Can We Go Home Again?
Mesmerized. That’s how I watched last night’s PBS American Experience on New Orleans; it’s the state -- combined with weepy nostalgia -- that any halfway accurate and intelligent media assessment of the only place I really think of as home induces. New Orleans’ imagery is always powerful, almost primitive, proving time and time again the city’s rich history remains it most potent asset. More so now, than ever!
Only in retrospect, meaning this morning, did the first big contradiction present itself to me. Contradiction is to be expected, of course; the subject is New Orleans, city of enigma. At the conclusion, the filmmaker leaves his audience with a hopefulness that New Orleans, while riddled with problems and contradictions, represents a possible model for going forward, that its longstanding tradition of cultural democracy can show America “how to be America” if they are interested.
This is a pretty standard party line from the city’s cultural ambassadors from Wynton Marsalis to my old teacher John Biguenet, and it’s a noble conceit, one that romances me on a regular basis. Here’s the rub: I can’t always jive this idea with my own experiences of living in New Orleans for more than a decade from the 80s through to the late 90s. For sure, the city’s complicated cultural gumbo held me in a trance. Race, or the intersecting point of white European high culture and African folk culture, certainly informed the unique experience of the city’s music, food, civic celebration and more.
In my New Orleans, whites may have still lived closer to blacks, but there were no less foreign as “real people” than they are in say Chicago, where the geographic divide is more pronounced. We liked the idea that we lived in an “Afro Caribbean Paris” and enjoyed the fruits of an exploited culture; it made us more authentic, in the know and culturally superior to every one else in America living in their nameless, faceless suburbias listening to Top 40 FM radio and eating bland American food.
But most of us didn’t really connect with our fellow black New Orleanians, nor as the documentary pointed out so well was the historical or political outcome much different than in other places around the country.
On my last trip home, I had dinner one night with two locals, one whose family stretches back generations and the other a Midwestern academic liberal who came to town in the 1960s, fell in love with the city and never left. Over wine and one of the best meals I have ever eaten in my life (at Herbsaint), they thoroughly chewed and digested a favorite discussion of theirs – the lack of real black political leadership in New Orleans and ultimately the tragic disconnect between the races because of their inability to speak the same language. I asked about the possibility for making new connections, maybe through a vocabulary of faith, but they simply shook their heads. They had given up hope.
In that moment, I remembered with ever fiber of my being why I willingly left New Orleans in 1998.
I, for one, haven’t given up hope, not yet. As Mose Allison puts it: "I ain't downhearted, but I'm gettin' there."
Meanwhile I question the logic underlying the PBS message, that just because something was, it still is or can be again? And that avoids entirely the much more troubling question of myth – whether New Orleans ever was what it purports to have been? This is a game that Southern mythmakers have been at for a long time, using a storied and idealized past to assault present conditions and circumstances.
In his short, but tasty, book-length study “Dusty in Memphis” examining the way in which southern folk culture is experienced and transmuted into the mainstream commercial world, former New Orleans resident and Loyola student Warren Zanes writes:
“This notion of a ‘stubborn medievalism’ and a ‘more shadowed past,’ so long associated with what W.J. Cash describes as the “backward South” has remained at the center of the imagined South…Particularly in periods of anxious change, backwardness offers a certain comfort.” Zanes goes on to note rightly that even a violence-tinged past can be “met and matched by an idealization of the place that finally served as a kind of symbolic buoy in the face of modernity’s relentless change.”
Modernism, says a more learned friend of mine, was the last gasp of romanticism, trying to put the pieces of our great myths back together again in some cosmic game of Humpty Dumpty that would hopefully bring about redemption, at least poetically. While fruitful in the classroom, these arguments find little audience at the statehouse or in the corporate boardroom, where crucial decisions have yet to be made. Thousands of would-be entrepreneurs are watching to see whether New Orleans will emerge from this moment of historical impasse. Ironically, those waiting in the wings hold the fate of the city’s future, if only they are given the green light.
Just over a year ago, on a trip home to New Orleans, a local friend took me to task for suggesting that the New Orleans likely to emerge from Katrina would be very different from the city we had previously known. “That sounds like the kind of thing somebody who doesn’t live here would say,” he fired back, angrily. Today, a year later, conditions remain much the same.
Mythmaking aside, the history of the Crescent City is filled with stories of assimilation, cultural, racial and ultimately economic. New Orleans grew up where it did, in its own unique manner, because it had a compelling reason to be -- in the present and not historical tense. That’s what brings people together and forges common bonds!