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The "Nigga" in New Orleans

It was more than obvious. Large portions of New Orleans would never be rebuilt. Soon after Katrina, a reporter and I agreed on this. Too many of the people in the most devastated areas were poor. Too many were black. And, in the context of American history, those are crimes of history for which they must pay. Just as those like them have always paid, and will continue to pay.

“You’re nothing if you’re poor and black,” my New Orleans-reared mother used to say. Clawing her way to a comfortable middle-class with her Louisana-bred husband, this was her desperate way of goadingme into non-acceptance —non-acceptance of the ‘60s status quo of the all-black school, the segregated neighborhood, the “comfort zone” of black life as it stood back then. It was her warning that, at worst, the majority has contempt for you, and at best, is simply indifferent to you, and your sufferings or hardships. “You’re on your own,” she was saying. ‘There is no country behind you, no countrymen support you, no government promotes your interest.”

You’re on your own.

Throughout history, blacks got the slops. Slaves ate what was left after the white folks took the best. Blacks were allowed to live only where white folks didn’t want to. Thus, black neighborhoods are often the most vulnerable to natural, and man-made, disaster. When I lived in the then middle-class Ponchartrain Park area of New Orleans, the streets regularly flooded during the summer heavy rains. Six inches of water for children to play in. It receded an hour or so later. To me, it was just one of many freakish novelties that marked this place malevolent, foreign, as somehow antithetical to my well-being. Though young, I found its climate insufferable, its insects primordial, its flora sinister, its racism pernicious. New Orleans seemed a place where I could never have the best. It seemed a place where folks like me were limited to what the white folks let us have. My antipathy was so strong it has lasted for decades. Once I had a choice in the matter, I never returned to New Orleans. Instead of “home”—the place that made my mother and father and all of my relatives what they were—New Orleans was a threat—a negative object lesson in acceptance. With large black swaths of the city largely decimated, it’s now much easier to articulate why.

Black New Orleanians rightly take a lot of pride in having built communities from the shards and pieces they were allowed in this deep south former slave port. The community ties date back generations, with family homes and land regarded reverentially. In many cases, it was the only thing of value people had. Holding onto it was everything.

That’s why the prospect of losing homes and land is so devastating in New Orleans’ poor black communities. It was the only thing so many had. They had sacrificed, fought, scraped and struggled for generations to own, and now .  . . it’s gone. It’s particularly galling that it’s gone because of incompetence, indifference and inaction. But that’s what my mother warned me about. It’s the warning of which black New Orleanians, and black Americans in general, take too little heed.

 Pride in accomplishment is natural, but don’t dare ignore that the accomplishment is built on a foundation of impoverishment and limits imposed from without. Yes, blacks built a community, but we built in a disaster zone—because that’s the only place in New Orleans where we were allowed to build.

The Brown University professor of sociology John R. Logan found that damaged areas of New Orleans were 75% black. Undamaged areas were 46% black. Yes, blacks lived in the most dangerous, flood-prone areas. According the the Boston Globe, the Logan study “found that if New Orleans’ returning population was limited to the neighborhoods undamaged by Katrina, about half the white population would not return and 80% of its black population would not.”

History dictated that 80% of New Orleans black population rely on a government of the majority to protect them from looming disaster. Predictably, the federal government shirked that responsibility. Prior to Katrina, the Bush administration was warned that a devastating hurricane striking New Orleans was among the most likely U.S. disaster scenarios. However, subsequent to that warning, the administration cut New Orleans flood control funding by 44%. According to the Washington Post, “. . . President Bush’s lofty promises to rebuild the Gulf Coast have been frustrated by bureaucratic failures and competing priorities. . . .” From the federal government, Louisiana will get 6.2 billion dollars to help an estimated 200,000 homeowners. Mississippi will receive 5 billion to help an estimated 50,000. And that is for New Orleans homeowners—the comparatively affluent ones. The contempt tinged with hatred for the black and poorest was brutally crystallized in a statement from Rep. Richard H. Baker, ten-term Republican from Baton Rouge. “ We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans,” he was overheard telling lobbyists. “We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

 “You’re on your own,” my New Orleans-reared mother insisted.

Pride is a strange thing. American descendants of African slaves were forced on penalty of death to accept little more than scraps throughout most of this nation’s history. When we, through dint of sheer creativity, work, and will turned those scraps into homes and communities, we took great pride in the accomplishment. However, it is at our peril that we don’t realize that the accomplishments are built, quite literally, on shaky ground—that the pride must be tempered with practicality. There are aspects of the past that we cannot “recover” or “rehabilitate.” Through will, work and pride, we cannot elevate low-lying land and stop the winds from blowing. And now we know that we cannot expect governments of the majority to care enough to preserve our past, or value our pride, or our history.

The fact that we were denied our rights to live securely is a point of pain. That we built communities from that denial is a point of pride. With Katrina, the painful root of that pride emerged; and it devastated so many of us.

How many orchids can you grow in fetid soil? We’ve managed many: Music, art, literature, forms of speech and worship so powerful that they’ve seduced the majority into imitation. But there are limits. We cannot cling desperately to lands earmarked for destruction by no less than nature—just because we were forced to do so in the past.

The cast of the film “Crash” appeared on a recent Oprah Winfrey show. The discussion turned to the word “nigger.” Winfrey said she found the word irredeemable. Some of the black male cast members differed. Some noted the distinction between the word “nigger” and the term “nigga,” the latter, they claimed, being a non-racist endearment. For centuries, whites used “nigger” to humiliate and utterly dehumanize us. It suggested we were less than dogs in the speakers’ minds. We weren’t people. We were “niggers.” Disposable. Utilities. Property. Owned. Chattel. Since slavery, it has been used as a reminder—to insist that we’re still less than human. The word still stinks of violence. You hear it, and you’re ready to fight or flee. It’s the inevitable soundtrack to a hate crime.

Hundreds of years ago, blacks so internalized the hatred and dehumanization under which we lived that we began calling each other “nigger.” I remember hearing my father and his friends say, “That nigger don’t know a goddamned thing about. . .” “That nigger is so rich he doesn’t know what to do with his money.” They might be discussing someone they loathed, or someone they admired, but either way, “nigger” could be attached. The use of the word suggested a brotherhood—a brotherhood of the despised. It suggested ingestion of the class of the accursed.

I never understood the use of the word; I never used it. I was raised in mainly white environments. Only rarely lived in all-black ones. I was never part of a large community of blacks for a long time and never felt myself someone worthy of reference—through brotherhood or hatred—as “nigger.” That may be my loss. It may be my gain. But to me, the insistence that the word has been neutered because blacks use it with each other is absurd. It still seems the tag of a community of the accursed. That you accept that status, even speak of it with pride, does not elevate it. “Nigga,” is “nigger.” That white boys now use it with each other is just another piece of noble savage wannabe-ism—insiders toying with outsider poses, safe in the knowledge they will never suffer its consequences. With “nigga,” again we desperately take the scraps we were given—ignoring the historical hatred from which they sprung—and try to mold them into a source of pride. We took the low-lying land in New Orleans—forced to ignore the historical hatred from which access sprung—and fashioned from it a source of pride—for a while, until history, as it will when your pride lets you forget it, snatched the last word.


End Cap


Leonce Gaiter’s story “Live at Storyville” appeared in Archipelago, Vol. 3, No. 4


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