Tuesday, July 24, 2007

When Nigger Means Nigger

The survival stories of Katrina were heart-wrenching emotional ordeals. Traveling around with HANO, it seemed that he spent half of his day sharing storm stories with people and relaying those of others with me so I could better appreciate what people had been through. For those people he hadn’t seen since before the storm their reconnection with each other was like people reconnecting after a war. They embraced each other like neither one expected to see the other alive. They held on to each other long and hard. HANO said there were unspeakably terrible things that happened to people during the storm so when you see folks alive, “you’re just happy, you know?”

One brother that we ran into was a huge hulking man. Between he and HANO they split the plus side of a quarter ton about sixty forty. Big Man survived the storm and started off with jokes. He told us that his wife didn’t want to evacuate.

“I said to her, I said, looky here. I got you and my Mama in this house and I’m the only one can swim. I can only save one a you, an’ you don’ want me to choose between you an’ my Mama.”

He and HANO burst out laughing the way only enormous black men laugh.

“HANO, she packed her bags with a quickness, you know. You don’t make a man choose between his wife and his Mama.”

We laughed and then he repeated that he had survived. He said that he had survived, “those Goddamn rednecks too.” When he said that, he stopped smiling. He had gone back to his neighborhood to look after other relatives. He said that towards the end of the storm at the beginning of the flooding he was racing to get back to the house where his relatives were and one of, “those white boy police” told him that he couldn’t go in that direction. “I told him I lived down there and I was going to get my family.” Then Big Man told the story like this:

His car was in front of me. He got out of his car, walked over to me and drew his gun and aimed it right at me.

Nigger, I told you you’re not going down that fuckin’ street.

I told him, I said, ‘Officer, my family is down there.’

Nigger, if you open your fuckin’ mouth again it will be the last time.

By now Big Man was telling this story as if he were in a trance. He was not really looking at us. He said that it was the first time in his life that he felt like slaves must have felt. “You standing there with the white man sticking a gun in the temple of your head, making you watch your family die or get sold off or hung.” He said to HANO, “Breh, when that white man called me Nigger like that, with that gun in my head, it was like a hundred years of poison.”

Big Man said that he was thinking about his family up ahead and explained to us how some of them were old and would definitely drown if he did not get there to help them. He tried to explain the combination of feelings, but he couldn’t really. He said that he was raging and wanted to smash the police officer but he knew that if he opened his mouth he would be killed. Again he said to HANO, “Breh, you know I ain’ no weak brother. But Breh, I just cried. I couldn’t stop the tears from falling.” Big Man continued, and said he just nodded yes and sat there crying. He said the police officer told him, “Now Nigger, get outta here,” and turned away from Big Man to walk back to his car.

During this whole story I was trying to comprehend all these emotions, particularly coming from a man looking like Big Man. He was not one of those soft looking oversized Bluetooth-wearing black men with expensive shoes and a Blackberry clipped to his belt. He was huge, looked like he was made out of steal and could be rough as hell. I felt in that moment, like I was from another planet and I spoke a different language. I am a black man and have grown up in this country, but I’ve never been so close to the degree of hatred bundled around the word Nigger when it really means Nigger. The whole time I was keenly aware of the fact that I was in the south and his description of surviving the rednecks made the whole experience more intense. Since I’ve been in the south I have seen real rednecks with their leathery skin, southern drawl and confederate flags draped all over themselves. I can’t imagine one of those type of men holding a gun to my head and with blinding hatred calling me Nigger. In the middle of those thoughts, Big Man’s story went from the intense to the surreal.

Big Man said that when the policeman turned his back on him and was walking back to his car, he hit the gas and ran him over. I’m sure my mouth fell open. For a second I doubted the story. Then I could see the water coming to his eyes and his lips starting to tremble. He said, “Breh, I been praying about it and crying about it ever since. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t turn my back on my family. And the way he called me Nigger filled me with so much hate.”

Throughout the day HANO always had a wise and insightful summary of the various experiences. This time he didn’t say anything and we just stood there.


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A White Girl Slapped Me

Late into the evening HANO took me to the French Quarter. He said that I couldn’t come to New Orleans and not go the French Quarter. We were walking down the main strip where there are bars with upstairs balconies that overlook the street. The balconies were packed with white people drinking and throwing those colorful beaded necklaces down to people walking by. As we walked under one of the balconies a necklace hit me on the head. When I looked up I caught the eyes of the white woman who threw it. Her face had those sharp non-fat features. She was tan with jet black hair and green eyes. She was pretty. It being the French Quarter most of her breasts were exposed and I noticed that too. She looked slim and fit. She was already laughing and waving her beer around when our eyes met. Then, while we were looking right at each other, she yelled the white girl yell.


Her yell and her smile and her appearance shook me. I had spent the day like an apprentice studying the suffering of black people. I’d listened to the woman with her child in her arms declare she was homeless. I’d seen scores of young black boys in sweaty long white t-shirts aimlessly smoldering in the shade of FEMA trailers all over the city. I’d been to the processing pen for Section 8 returnees and watched depressed looking black people sitting for hours waiting to be processed by government workers. I’d also been through the destroyed wards and seen whole swathes of people’s identities and backgrounds still destroyed, now overgrown with weeds to insult their injuries. I’d listened to a brother explain that he goes to a funeral every couple of weeks because, “the depression is getting to be a little too much for us.” I met the director of one of the homeless shelters who explained that most shelters that accept women and children do not accept men so several men sleep on the streets nearby to be close to their wives and children. I’d watched the soldiers like HANO and Sister hold hands with each other and promise to protect the fragile hope.

Then the white girl, let’s call her Ashley – or Brittany or Kirsten or Molly or Hannah - takes a drink, drops some beads on my head and yells the white girl yell.

I’m not even sure how to continue and explain what that felt like.

It is unfair, if not simply mean, to begrudge people their happiness so I won’t. I struggle; however, to understand this class of white women. Admittedly I don’t know any of them personally, but they appear to be like canaries – whistling and happily chirping along on top of American life. Atlanta is a haven for them. They can been seen on any given evening jogging all over the place in the Virginia Highlands, in Midtown, in Grant Park with blond pony tails bobbing back and forth underneath their khaki colored caps. They go to tanning salons. They say, “Oh my God, that is sooo true,” instead of, “You know what I’m saying.” They drive Jettas and BMW’s and drink complicated long explanation drinks at Starbucks. Their images are plastered on all the billboards and ads for high rise condominiums – be white, live, work and play in the Aqua Towers or in the Spire or in the Such and Such Luxury Lofts at Buckhead. Indeed they serve the traditional mining function of canaries in some neighborhoods. When you see single white women walking their dogs or jogging alone, you know the neighborhood has been adequately transitioned and is “safe”. In so many ways they appear to be a protected specie, living an insulated life on a balcony with their friends throwing decorations or charity or whatever they feel like down on the passersby.

Having this enigmatic and chipper white girl drop those beads on my head felt like she slapped me. She was chirping from her perch right in line with my stereotypes of her and then she threw the necklace on me to make sure I knew she was up there. It seemed like Ashley lived in a different world, was from a different planet and spoke a different language. Even when I’m happy, I don’t understand that yell.

I hadn’t said anything during all these thoughts. When I looked at HANO he was looking right at me and said, “Breh, if we could take turns on the balcony, we wouldn’t be suffering so much down here.”


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Where Are The Men?

Black men are typically portrayed in the media with some combination of banditry and simplemindedness. The local news in Atlanta, for example, is full of B.O.L.O. (Be On the Look Out) photographs of ominous looking cornrowed black men that shot this or that person or raped this or that woman. When they are witnesses to a crime they often give out of breath, inarticulate and illogical accounts of some sordid event or another. If they are not criminals or witnesses to a crime they are often cartoonish diamond-laden entertainers offering much ado about nothing. Within the black community it is broadly accepted that these images are disproportionately presented to feed the popular white American distaste for and discomfort with black men. The television coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was no different. This, by now, is nothing new. There has been ample discussion of the media’s use of the term “refugees” as well as the willingness to label black men as “hooligans” and “looters.” The role of black women; however, has been largely overlooked.

Apart from graphic coverage of the destruction and hapless victims, the dominant images after the storm were largely of men. There were innumerable stories and pictures of Mayor Ray Nagin. He was largely presented as an emotional and ineffective mayor whose weaknesses and failure to prepare contributed to the degree of devastation in New Orleans. He was disparagingly compared to the American Sir Lancelot, Rudy Guiliani. Coverage of the mayor was sandwiched between images of young black men stealing televisions and sneakers. When the United States military finally arrived, Lt. General HonorĂ© dominated the airwaves. He was credited with bringing some order to the situation by cursing and ordering people around. In addition to them were Michael Brown, George Bush’s Brownie and director of FEMA and Michael Chertoff, Bush’s boy and Director of Homeland Security. The only prominent woman visible was Governor Kathleen Blanco. She was grouped with Mayor Nagin as emotional, incompetent and irrelevant. In the midst of all the fuss and coverage in the long aftermath of the storm, black women have gone largely unseen in the popular media. It is as if the destruction and resurrection of New Orleans has nothing to do with them.

While in New Orleans, my HANO man explained that there is a network of community leaders organized to help various communities rebuild themselves. He explained that the community leaders serve as advocates and conduits for information and resources to predominantly black and poor neighborhoods that are still largely rotting. It so happened that there was a leadership training session happening for these community leaders while I was on tour with HANO. The session was organized by a polished black woman consultant for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in D.C.

When we entered the room there were about 35 tough looking black women eating and waiting for the session to begin. The consultant had three super polished women with her too; so it was a room full of women. I commented to HANO that I didn’t realize it was a women’s leadership organization. He chuckled and said, “Breh, it ain’t.”

“Where are the men?”

He looked at me and smiled and didn’t say anything. Then he introduced me to Sister. He said, “this here Breh, is what you call a solider.” She said that if I’m down with Brother HANO, I’m on the right team and then she hugged me so hard our ribs got all tangled up. Sister looked like a Native American. Her skin was reddish brown and she had long, bone straight, jet black hair. She was short, squat and strong looking. Her back was straight as an arrow and power was dripping off her.

She said, “I ain’ no soldier, but I’ma fight for my people right here in New Orleans.”

HANO said, “Ain’ nobody else gonna fight for us.”

“You know that’s the mothafuckin truth.”

HANO explained that Sister had always been a community leader and organizer. She had made improving the living conditions for black people in New Orleans the cause of her life. Sister said that the storm is a challenge but survive is what black people do. She said that she had battled breast cancer and “beat that bitch with the bullshit care they give us poor folks.” One of her two sons drowned during the flooding after the storm and another had been shot and killed last year when he was caught up in a gun fight. “I’m surviving for a reason, so I’m right here fighting for my people.”

HANO said, “Sister, Breh walk in and the first thing he asks is, ‘where the men?’”

They both laughed and then HANO held Sister’s hand.

“These women here Breh, are holding us together. Whatever little hope we have, we have it cause of them.”


Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Self Absorbed in New Orleans

I was riding in a car with a man I had never met, in a place I had never been to learn some things I didn’t know. For me, that was a righteous setting for my introduction to post Katrina New Orleans. The story is so complicated and interconnected among so many things that are deeply human and passionate that it will have to come out in bits and pieces.

Before my wife and I were married, a lot of people joked that, “Once you get married, my brother, everything changes.” “Marriage will change your life,” I was told. It did change my life, but not in the dramatic way that all these warnings led me to believe. Having a child on the other hand, profoundly changed our lives. The practical changes are obvious. More importantly for me, has been an emotional change. Now that we have a child, my feelings about most things are more intense. I find that I don’t chuckle anymore, I laugh out loud; happiness goes straight to bliss. Rather than getting frustrated, I get infuriated. I don’t like things or people anymore, I either love them or I can’t stand them. I experience sadness in my bones and I cry. I think it is because everything I experience is somehow translated into the ever deepening love I have for my daughter. What if that were her?

The guy that was taking me around works for the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), a division of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. We were driving around in a van with HANO emblazoned on the side. At one point some women saw the van and flagged us down. They were all black women with two or three children among them. They had been sitting in the shade of a FEMA trailer which was parked in front of a destroyed house. The lady that came up to the van had her permed and dyed red hair brushed to one side. The heat, sweat and humidity had taken their toll on her hair. When she was walking over to the van I could see that the heels of her flip flops were worn through. Her skin was very dark, she was really black. Her lips and her gums were both dark. She had an array of small bumps and boils all over her face and a long scar on her cheek. She had hoop gold earrings in her ears and the gold looked like a brass plated doorknob after years of use. In one ear she had an enormous keloid that was swollen around the post of the earring so much that the earring didn’t swing freely. She was wearing a tight pink baby T-shirt. Her shirt left her midriff exposed and I could see that her stomach was big, laced with stretch marks and creeping over the super tight top of her jeans. On one of her arms she had the tattoo of a face and some words. The ink was that bluish green ink that old military vets often have. Hers was puffy and hard to see against the darkness of her skin. She looked poor.

I do not detail her appearance to make a spectacle of her. I describe it as part of my response. Obviously, I noticed what she looked like and it left an impression on me. I felt intensely sad. I am just now beginning to understand the intensity of my own emotional responses and am trying to align my behavior and actions with those responses. I wonder though, how her appearance affects institutional responses to her condition?

“How you get on section 8?” she asked.

HANO asked her if she was on section 8 before the storm. She said no. She had been living somewhere and making due before the storm but then when she came back, the place was in terrible condition and the landlord had increased the rent.

“I had to leave cause it wasn’t no decent place and then there was a fire anyway. I called the city to get on section 8 and they just telling me some silly shit.”

“If you weren’t on section 8 before the storm sweet heart, you got a better chance of winning the lottery than you do of getting on it now. All of those folks who were on it before have to be placed before we start dealing with new people.”

In the middle of HANO’s explanation the lady’s daughter ran up to her smiling. “Mama!” She must have been about two years old. She had on a pink sun dress that was dirty in the front. Her pink dress matched her pink sandals and the pink bobbles in her hair. Her hair was pulled back tight and the part in the middle was straight as an arrow. The lady picked up the little girl and cocked her on her hip.

“So I can’t get on section 8?”

“It ain’t gonna happen. I’m just being real with you. Take my card though and call me and we’ll see what we can do. We have to get you in the system first.”

“I’m homeless.”

When I listened to the lady say that she was homeless while holding her little girl on her arm I felt the sadness in my bones and struggled desperately to keep the tears back. When we were driving off, I couldn’t really speak as I was trying to get my voice under control. I was thinking about my daughter running up to me smiling, calling me Daddy and jumping into my arms. I was thinking about the significance of what I say while I'm holding her. How much of what I feel does she absorb from my body? And how much implication does she take from the meaning of my words? I don’t know, but watching this lady and her little girl was breaking my heart.