New Orleans was the first city that felt like family to me, and because I had moved so much growing up, family was the only thing I understood as home. A year after I graduated from Loyola University New Orleans, I was in New York City serving a volunteer year and planning to move back as soon as I could. People asked why, and I could say only that a thickness to life hangs in the air, like the humidity. It’s in the coffee, the beer, the crawfish, the ironwork, the jazz that isn’t snobby and gets everyone to stand up and dance, the bike rides I took along the Mississippi on Saturday mornings, stopping before the return trip to watch the most important river in America lazily begin its day.
My friend Allison went to Loyola too, and though we both live in New York, we still tell people we’re from New Orleans. Since the hurricane we have been calling every few hours, updating each other on whom we’ve heard from and who is still missing. We read a blog set up by a Loyola administrator, where the faculty and staff are slowly checking in, and we joined a listserve for Loyola alumni full of offers to house refugee students and plans for benefits, fundraisers and welcoming committees. The news we study compulsively, finding pictures of familiar street corners now underwater and reading stories of the vulnerable left to die that will live on, like the Trail of Tears or the internment of the Japanese in World War II, as a stinging indictment of our nation’s lingering bigotry.
Why not admit it? Black children are sent to the worst urban schools in New Orleans. The homicide rate in the city is out of control, fueled by drugs and gang warfare in black neighborhoods. Prisons across the South hold vast numbers of African-Americans, and some, like Angola in Louisiana, gain cheap and ready prison labor for estates that got their work out of black residents, using somewhat different means, 170 years ago. I hope, if nothing else, the faces on CNN help us stop ignoring the truth.
Yes, this is about government inefficiency, emergency preparedness and the sheer hubris of building a city below sea level. But like the greatest American novel, set as well along the Mississippi, this is primarily a story about race. And, as in the story of Huck Finn, when things got hard, the white folks got out.
It’s not just that Christians shall be judged by how we have remembered the poor. It’s that the life of New Orleans itself comes from these poor people--from their bitter coffee made with strange roots, from their broken-down pianos that redefined music, from their jazz funerals that laugh at death, a force too small for the inexorable joy of a people who have already seen the worst and would rather dance. If we do not make sure these mostly poor, mostly black people come back, New Orleans will become a caricature, an R-rated museum for fraternity brothers and conventioneers from Michigan. It will cease to be my home.
We Catholics find a sacredness in place. If the world is charged with the grandeur of God, as Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., wrote, then even more are specific streets and homes and schools alive with the reverberations of community, with the wind of the Spirit as everyone gathered in one room. Community and history are not ethereal: they are as linked to place as Christ’s death is linked to a specific piece of wood and his resurrection to one large rock.
Some are saying that the evacuees of New Orleans make up a diaspora, carriers of a culture so distinct that they will not be able to blend seamlessly into Birmingham or Houston. Anyone from the Crescent City will tell you this is true. New Orleans culture is born of a specific bend on a river, and those who love this culture and this bend will be back. Chefs and music venue owners will return. Allison will have that wedding she is planning on St. Charles Avenue, no matter what. All who have the money and means to do so will rebuild as soon as they can.
The rest, though, is hope. I hope that those who cannot afford it will get the help they need to settle back in New Orleans. I hope that when we rebuild the city, we ignore real estate opportunities for a moment and make space for those who never had a lot of money before and certainly won’t when they return. I hope that as we remake schools and hospitals and levees, we make sure that poor people get the chance for the lives they deserve. God may have promised never to flood again, but, if we have flooded ourselves, can we still learn the same lessons? Can we recreate our world, two-by-two, bit-by-bit, and maybe just a little less sinful than it was before? I hope so. After all, we’re talking about my family.