Prior to this last week, New Orleans, and, in fact, Mississippi, Louisiana, and the South in general, were palpable for me only through the imagination. Thanks to rich literary, musical, and even culinary traditions, we can hear the lilt and cadence of the dialects, feel the four/four rhythms, understand the respite of a shade tree, feel the coolness and wetness of a mint julep upon our lips, and try to understand the unique social and familial relationships that are endemic to this geographical area. Writers such as Richard Wright, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Kate Chopin, Carson McCullers, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Erskine Caldwell, Truman Capote, Katherine Anne Porter, among many, many others, offered perspectives that that could be called aberrant to the non-southern culture. American Black Classical music, the genres that fall into the rubric known as jazz, had its genesis in New Orleans, soon moving its varied influences to Memphis, St. Louis, eventually Chicago and forever into the global consciousness. Louis Armstrong, a New Orleans native born into poverty, learned to play the coronet in the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs. He elevated the trumpet to a solo instrument with his virtuosity and daring improvisations, and he exerted a virtually immeasurable influence on the history of jazz. Other seminal jazz musicians and singers from the south include King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Kid Ory, Clarence Williams, Sidney Bechet, all from New Orleans, and later giants such as Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane, from South Carolina and North Carolina respectively, transmogrified the genre further. In fact, as I watched the implausible misery unfold upon the forgotten and forlorn many who survived the initial destruction of the tempest and the floods, I turned off the sound on the television and listened to Coltrane’s evocative tone poem, After the Rain, as I tried to fathom the pain in the eyes of people who had already borne their inordinate amount. As the commentators referred, rather sardonically, to the toxic gumbo that was brewing in the stagnant flood waters, the irony of the unique cultural mix that is New Orleans possibly being drowned to history became apparent. The French- speaking, Roman Catholic Cajuns, the Creoles, who are the native-born descendents of the early French, Spanish, and Portuguese settlers of Latin America, the West Indies, and the southern United States, and, of course, the African Americans, who did not exactly settle there of their own accord, blended into the white culture until, indeed, a unique societal gumbo was created.
The history of New Orleans, Louisiana, and the South for that matter, is also forever stained with the era of slave trading in America. New Orleans was in fact one of the major ports, and last ports, of this ignominious mercantile endeavor. Although it is convenient to forget such horrors, the passage from Africa to America, which would last 6 to 8 weeks at sea, were of such inhumane conditions, with hundreds of Africans treated as cargo, crammed into the holds of the ships that no living person can ever imagine. A description written from the Congo Coast in 1859 says of the slavers:
“…they sail cautiously yet boldly in, anchor, and in two or three hours are filled with negroes, who are carried off to them in canoes. The refractory ones are clapped in irons, or made drunk with rum; and in this stupefied condition they are carried aboard, stowed in a sitting posture, with the knees drawn up so closely that they can scarcely breathe, much less move.
Now their sufferings become dreadful – horrible; indeed, human language is incapable of describing, or imagination of sketching even the faint outline of a dimly floating fancy of what their condition is – homesick, seasick, half starved, naked, crying for air, for water, the strong killing the weak or dying in order to make room, the hold becomes a perfect charnel house of death and misery – a misery and anguish only conceivable by those who have endured it.”
The Louisiana Superdome, this past week, took on the aura of those ships’ holds, with unspeakable misery, fear, pain, murder, rape, and struggling humanity. The thousands stranded outside of the New Orleans Convention Center without food and water for days will not leave the memory anytime soon. After more than a week of trenchant, heuristic, and empathetic news coverage of the devastation wreaked upon the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina, the American public has been thrust into a national tragedy that should and will affect all of us. The implications regarding our national strategies for natural disasters and potential attacks from those who would do us harm are redolent with failure. There will be untold economic effects nationally and regionally. The Gulf Coast will never be the same, although certainly it will slowly rebuild, most probably becoming bigger and richer. The lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals are in the incipient stages of recovery and starting over with nothing. How many will not be able to re-assimilate? And with all of the political battles of spin and inculpation, of self congratulatory statistics that will hide the truth, and endless scrutiny that is way too late to matter, the one salient issue that Americans have had to see first hand, with heartbreaking poignancy and national shame, is the other America that has been systematically gentrified out of sight in all of our major cities, and out of the national consciousness.
The issues of social stratification, class, and race in America have not been part of the national dialogue for decades, the literature on these subjects has become paltry, while the injustices and abject misunderstanding of the root causes of poverty and social apathy, and the consequential high rates of disease, premature deaths, anomie, urban crime, gang culture, amidst an indomitable strength of family and personal strength, is, by design of the power elite, forgotten; out of sight, out of mind. The shame we all must feel is that it takes a national disaster, be it a hurricane or a Pearl Harbor scenario before social issues are even casually discussed. The tepid, self-serving Democrats all fear the loathed bleeding heart liberal moniker, and thus remain silent on issues that should be their core values. C. Wright Mills had it part right in his assessment:
According to C. Wright Mills, among the best known power-elite theorists, the governing elite in the United States draws its members from three areas: (1) the highest political leaders including the president and a handful of key cabinet members and close advisers; (2) major corporate owners and directors; and (3) high-ranking military officers.
Where I’d disagree with Mills (and how could he envision a cadre of power hungry neocons who deliberately subjugate all those who fall outside of their elite), is this statement:
Even though these individuals constitute a close-knit group, they are not part of a conspiracy that secretly manipulates events in their own selfish interest. For the most part, the elite respects civil liberties, follows established constitutional principles, and operates openly and peacefully. It is not a dictatorship; it does not rely on terror, a secret police, or midnight arrests to get its way.
The current reality (a word, by the way, Nabokov said should always be in quotes) is exactly that; and with the erosion of both civil liberties and secularism, we have much to fear unless we unseat the current power base that is hell-bent on solidifying a permanent societal upper tier power base. Such radical change as is necessary that, historically, such change is usually only accomplished through civil disobedience. These are difficult and complex issues; ones that have been at the center of social theory from Adam Smith to Marx, from the social Darwinists to the utopians. However, the U.S., and the global community at large, will have to ultimately deal with these issues in this century. It remains to be seen if this society as a whole cares enough about its poor, or if it will continue to blame poverty on its victims.
The issue of race is inextricable from the tacit condition that is at the center of most of these social discussions, which is poverty. When politicians discuss the implications of illegal immigration, for example, it is from behind the rocks of national security and our domestic economy that they hide their rhetorical penury, ignoring the root of the problem, which is pernicious poverty. When politicians and the television evangelists discuss crime, violence, sex, and social depravity, they are pointing their hypocritical fingers at that inconvenient part of society that simply will not go away. There is no discussion of cause and effect, no discussion of the responsibility of the government to its citizens, except those individuals whose net worth exceeds that of the entire population of certain neighborhoods, boroughs, or even halves of cities exponentially, and never an acknowledgement that an unjust and immoral social stratification, whose entire social dynamic is fueled by poverty, exists.
Some statistics for 2004 (from the U.S. Census Bureau) are as follows:
• The official poverty rate in 2004 was 12.7 percent, up from 12.5 percent 2003. (it has gone up every year since 2000)
• In 2004, 37.0 million people were in poverty, up 1.1 million from 2003.
• Poverty rates remained unchanged for Blacks (24.7 percent) and Hispanics (21.9 percent), rose for non-Hispanic Whites (8.6 percent in 2004, up from 8.2 percent in 2003) and decreased for Asians (9.8 percent in 2004, down from 11.8 percent in 2003).
• For children under 18 years old, both the 2004 poverty rate (17.8 percent) and the number in poverty (13.0 million) remained unchanged from 2003. The poverty rate for children under 18 remained higher than that of 18-to-64-year olds (11.3 percent) and that of people aged 65 and over (9.8 percent).
• Both the poverty rate and number in poverty increased for people 18 to 64 years old (11.3 percent and 20.5 million in 2004, up from 10.8 percent and 19.4 million in 2003).
The disproportionality of people of color versus whites living in poverty, worldwide as well as domestically, makes any discussion or scrutiny of causal systems and absence of remedies one of race, and insists on an implicit racism on the part of the governing systems. Extreme upper tier tax cuts, which deplete from or obliterate any governmental safety nets (now anathema, like bleeding heart liberals), incompetent urban planning and development, and a total absence of recognition of, let alone discussion of and solutions for, the delineation of class schisms and broadening, to the point of infinity, of the space between the haves and have nots, has created a society that is just waking to the reality of its own insignificance. When John Edwards talked about two Americas, he was ridiculed by everyone, including those in his own party, for instigating a class war. If this hurricane, of which there will be many more of such intensity due to the warming oceans, has done anything other than devastation, it may be to have awakened a citizenry to a call to arms in what is a class war.