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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

A glimpse into the subtlety of New Orleans

Greetings from the Grinnell Corps Fellows in New Orleans, Thailand, Namibia, and Lesotho! This semester, we are going to take turns writing about our experiences living and working around the world. This week … New Orleans!

Three months ago, I thought that I was well prepared for my move to New Orleans because I had traveled extensively and visited New Orleans several times. Now, two months into my fellowship, my strongest sentiment about this city is that it is like no other that I have ever visited. Culturally, socially, and politically—New Orleans is proudly unique.

The city is also proudly festive. With a holiday-like festival of some sort every week since I moved to New Orleans, boredom has completely eluded me. My 10-10, Mary B. James, and Block Party have been replaced with Southern Decadence (a N’orleans style Pride parade), Jazz fest and Dirty Linen (yes it is what it sounds like). Closed roads, hoards of half-dressed people roaming the streets and Mardi Gras beads littering even the tallest trees are all sights I’ve come to associate with home. Despite my easy assimilation into the Big Easy, I was admittedly pretty shocked this week to find out that the first Saints game of the 2010 season was cause for not only an all-day parade across the city, but also early release from schools and a day off from work! Is there anything people won’t shut down the city to celebrate here?

Well, yes—there is Hurricane Katrina. Aug. 29 was the fifth anniversary of that unforgettable night when Katrina hit land, broke the levies on Lake Pontchartrain and caused the entirety of the city to eventually be evacuated for over a month. Wasting no opportunity for a big hoopla, the city of New Orleans and various organizations planned a packed weekend of commemoration events around the city. Artists flew in from around the world to show the photographs and films they had shot in the months of disaster that followed the storm. Famous folks like Brad Pitt and Faith Hill and even President Obama planned appearances to pledge their everlasting commitment to the city. And of course, music and food abounded.

I felt like an awkward voyeur for most of the Commemoration Week since I cannot speak to the experience of those life-changing days and months in 2005. But I was honored that folks permitted me to watch and listen as they remembered in their own way. And it seems that for most, their way was not to participate in the big hoopla. Unlike those music festivals and Saints games, most New Orleanians do not find Katrina, or even their survival of Katrina, to be a cause for celebration. Even though many of the people I talk with call Katrina “a blessing in disguise” because of the attention it brought to long-standing problems in New Orleans, none of those people came out for the Katrina Commemoration Week. So I found myself wondering—why not?

My fellow dancers answered that question for me after a Monday night African Dance class in Central City. As we sat down to eat, the instructor asked us, “Who attended any of the Katrina events?” Only one woman, who happens to be the only white woman in the class, raised her hand. Everyone else began explaining why they did not, or as it turned out, could not attend. They spoke of how they remain too traumatized to risk attending an event and having their Katrina wounds reopened. An older woman offered that, to this day, she couldn’t even bear to read a newspaper article or watch footage from the storm on TV. One after another, these women echoed the same tale—they and their families still feel the fall-out of Hurricane Katrina and the endemic problems it represents. Clearly, commemoration ceremonies, like last weekends’ events, fail to help them address those pains.

I learned early in life that the way that people celebrate and mourn tells an important story. My Minnesotan family’s participation in parties and funerals is tepid and reserved. My Nigerian family turns every birthday, graduation and even death into a three-day fiesta of music, dance and food. And those differences speak volumes to each of my family’s histories, cultures and ways of being in this world. In New Orleans, celebration and mourning practices are equally as telling—this city is in a long process of healing from illnesses such as racism, urban disinvestment and corruption that were exacerbated by Hurricane Katrina. For residents, returning to proudly held traditions of celebration and tourism are important to that healing process, but definitely not a panacea.

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