Slave state of mind
31st March 2014 · 0 Comments
By Edmund W. Lewis
Anyone who knows and understands anything about the history and culture of this city can understand why it was the last place enslaved Africans who were seen as strong-willed, defiant and rebellious wanted to be sent. The climate and heat were overwhelming, the mosquitoes were merciless and the planters and overseers clearly did not have a problem with working their human chattel to death.
They may also find it easier to understand why slavery films as divergent as Django Unchanged, Mandingo and 12 Years a Slave could be shot here. In addition to reflecting the brutality and myopic ethos of the times, these films also revealed the sensibilities, spiritual awareness, cultural insularity and enlightenment (or the lack thereof) of the screenwriters, directors and producers.
Not much has changed in this city and state since the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War.
It’s still as hot as Hades down here in Dixie (a name appropriately inspired by this town), Black people are still being deprived of a decent public education, and as the late, great Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong once famously said, “the white man is still in charge.”
I say that not to bring anyone down as they prepare to head down to N’awlins for the many music festivals and outdoor events the warmer months bring but to bring a dose of reality to those who refuse to see what’s standing right in front of them.
Things are anything but easy in the Big Easy if you’re Black — unless, of course, you’re well-connected and playing for the other team. After decades of Mardi Gras parades, second lines and Who Dat rallies in post-integrated New Orleans, race is still the blue brontosaurus in the room that everyone pretends they don’t see.
As grand as life is for the wealthiest families in New Orleans, whose ancestors once owned and exploited other people’s ancestors, it’s pure hell for many of the descendants of enslaved Africans.
The late, great scholar John Henrik Clark reminded us during a visit to New Orleans in 1996 that while some of the specifics have changed since the legal abolition of U.S. slavery, very little has changed with regard to the socioeconomic status of descendants of enslaved Africans compared to that of descendants of European slavemasters.
Black people are still at the bottom of the deck in almost every human category and still struggle to move beyond structural racism. A system of racial oppression and domination that is older than the U.S. Constitution did not just wither away with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
New Orleans has preserved not only the music, food, culture architecture and culture of antebellum times but also the draconian spirit and brutishness of the Peculiar Institution’s” planters and overseers.
Just about everywhere you turn, you find slave stories, from fast-food restaurants and hotels to city-managed agencies like the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board and NORDC.
A friend of one of my neighbors told me about a former classmate who had fallen on hard times and was forced to take a job years ago at one of the city’s lavish hotels on Canal Street. She said they ran it like a plantation half the time and a prison the other half of the time. That reminded me of the efforts in the mid- to late 1990s to organize a union of tourism industry workers, much to the dismay of the powers that be. Needless to say, there are still no unions for these hotel maids and others in the tourism industry.
Similar efforts to bring union representation to cafeteria workers at Tulane, Loyola, Dillard and a number of local public schools faced similar results. The message was clear: Black, brown and yellow people and the poor have no rights.
That message took on an added significance when you consider Tulane’s legacy as an institution founded with ill-gotten gains from slave labor. Fast forward and check out Tulane and the Louisiana Legislature doling out scholarships to students from some of the region’s wealthiest and most powerful families while being given an exemption from paying property taxes in return. That means the descendants of enslaved Africans who never had and will likely never have a chance to go to Tulane get to pay Tulane’s share of property taxes.
When you look at the Black community in New Orleans, warts and all, you are looking at what some have described as one of the last African strongholds in the U.S. You can see, hear, touch, taste and smell Mama Africa and her spirit of courage, resilience and dynamic love in the faces and actions of the people.
But you are also looking at the results of being continuously pummeled by white supremacy for three centuries. Even in the Deep South and in a slave state like Louisiana, New Orleans has always distinguished itself for its attention to detail, machiavellian maneuvers and a willingness to win at any cost. New Orleans has it down to an exact science.
New Orleans is the epicenter of white power and privilege. Visit the city and you will find some of the most charming, engaging and generous people of all colors on the planet. But bubbling just beneath the surface, you will also find one of the most harsh and draconian political and economic systems modern mankind has ever witnessed.
It is no secret that visitors come to New Orleans to experience that Old World feeling. What they don’t realize is that what they experience here is the genuine article. Part of the city’s allure to guests is its ability to retain its past while making allowances for cosmetic change.
New Orleans has always been resistant to substantive change. You can witness that from its fierce protection of antebellum-era architecture and landmarks like the Liberty Monument, Lee Circle, Jefferson Davis Parkway and Claiborne Avenue. For those who don’t know, City Hall is the place where the Rev. Avery C. Alexander was famously dragged up the stairs, the Cabildo is the place where Black freedom fighters were held captive after the 1811 slave revolt and Jackson Square was the site where those same freedom fighters’ heads were placed on pikes after they were put to death by the powers that be.
Understanding that there is nothing more dangerous than hope, New Orleans leaves nothing to chance in 2014. The city has its hands in every facet of Black life from education to religious worship. The powers that be control everything from the selection of HBCU presidents and the awarding of public school contracts to the planning and organizing of second lines, Black music festivals and sporting events.
The Black Church in New Orleans has been infiltrated by the powers that be with the system using funding for faith-based programs to compel many Black pastoral leaders to march to its beat. The powers that be throw around a few dollars and decide who will be the next generation of lackeys and who will be appointed to various boards and commissions.
It evolved. Some of us are all too happy to go along with this plan as long as it gets us material wealth. They get to live the good life and hang out every now and then with the muckety-muck. These “strivers” and social climbers also get told every now and then that they’re “special.”
That they are.
Despite being a majority-Black city, Black contractors continue to be inconspicuously absent from a seat at the table with the City of New Orleans. Most of the public school and sewerage and water board contracts end up being awarded to white firms in neighboring parishes. This was true even before Hurricane Katrina shook things up and led to the election of a majority-white school board and city council.
The justice system continues to administer justice with little regard for the constitutional rights of Black residents and the city’s police department is doing what it was created to do: keep Black people in their place by any means necessary. The mass incarceration Blacks encounter in New Orleans is not simply the new Jim Crow — it is the same old oppression that has held us in chains since the first raids on African villages many rains ago.
Even though I will look the Creator Himself in the face and tell Him that Black New Orleanians are the most beautiful, courageous, resilient and charismatic people on the planet, I must also admit that we are some of the most frustrating and troublesome people on the planet as well.
We have a lot to work on from our work ethic, to our commitment to education, freedom, justice and self-determination. We need to be able to focus and become single-minded men and women of purpose to get that done.
We must find a way to avoid distractions like the wobble, watching “Scandal” (aka “mammy Unchained”) daiquiris, crawfish, blowin’ the whistle, parades, reality TV, Facebook, Instagram, flossing, and spending our last dollar on designer shoes, jewelry and clothing and concentrate on the very important work that needs to be done.
It’s way past time for us to get it together.
If not now, when? If not us, who?
This article originally published in the March 31, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.