Anne Rice says
You Know What It Means to Lose New Orleans?
CDT on Saturday, September 3, 2005
Rice speaks article found here.
What do people
really know about New Orleans?
Do they take
away with them an awareness that it has always been not only a great white
metropolis but also a great black city, a city where African-Americans have
come together again and again to form the strongest African-American culture
in the land?
literary magazine ever published in Louisiana was the work of black men,
French-speaking poets and writers who brought together their work in three
issues of a little book called L'Album Littéraire. That was in the
1840's, and by that time the city had a prosperous class of free black artisans,
sculptors, businessmen, property owners, skilled laborers in all fields.
Thousands of slaves lived on their own in the city, too, making a living
at various jobs, and sending home a few dollars to their owners in the country
at the end of the month.
This is not
to diminish the horror of the slave market in the middle of the famous St.
Louis Hotel, or the injustice of the slave labor on plantations from one
end of the state to the other. It is merely to say that it was never all
"have or have not" in this strange and beautiful city. Later in
the 19th century, as the Irish immigrants poured in by the thousands, filling
the holds of ships that had emptied their cargoes of cotton in Liverpool,
and as the German and Italian immigrants soon followed, a vital and complex
went up to serve the great faith of the city's European-born Catholics;
convents and schools and orphanages were built for the newly arrived and
the struggling; the city expanded in all directions with new neighborhoods
of large, graceful houses, or areas of more humble cottages, even the smallest
of which, with their floor-length shutters and deep-pitched roofs, possessed
an undeniable Caribbean charm.
all, black culture never declined in Louisiana. In fact, New Orleans became
home to blacks in a way, perhaps, that few other American cities have ever
been. Dillard University and Xavier University became two of the most outstanding
black colleges in America; and once the battles of desegregation had been
won, black New Orleanians entered all levels of life, building a visible
middle class that is absent in far too many Western and Northern American
cities to this day.
of blacks on the music of the city and the nation is too immense and too
well known to be described. It was black musicians coming down to New Orleans
for work who nicknamed the city "the Big Easy" because it was
a place where they could always find a job. But it's not fair to the nature
of New Orleans to think of jazz and the blues as the poor man's music, or
the music of the oppressed.
else was going on in New Orleans. The living was good there. The clock ticked
more slowly; people laughed more easily; people kissed; people loved; there
was joy. Which is why so many New Orleanians, black and white, never went
north. They didn't want to leave a place where they felt at home in neighborhoods
that dated back centuries; they didn't want to leave families whose rounds
of weddings, births and funerals had become the fabric of their lives. They
didn't want to leave a city where tolerance had always been able to outweigh
prejudice, where patience had always been able to outweigh rage. They didn't
want to leave a place that was theirs.
And so New
Orleans prospered, slowly, unevenly, but surely - home to Protestants and
Catholics, including the Irish parading through the old neighborhood on
St. Patrick's Day as they hand out cabbages and potatoes and onions to the
eager crowds; including the Italians, with their lavish St. Joseph's altars
spread out with cakes and cookies in homes and restaurants and churches
every March; including the uptown traditionalists who seek to preserve the
peace and beauty of the Garden District; including the Germans with their
clubs and traditions; including the black population playing an ever increasing
role in the city's civic affairs.
has done what the Civil War couldn't do. Nature has done what the labor
riots of the 1920's couldn't do. Nature had done what "modern life"
with its relentless pursuit of efficiency couldn't do. It has done what
racism couldn't do, and what segregation couldn't do either. Nature has
laid the city waste - with a scope that brings to mind the end of Pompeii.
I share this
history for a reason - and to answer questions that have arisen these last
few days. Almost as soon as the cameras began panning over the rooftops,
and the helicopters began chopping free those trapped in their attics, a
chorus of voices rose. "Why didn't they leave?" people asked both
on and off camera. "Why did they stay there when they knew a storm
was coming?" One reporter even asked me, "Why do people live in
such a place?"
Then as conditions
became unbearable, the looters took to the streets. Windows were smashed,
jewelry snatched, stores broken open, water and food and televisions carried
out by fierce and uninhibited crowds. Now the voices grew even louder. How
could these thieves loot and pillage in a time of such crisis? How could
people shoot one another? Because the faces of those drowning and the faces
of those looting were largely black faces, race came into the picture. What
kind of people are these, the people of New Orleans, who stay in a city
about to be flooded, and then turn on one another?
an answer. Thousands didn't leave New Orleans because they couldn't leave.
They didn't have the money. They didn't have the vehicles. They didn't have
any place to go. They are the poor, black and white, who dwell in any city
in great numbers; and they did what they felt they could do - they huddled
together in the strongest houses they could find. There was no way to up
and leave and check into the nearest Ramada Inn.
thousands more who could have left stayed behind to help others. They went
out in the helicopters and pulled the survivors off rooftops; they went
through the flooded streets in their boats trying to gather those they could
find. Meanwhile, city officials tried desperately to alleviate the worsening
conditions in the Superdome, while makeshift shelters and hotels and hospitals
was everyone else during all this? Oh, help is coming, New Orleans was told.
We are a rich country. Congress is acting. Someone will come to stop the
looting and care for the refugees. And it's true: eventually, help did come.
But how many times did Gov. Kathleen Blanco have to say that the situation
was desperate? How many times did Mayor Ray Nagin have to call for aid?
Why did America ask a city cherished by millions and excoriated by some,
but ignored by no one, to fight for its own life for so long? That's my
I know that
New Orleans will win its fight in the end. I was born in the city and lived
there for many years. It shaped who and what I am. Never have I experienced
a place where people knew more about love, about family, about loyalty and
about getting along than the people of New Orleans. It is perhaps their
very gentleness that gives them their endurance.
rebuild as they have after storms of the past; and they will stay in New
Orleans because it is where they have always lived, where their mothers
and their fathers lived, where their churches were built by their ancestors,
where their family graves carry names that go back 200 years. They will
stay in New Orleans where they can enjoy a sweetness of family life that
other communities lost long ago.
But to my
country I want to say this: During this crisis you failed us. You looked
down on us; you dismissed our victims; you dismissed us. You want our Jazz
Fest, you want our Mardi Gras, you want our cooking and our music. Then
when you saw us in real trouble, when you saw a tiny minority preying on
the weak among us, you called us "Sin City," and turned your backs.
Well, we are a lot more than all that. And though we may seem the most exotic,
the most atmospheric and, at times, the most downtrodden part of this land,
we are still part of it. We are Americans. We are you.