do. I can make a difference, but not in some grandiose way. I can work little by little, moment by moment. We all can, and if New Orleans is going to be a better city then we better get started right away.