Unbearable Crime On the Mississippi
by Thulani Davis

When I woke up today, the only thought that came to mind was Reverend Jesse Jackson's indignant cry, "This is the bottom of the slave ship we are looking at."

I think Jesse actually put his finger on what happened to all of us this week. Those shots we've seen are, as he said, the bottom of the slave ships. I think that really goes to why all the rest of us watching are so traumatized. And I think it is necessary to repeat what he has said about how the people in this country have a high tolerance for viewing "black pain." Yes, while we are asking the unheard question as to why a third of New Orleans' population is poor and all black, everyone from the president on down is comfortable with these realities of our ongoing unemployment, overcrowding, homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, neighborhood crime and despair.

Jesse's metaphor is also so apt in that you only had to listen to five minutes of reporting to know families had been separated in ways that could be irreparable — across states, even mothers from month-old babies...just evacuating babies without contact with the parents is such a nightmare, I hate even hearing about it. These are the people who were marginalized from the Internet as well; are they going to run to a computer site?

African Americans in this crisis are further having the devastating experience of watching parents suffer and die right in their faces on sidewalks where people were forced to stand, not even sit for days. And the people crowded next to them experienced the same deaths. And like our ancestors, the poor today will have no access to therapeutic treatment. This is where you just have to agree with Jesse that the people in charge have the capacity to tolerate scenes of suffering they know have been suffered by blacks for generations.

At the same time, people among the stranded have been made aware that they are being portrayed as lawless by media people who are freaking out at the idea of thousands of black people not guarded by police. That in itself is a legacy of slavery. And even as we watched, the reporters and anchors on both NBC and CNN last week both misidentified Congressman John Lewis as Congressman Elijah Cummings for hours. This is one of the staples of the era when I was young and black people first appeared on TV and no one could tell one of us from another. This is really tired, old nonsense. I found myself filing email complaints to the networks, even though I know John Lewis and many others probably told them.

Lastly, there is now what is called the Katrina Diaspora. This diaspora of people without resources puts the restoration of families and community at risk, and in the case of New Orleans' black community, probably makes that impossible. Even people who own land there are going to be in deep trouble trying to hold onto it when the real estate boondoggle gets in the courts. I'm afraid we'll be reading a lot of stupid crap about how they couldn't be found, taxes were owed, etc. as in times past throughout the South. That's why I hope Jesse gets someone to bring people like Congressman Bennie Thompson into the fold, as he is familiar with the commission that had to be set up in the Delta because people are still trying to get back land stolen in the 1930s. And the developers are probably asking for eminent domain to be declared even as I'm typing.

Will Jackson, Rev. Al, Rep. Elijah Cummings, et. al. be asking after the fact, after they've read about development plans in the papers that the black community be represented at the table of planning "the NEW New Orleans?" The cultural heritage of New Orleans, which is so singular, is in serious jeopardy. The perfect mix of forces and cultures was based in a particularly unique feature of the dispersion of Africans during slavery: a disproportionate share of the Yoruba brought here (who were a minority within the groups in Middle Passage) landed in that area. What happened after that in encounters with the French, the Caribbean and the peoples of the States, cannot be replicated. Replacing the architecture with vinyl versions of shotgun and camel back houses will not produce any Buddy Boldens, Jelly Roll Mortons or Louis Armstrongs. As a writer, I myself have used the invaluable records kept there of this unique heritage. Just as one had to worry in the several rounds of the bombing of Baghdad that not only were untold people being killed but some of the oldest treasures of human life, I feel even more concerned that no one will care that thousands have died in New Orleans, others thousands dislocated and that one of our own cultural treasures, the city of New Orleans itself, will be deprived of its cultural engine.

This is a tragedy not only for the millions there on the ground, and the national economy but for the culture at large. We are witnessing in a matter of days a dislocation one-fifth the size of Middle Passage — which took place over more than 200 years. And all those conveniences of modern social organization which would mitigate its effects for most of us — phone, internet, cars, gasoline, and family with ample housing — do not apply to this country's poor. For them, getting lost may mean not being found any more easily than in 1865 when people went on foot and in wagons following word of mouth leads to find where family members may have been sent.

It is unbearable, and unconscionable.

Copyright ©, 2005, Thulani Davis

Copyright © 2005
Last Modified: September 12, 2005.
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