by Orissa Arend
This poetically rendered memoir/history lesson written by J. F. “Smitty” Smith documents his seven-day evacuation beginning Aug. 28, 2005, from his home in the Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. Mr. Smith, the peripatetic historian/philosopher/bard, graces us with a glimpse and an ear full of conversations at the Convention Center, grandparents’ tales of slavery, and women describing coming of age in the Black church during Jim Crow. He describes touching and unlikely impromptu bonds and generosities as people band together to hold on to life and one or two possessions.
Smith is a reserved, elderly gentleman. After graduating from Xavier University, he settled in Chicago, working as an assistant manager in credit and collection at Provident Hospital. He even tried law school for a while. Before moving to California, where he worked as an Internal Revenue Service agent for several years. He would also open several small businesses and a theater house, even receiving the Los Angeles Drama Critic Circle Award for his theatrical contributions to theatre and the arts, according to the book’s website.
In 2004 he relocated back to New Orleans.
His wisdom and passion are not at all showy and indeed could take a casual observer by surprise. I met Smith in the summer of 2012 at an upscale Black-owned bistro in the Ninth Ward where he and Mack McClendon of the Lower Ninth Ward Village were hosting out-of-town mediators and signing books. The mediators, all White and not from here, gave him their rapt attention as he explained the connection between current and ancient atrocities. We sipped fine wine and enjoyed the wonderful food and atmosphere of Café Dauphine.
In his book Smitty recounts Day 3, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005: A little girl named Amy pleads, “Daddy, I want to go home. I’m sleepy. Why can’t we go home?” The daddy camped out with others in a parking lot, his wife off tending the sick, laments, out of her earshot, “How can I tell my little girl that we don’t have a home to go to?” A woman with children nearby invites them into her heroic circle of comfort: “You can’t. Don’t even try. Tell her we are on our way home now. It’s just going to take us a little longer to get there, that’s all.”
Smith contends that Katrina created the perfect conditions under which the “Ruling Class” would continue their plan to dismantle the Black community. Moreover, he believes that Black people’s predicament is rooted and embedded in the historical relationship between these two groups.
Sprinkled randomly throughout the text are excerpts from slave journals such as this succinct analysis about what holds the system together: “Empire stands on murder. Murder stands on profits. Profits stand on slavery. Slavery stands on the production of more slaves.”
On Day 4 there was a debate about whether to break into a store for food. The police, backing off of their threat to arrest everybody, said, “Make sure they don’t take anything other than food. They are our cover, you know what I mean. Let them in.” With that the captain loaded up his car with looted merchandise and drove off.
In the groups forming for survival, establishing your neighborhood, your Indian tribe, your church, who your people are and your friends was important. Trust and inclusion or confrontation ensued.
Eddie Terrell, a member of the author’s impromptu group said to Commander Brusset: “You all broke up the Lower Nine when you created that ever forsaken Holy Cross district. Anything north of St. Claude, the dividing line, as you want to call it, was cut out as if we did not exist.”
Ms. Vera chimes in: “With all the privileges you all had, you folks never tried to help us out, not once that I remember.”
Commander Brusset: “My father said to the family, ‘We must do what we have to do to get ahead.’ We kept our families together, stayed out of trouble, and our education was equal to or better than most Whites. Our families were told we had to be twice as good as Whites to get half the goods they got . . . we did not create this system. It was made long ago, not by us, nor was it made to our liking . . . we tried, like everybody else, to use the system to our advantage.”
They go on to discuss what actually accounts for status. Was it do-it-yourself bootstraps or gifts that were an accident of history? Characters in the book talk about passing for White and the criminal and immoral master-with-slave miscegenation that helped create a class of light-skinned Blacks like Brusset.
For me, reading and re-reading Exiled in Paradise was like discovering a peep hole into a sacred and guarded history. It was a pulling back, or more accurately tearing through, a cultural curtain. It required sloshing past numerous taboos to get to a simple, brilliant, and shining truth. That truth, however, is each reader’s personal discovery. Smith asserts that “any particular conclusion deduced from here rests solely with the reader.”
Everything that happened in those post-Katrina days was seen by many as part of the “get rid of them plan” – no food, no water, not telling people where they were going. The worst part of it was that it seemed to be by design, a plan set up “just for us . . . mapped out for a long time.”
Larry, another wandering New Orleanian says: “These people are shipping us all over the country. Don’t be surprised if some of us don’t wind up in some foreign country. We all know what our so-called government did to us and to the Indians. They rounded them all up and made them walk three thousand miles, never to return, just like they picked us up and brought us here. . . That is what is called the get-even plan. Katrina was made for these people.”
Eddy’s prediction: “They are gonna ship so many of us out of this city when you look down on it, it will look like our city is covered with one, long, big, White sheet. Without a doubt there will be Black in the mix, but they won’t be like us. They will be lean, clean, and green.”
The book contains self-reflection as well. There was a rush for the exits at 2:30 a.m. in the Convention Center because of a fear that the river would suddenly drown them all. Smith ran for the stairs with his backpack, leaving behind three little boys from his group. He tells himself, “If I am what I just did, there is something wrong deep inside me. I have to find out what went wrong in me.”
His smile, his manners, and his dignity remain undiminished. A short plane ride later, he’s in exile, in San Antonio.
This book espouses a deeper than usual probe of memories and agonizing episodes, a “long, hard, painful look at our relationship with the Master of the Empire.” Without such an understanding, Smith contends, “we are mere co-conspirators in a vain pursuit of our freedom.”
Orissa Arend is a mediator, psychotherapist and author of Showdown in Desire, the Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans. You can reach her at email@example.com.