Ode To New Orleans

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There are many emotions in the hearts of African Americans these days.  Polls indicating the great divide in opinions of African Americans and white Americans show almost diametrically opposite responses.  Seventy percent of African Americans believe that race was a factor in the slow response of the government to the storms and nearly 70 percent of white Americans believe that it was not a factor.  Thus, there is still the feeling named a century ago by W.E.B. DuBois of the “twonessâ€? felt by African Americans, a feeling of apartness and separateness and a deep and troubling wondering if we will ever be truly considered fully human and fully American.

Then there is also a deep sense of mourning.  As the stories unfold of our elders forgotten by government officials at all levels, left to die in hospitals and nursing homes, in their attics or on the highways or sidewalks by the Superdome and Convention Center, there is profound sadness.  As the stories of babies dying of dehydration and of mothers being separated from their children are shared, long-ago memories of slavery and the separation of families are brought back to life.  Hundreds of families have yet to be re-united.

But there is also mourning for the city of New Orleans itself.  Many Americans see only Bourbon Street when they think of New Orleans, or only of Mardi Gras and all-night parties.  But New Orleans is much, much more. If Harlem is key to understanding the mind of Black America, then New Orleans is key to understanding its soul.  It was from the searching for God in the music of Black churches across the deep South and in the rich stew of African and French and Cajun and Indian cultures that jazz was born in New Orleans.  New Orleans, the city itself, provided a sense of identity and welcome and sophistication and allowed for the nurture of the music.  But underneath the joy heard in jazz there was always the pain of slavery and a sense of that apartness and separation from family and culture.  

Yes, New Orleans has always been a place that understood paradoxes.  It has always celebrated life, with the understanding that death was a part of the Creator’s great cycle.  Thus, there is the so-called “Second Lineâ€? at New Orleans funerals – the jazz band playing slowly at first and then with great joy on the way to the cemetery.  Part of the wild celebration of joy found in Mardi Gras is the knowledge that a part of life is death.

Then there has been the Cajun and Creole food of New Orleans.  You can’t go to New Orleans and get a bad meal.  The mingling of the cultures also inspired the food. The spiciness of the sausage and the saltiness of the gifts of the sea are anchored by the rice and meat.  New Orleans gumbo might be seen as a symbol of the coming together of the people and their tastes into one divine dish.

But if New Orleans is seen as a party town, it has also been a place of culture and history.  In the African American community that includes the historically Black colleges, Dillard, Xavier and, where many leaders in the African American community have been prepared for leadership.  There has also been the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University.

There is one thing I agree with President Bush on – I can’t see the U.S. without New Orleans. It’s a great city with great people, a great history, and, I pray, a great future.

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