This article refers to a speech given by Kalamu ya Salaam as a keynote address during the conference “After Katrina: Transnational Perspectives on the Futures of the Gulf South,” which took place at Tulane University on November 15, 2013.
It’s easy to drink the elixir of the “New New Orleans” narrative if you’re ignorant, which I was when I moved here nearly four years ago—it’s served in strong doses, and it makes you feel good.
For post-Katrina transplants, New Orleans has a lot to offer, and although it’s impossible for anyone with half a brain and/or heart to completely ignore the fact that a great tragedy took place here not long ago, and the attendant inkling that your being here has something to do with that, this “New New Orleans” narrative serves as an opiating salve that allows you to believe that your being here is not only perfectly okay, but that you—in whatever vague way—are contributing to the rebirth of a great American city.
But as Kalamu ya Salaam pointed out in a recent speech at Tulane University, that rebirth has been a bloody birth, and when I block from my mind the notion that my relocation here makes me part of something special—the New New Orleans—it becomes increasingly clear that the benefits I enjoy that make my quality of life so high are the direct result of others’ suffering and death.
This might be a personal blind spot, something that other transplants have really taken to heart that I somehow, in my ignorance, missed, but I doubt it. The New New Orleans narrative has myopia-making capacities, and it’s time to dismantle it.
I don’t pretend in any way to be a leader in this effort—I can’t be, but I can listen to those who are, or who have the potential to be. This speech by Salaam—a writer, educator, and Lower Ninth Ward native, among many other things—is part poem, part memoir, part lament, includes a sort of people’s history of MRGO, and generally discusses what he calls “the so-called levee failures.” It articulates better than anything else I’ve encountered the macabre tension rife in a city that at once offers the blessings of home and the sincere threat of death. That his sentiments come across as so electrifying and novel speaks at once to the ignorance of people like me and to the utter strength and ubiquity of the New New Orleans narrative, which works vigorously to suppress the messages Salaam shares. Although his phrasings are extraordinary, these messages are not. Hundreds of thousands of people—particularly black people—know them by heart, but unless you’re part of that community, you’ve been told something else, something that makes you feel good—and, like me, you probably believed it.
In a preamble to his talk, Salaam quotes a stirring and eloquent 1785 denunciation of slavery by Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves his entire life, did not free any of his slaves upon his death, and fathered numerous children with one of his wife’s slaves, a 13-year-old girl. “This man, who was your third president,” Salaam says, “exemplifies to a degree unmatched perhaps by any other president—and that is a very high degree—the central American character of belief in high ideals and the lowest form of private behavior.”
I can’t help but think of this “central American character” when I think of my own conduct since moving here, encouraged by my belief in the New New Orleans, however benign any individual action I’ve taken might seem. Post-Katrina New Orleans is a complicated place, but what’s not complicated is the fact that many who have come here since the storm are doing well, while others who were here before are not, if they managed to make it back at all (more than 100,000 black people did not). Any transplant with a sincere interest in the well-being of his or her adopted home will work, perhaps at his or her own expense, to remedy this situation. How to go about this is a question each individual must consider, but it seems clear that the answer will come more quickly and truthfully once we eschew all belief in the New New Orleans narrative and understand that the benefits it touts fall within a narrow scope, outside of which reside trauma, poverty, and death.