A Book Review:
by Orissa Arend
Hurricane Katrina was the catalyst that brought Wendell Pierce home to New Orleans and got him thinking and writing about his family history, his art, and how they fit into the Africa- American story – and also solidly into the American story itself.
The book begins in November of 2007 when over 600 people from all walks of life gathered outdoors in the desolate Lower Ninth Ward close to where the levee broke. They were there to watch Waiting for Godot, a play by Samuel Becket in which not much happens. Pierce’s character Vladimir asks, “What’s the point of losing heart now?” In a way, that’s the central question of the book.
Vladimir hears a noise and thinks it might signal Godot’s approach. But companion Estragon, dismisses it as only “the wind in the reeds.” Here are the connections that Pierce makes: We are reeds. The winds of adversity can pass over our contours as mere noise — or they can create music, Jazz, the blues – and resonate down through generations. This is the prophetic power of art. This is how “the eternal and ideal enters time and becomes real . . . Art is the most serious thing we can do,” Pierce says, because when making art, “we humans, forged in the image of God, are most like our creator.”
He goes on to explain, “Jazz and the blues, the most American of all musical forms, is the sound made by history’s savage gales blowing hard on African people in the Diaspora . . . The harder the wind blows, the stronger our spirit, the purer our art, and the greater our victory.”
That hard wind enters the Pierce story when his ancestor Aristile Christophe was sold away as a baby from his family in Kentucky, in a basket with his mother to the owner of a sugarcane plantation in south Louisiana. Aristile’s daughter Francis married Herbert Edwards. They became Pierce’s “Mamo” and “Papo.” They instilled in Pierce’s mother “Tee” a can-do attitude, the importance of education, family, and God, and a wariness about who to trust. Their advice to their children about how to handle white hatred with grace and dignity: “Don’t be the person they think you are.”
The amazing thing about Wendell Pierce is not just what he’s accomplished in life but the fact that he remembers in vivid detail exactly how he got where he is. His memory, always personal, is also trans-personal, going back all the way to slavery. He takes the reader with him through story, dialogue, and sensory descriptors to the worlds he and his ancestors inhabited, the worlds that shaped him, nurtured and honed him as a man and as an artist.
Keep the tissue or a handkerchief handy because you could be crying every few pages. You might not even know why. His stories are so eloquent, sincere, and touch a deep chord.
Pierce weaves in New Orleans history. Alexis de Toqueville visiting New Orleans in 1832 wrote that, here, he felt far from America seeing, “faces with every shade of color.” Not, as we would like to imagine, because we were so enlightened and inclusive, but because French and Spanish colonists had largely been single men looking for wealth who had forced slave women or prompted free women of color in exchange for protection to be their sexual partners. And yet the amazing spectacle in Congo Square of commerce and dancing and music and spiritual freedom is an example – one of many in this book – of how God can use anything that we, his errant children, have made, for good.
A more current example: In 1946 DeLesseps “Chep” Morrison ran for mayor with a reform agenda and openly courted the Black vote. In 1949, civil rights attorney A.P. Tureaud, who had backed Morrison, filed suit on behalf of the NAACP to desegregate New Orleans’ city parks and golf courses. Faced with political and legal challenges to segregation, Morrison encouraged the creation of an all-Black, middle-class subdivision with its own park and golf course and nearby access to Lake Pontchartrain.
That was how Pontchartrain Park, where Pierce grew up, was born. It was an idyllic version of the American Dream with two parents in homes that they owned. And everyone was a good neighbor. Tureaud strongly opposed Pontchartrain Park, seeing it as a concession to Black demands that was intended to strengthen Jim Crow.
Pierce has an imaginary conversation with Tureaud about why Pontchartrain Park was important: “a haven in a heartless world dominated by White supremacist ideology . . . a beachhead on which to establish a base that would carry the fight for equality into the next generation.” Pierce explains, “My all-American childhood is a testimony to what goodness can emerge when Black folks in this country achieve what nearly all of us had been denied since we were stolen from Africa: the ordinary comforts of home.”
Art, for Pierce, is the “forum where we declare and define our values.” After the hard work of developing his acting technique, doing the historical research, and delving deeply into his own spiritual and emotional psyche, Pierce talks about how the characters he has played transformed him – Vladimir, Bunk, the police detective in The Wire, the Reverend Hosea Williams in Selma, Antoine, a trombone player in HBO’s Treme.
Treme became a part of the culture it was depicting and granted New Orleanians a kind of communal group therapy as we recovered from the trauma of the storm. It also anchored Pierce in New Orleans during the last years of his mother’s life. He rebuilt his parents’ home in Pontchartrain Park, bought one there for himself, worked to rebuild all of Pontchartrain Park, and brought healing through his art to the whole wide city. On top of all that, he wrote this fine book.
Read the book, because it contains other possibilities too numerous to squeeze into this review.
Orissa Arend is a mediator and psychotherapist and author of Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans.