Culture and Race in New Orleans

Culture and Race in New Orleans
August 1, 2009
By Harry Shearer

Cheryl asks for comments on rebuilding the culture of the city. My experience here, knowing a lot of musicians, some writers, an artist or two, and some filmmakers, is that the culture of this place is rebuilding itself even better than the economy, and far better than, say, the political culture. Any city with the remotest claim to a culture will have responded to an event like Katrina with a flood of work, and New Orleans has complied. Aside from Cheryl's book, there have been literally dozens of novels and non-fiction accounts, poetry, and an impassioned polemic ("Why New Orleans Matters") arguing for the city's continued existence. There have also been songs, paintings, photographic exhibitions, and screenplays galore.

On a larger scale, the city made a statement early on about itself and its culture when the first Mardi Gras after the flood took place, despite the well-intentioned warnings of many that it was "sending the wrong signal". New Orleans held that Carnival--a wounded, rollicking two-week display of righteous civic sarcasm against all who had failed the city--because, as so many folks here said, "that's what we do". Our early fears that new pioneers might overwhelm and ignore our traditions had moments--like the police arrest of musicians second-lining after a funeral because new neighbors complained about the noise--where it appeared they might be true. Yet, despite the flood and the economic weakness, traditions like the Mardi Gras Indians, and places like the Backstreet Museum and the House of Dance and Feathers--which collect and display material about the street culture of the city--have survived.

City government has always seemed to view the rollicking, vibrant culture of this place with a distant, curious gaze, and that's probably a good thing, since no culture would suffer more from being the captive pet of the establishment than ours.

John McQuaid asks about the more difficult, to me, issue of untangling the story of the city's disaster from the issues of race into which it became entangled. Clearly, no New Orleans media--not the Times-Picayune, not WWL or WDSU television, not Gambit Weekly--characterized the disaster as a racial event. That was a template stamped on the flooding by New York-based media which preferred to do its coverage from sites within a quarter-mile of an interstate offramp. The Convention Center and Superdome filled that bill. Lakeview and St. Bernard Parish did not. And the national media did not choose to be concerned with the question of why the city flooded. It covered the disaster under the template of "natural disaster" and, as with all such, quickly moved on.

We wrestle with the after-effects of those choices. Folks outside who, for whatever political reasons, chose not to support robust federal efforts to remedy the federally-caused damage, would often seize on racial (and sectional) prejudice to support their positions. And while New Orleanians engaged in a frenzy of reform of political institutions (too complicated to draw national attention), we re-elected some politicians who fit the preconceptions of our enemies. I'm an advocate, in the short run, of choosing our leaders with an almost adolescent obsession: how will this look to others?
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