In January—with commemorations of the birth of civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as the backdrop, I was humbled and honored to be ask to submit an essay that considered the #Black Lives Matter movement with New Orleans as the context as part of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra’s special #______ Lives Matters concert, which included essays, poetry, visual art, and a panel discussion along with NOJO’s new music on the theme.
But to be completely honest, I didn’t want to write about race in New Orleans.
My first draft looked something like this:
“New Orleans has a big A racism problem. The racists won’t admit it, though. And those that are most marginalized and disenfranchized can’t breathe. Meanwhile, anyone that could do something or say something about it is either too scared or too complacent or too spiteful and petty.”
But that wasn’t 1000 words. So I went back. I wanted my words to be honest, but hopeful. I wanted them to be resolute even as they encapsulated the budding aspiration that we could do better. The column that appears in this issue of The New Orleans Tribune is that essay. It has been reprinted with the hope that it ignites authentic and candid dialogue that leads to deeper understanding and necessary action.
I love being from New Orleans—most of the time. When I tell people I am from this jewel of a city on the Mississippi River, I imagine they think of the music and the food, the art, the culture and a whole lot of good times rolling. I like to think they are a little jealous.
But in all the other ways that matter, my aggrandized fantasy of folks from other cities and states—the prairies and the plains throughout this land—swelling with envy when they think of us here in the Big Easy stops right there.
It stops because I know that as wonderful as it is, our city has deep problems—poverty, crime, education, economic inequity; and I know that all of those problems are intrinsically tied to issues of race and racism. I know that beneath all that Jazz and behind all of the glorious sights and sounds, there is an ugly truth in this city we still don’t want to face.
We can’t even agree to take down a bunch of stone figurines without legal wrangling and threats to life and livelihood. I know we aren’t ready to talk about race.
Now none of that makes New Orleans a horrible place or wildly different than many other major American cities. Thing is, I don’t call New York or LA or Chicago or Baltimore home.
I live here.
So when the Black Lives Matter movement—sparked by the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin and fueled by the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in Missouri and New York at the hands of police officers and further provoked by the deaths of other Black men and women over the last few years in similar manners—began, I will admit to being the one who was a bit envious.
Here’s why. I watched image after image of young, Black people literally taking their anger, rage and fear to the streets of Ferguson and New York and Cleveland and Baltimore to declare that enough was enough, to say loudly and clearly that they were done with the wanton disregard for their lives, particularly as displayed by an element of the criminal justice system and as perpetuated in the media. I watched and I was proud because they were not just mad. They were doing something. They were raising their voices and social awareness. I understood their angst—the deep sorry and torment you feel when you are forced to declare that your life matters, not because you think yours is more important than anyone else’s, but because everything going around you suggests that you are the only one that thinks it does.
I was jealous because it wasn’t happening here in New Orleans. And I wondered why?
Why weren’t we doing that here? No protests in the streets for Wendell Allen or Justin Sipp or Adolph Grimes. And if their stories and lives weren’t compelling enough, we surely should have spilled into the streets, filling them like it was Super Sunday, for Ronald Madison, James Brissette and Henry Glover.
Considering what happened in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, we should have declared that Black Lives Matter more than a decade ago. But we didn’t, because we don’t like to talk about race in New Orleans. We bathe ourselves in all the richness of New Orleans—its food, its music, its artistry and craftsmanship—much of which was cultivated by the enslaved and free people of color; but today, 52 percent of working age Black men don’t have jobs in this city.
No, we don’t really want to talk about race. Of course, we will hold roundtable discussions and go on and on about how New Orleans is a great gumbo of cultures. We will talk about how we must come together and put aside our differences. We will use examples of our city’s unique culture to illustrate how we really do embrace one another. But we don’t want to be challenged on the things that really count.
We will stand next to each other on a parade route; meanwhile historic and exclusive Carnival krewes are still the most segregated organizations in the city, with its members still wielding a great deal of power, money and influence in small, elite circles.
Fifty percent of Black children in New Orleans live in poverty.
More than 50 percent of working age Black men in New Orleans are unemployed.
The median income for Black in New Orleans significantly is less than half of incomes for Whites.
Those facts indicate clearly that we are not dealing with race or racism in New Orleans.
Even when I consider the theme of this celebration — # ________ Lives Matter, I am troubled. I noticed it weeks before I was invited to write this essay; and I was bothered by it then. My immediate reaction was why the “_________”? Why can’t it just say it “Black” lives? It’s an artistic and cultural celebration in honor of a Black man, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a city that is still majority Black despite the best efforts of some others to work towards the contrary, and we can’t even say Black Lives Matter!
Young, Black men and women in America stand up and start a movement that calls attention to the precarious state of being Black in America; and for that they are castigated. Their undeniable state of blackness is replaced with _________. A simple, declarative hash tag is watered down and bastardized so everyone can feel comfortable.
Black New Orleanians are in a state of crisis, and all we can say is #_________ Lives Matter, because that makes everybody feel easy.
News flash: If we are ever going to talk about race in America and here in New Orleans, we are going to be uncomfortable and uneasy, at least for a while.
How can we facilitate a conversation about race and healing across this nation and in this city when we’re either too afraid or too politically correct to say Black Lives Matter?”
No, they don’t matter more than anyone else’s, but certainly as much. And because it is my life and the lives of others that look like me that are marginalized and disregarded in America and in New Orleans, it is time we talk about race and racism without it becoming some multiple-choice free for all.
Race in New Orleans is a sensitive subject, to be sure. But we have to be willing to do more than fill in a blank if we are to ever rise above it.