copyright by Marceline Donaldson 2009
We receive many notes, cards, telephone calls asking us what is happening in New Orleans and asking me to please write something. Probably because some of you know New Orleans is home and am I your only real live contact with what is happening there? Ready or not, this is a response to your requests.
I’ve resisted going home and responding to the questions because it is very painful to know that many of my memories about growing up in New Orleans are now memories detached from actual geographical places and to know that some of my more painful memories about growing up in New Orleans now have a verifiable history which cannot be denied. Looking closely at what happened via Katrina has caused a lot of introspection, retrospection and just plain grieving.
Finally, I went back and it was as bad as I’d heard. Friends, family and guests who talked about what they saw and experienced didn’t go far enough to prepare me for what I experienced this past week.
Going back for the funeral of a relative whose end-of-life time was very negatively influenced by what happened to her via the ‘unintended consequences’ after Katrina made it all that much worse. Added to that are the many people I knew and grew up with who experienced an early, difficult and needlessly painful death without the support of friends or relatives.
Those who have said the ‘Big Easy’ only got what it deserved – God wrecked God’s anger on New Orleans for its transgressions, etc. really haven’t either been to New Orleans or don’t know its history. They put their uninformed and uneducated spin on this horrendous event. An event which I hope will remain in our collective consciousnesses for generations.
What I saw in New Orleans was Christ crucified all over again and many times over as the victims, those transgressed against, bore the brunt of and paid the price for the sins of the transgressors, and the transgressions have been many and have been very aggregious.
One part of this human tragedy which connected my teen years to today was the experience I had in the 1950’s working as a receptionist after school at a subdivision being newly built called Pontchartrain Park Homes. Out in the sticks – so to speak – with nothing around it, just wild land. The entire area has since been intensely developed and is an area around which upwardly mobile minorities now live. All are suffering, in some way, from the devastation of the flood.
I was hired to work at Pontchartrain Park Homes by two white men who were the developers of what is now called by some ‘the village’. My job was to greet people as they arrived to look at the model homes and make sure they had a salesperson who would follow their interest.
It was great fun for me! My picture was taken many times. It was put on the marketing materials for the subdivision; it was put on billboards advertising Pontchartrain Park Homes. This was a new day for African Americans – because it was a subdivision for blacks. The model homes were a dream come true for many ‘colored folk’. – That was the terminology in those days. African American was not a term in use and black was considered an insult. It was almost as bad as being called the “N” word today.
It is bitter-sweet to remember my pictures being used, with me in one of my favorite dresses of the time. Bitter-sweet because I did look cute, but I didn’t get paid a penny for my second part-time job which made me the face of Pontchartrain Park Homes. What I also didn’t realize was that my picture being all over the place on their literature really put my family’s stamp of approval on the entire project.
Sad to tell, I didn’t expect payment. In my world at the time, why would anyone pay money to use my picture – money that would have gone far to help pay my college tuition and help my struggling grandmother, who still somehow found the money to send me to New York University.
Money is one of the valuers of what our work is worth and clearly, while my work was worth much to the developers and they saw the benefit of using my picture in some of their marketing and advertising, the habit of taking from minorities and giving nothing in return was the operative factor at that time and in that place.
I heard a lot, being on the front line – sitting by the front door. Basically, I heard questions being asked constantly about the wisdom of building homes in a flood plain on a concrete slab in a ranch style in a city prone to hurricanes and possible flooding. I heard the jokes of the developers talking to friends who raised issues about the ‘safety’ of the project, commenting on their whereabouts when this project was finished. They wouldn’t be around in one of those houses.
I heard arguments among families I knew, where one was going to buy a home because it was going to be a really ‘class’ community and such a great place to raise children. Some in their family didn’t see moving from one flood plain to another flood plain as a move ‘up’. The argument about a better ‘class’ of people, a safer neighborhood, etc. etc. didn’t hold water with one part of a family, while it meant everything to the other.
I saw piles being driven into the ground all over the place and didn’t see any reason for alarm. In my ignorance and naivete, it just seemed to be how new communities were built. That same ignorance and naivete kept me from understanding a lot of what I was hearing, but my heart kept the conversations.
I didn’t understand why it was desperate and tragic for African Americans and their future generations when the zoning changed and you were able to build such homes in New Orleans. My grandmother’s house was a couple feet off the ground on strong foundations with nothing between the ground and the raised first floor. I didn’t understand the gasps when neighbors built an apartment on the first floor of their two family houses where before it was illegal to do so. The driveway, the carport, the patio were what happened on the first floor – all open. Today, older and wiser, we know – open, so in case of a flood the water could rush through without damaging the rest of the house.
The people who built the homes, elevated and open on the bottom, were growing old and dying. The young people were moving out and up and experiencing other cities with ranch-style houses built on the ground; or with homes which used every inch of vertical space for interior living. Those pushing to change the zoning were once again the people taking advantage of the ignorance, naivete and ego of the young people who were replacing their parents – young people who were not listening to the lessons their parents tried to put in front of them so they could learn from their elders experience and wisdom and so their young people could be saved. That younger generation cast aside their elders as ‘too old’ and ‘too out of touch’. That younger generation, had no idea there was another agenda behind all of this change. None of us knew and all of us are today engaging in denial.
There was and is geographical racism in New Orleans. In its early days, pre-1850-60-70, New Orleans was as open a city as one could find in these United States. Open – racially. That doesn’t deny that racism existed or that slavery happened in New Orleans, but so did integrated neighborhoods and racially mixed marriages – out in the open. After Plessy v. Ferguson things changed; after Woodrow Wilson segregated Washington, D. C.; after the Federal Government demanded the trains have separate coaches for whites and blacks; after New Orleans began to make sure ‘white’ neighborhoods were the ones on high ground and its ‘colored’ and minority population was in the swamp and the flood plains; after this, the fix was in for the Katrina disaster to begin.
Anytime now Mr. DeMille, I am ready for my close-up.
to paraphrase Hannah Arendt: ‘The banality of evil’…..is such that ‘there is an abyss between the actuality of what they did and the’………..intended or unthought through carnagd consequences of those actions. Or to paraphrase Elie Wiesel, Is ‘it possible to defile life and creation and feel no remorse. To tend one’s garden and water one’s flowers, but two steps away’…..from your neighbors sufferings, now and for several generations into the future, from the unintended or unthought through carnaged consequences, not of a flood, but of the pre-flood neglect, irresponsibility, racism and sexism of massive proportions, brought home by Katrina, for which we all are partially responsible?
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