Thursday, April 21, 2011
Last week, in Washington DC, I gave voice to the questions that still confounded me: How did a country go from the civil war and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to the derelict poverty of West Baltimore? How did America move from Jim Crow to the catastrophe of the flooding of New Orleans? Our travels through America opened up so many questions, applicable not only to that society, but to my own.
Last night, unable to sleep in Montreal, I came across a documentary about James Baldwin. In 1963, Baldwin went to San Francisco and began a study tour of the city. He wanted to know about the state of race relations in a so called progressive city. In Baldwin's San Francisco, I found a window into the Baltimore that Charlie Duff tried to help us see, the city that was destroyed, that city that was "recovered" in the 1960s through mass evictions and demolitions and the use of fire breaks to separate the races.
from Take This Hammer, James Baldwin's study tour of San Francisco, 1963
Boy: They trying to tear down our homes, brother.... Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, let me tell you. Now they talking about better jobs, jobs right here. You want me tell you what kind of jobs they gonna give us? They're gonna let us tear down on own homes. That's the job we're getting. And you know what they gonna pay us? Let me tell you want they're going to pay. They're going to pay you $2 an hour... I mean, what does that end up gaining you? That's not gaining you a thing. You won't get anything. They'll help you tear down your own home. It's a job, temporarily. And then what you going to do? Where you going to live? You're not going to live anywhere. They not even in the process of trying to tell you where you're going to live. All they're talking about is tearing down your house.
TV Reporter: How long have you been in San Francisco?
Boy: Well I've been in San Francisco about 18 years. Ever since I was a year or two old.
Baldwin: And you live around here, too.
TV Reporter: In temporary housing?
Girl: No, city projects. Ain't no temporary housing no more, they're tearing 'em down. Ain't no more. Ain't going to be no place when they get through. We're going to be living out on the streets.
TV Reporter: Does that make you feel bad?
Girl: Yeah, make you feel bad. Won't be no place to go. We'll be living out here on streets in tents.
TV Reporter: And where would you like to go if you could?
Girl: I'd like to stay up here on top of the hill.
TV Reporter: You would? How long you've been living on top of here?
Girl: Ever since I been born.
Man: And then this is part of a redevelopment also.
Baldwin: What do you mean? You say redevelopment meaning what?
Man: Removal of Negroes.
Baldwin: Uh-huh. Yes. That's what I thought you meant.
Man: In other words, a lot of the Negroes who came because the Japanese were pushed out, now are now being pushed out.
Baldwin: In effect, San Francisco is reclaiming this property to build it up, which means Negroes have to go.
Man: That's right.
Baldwin: Where are they going to go?
Man: Well, they're going out to Hunter's Point, and to the Haight-Ashbury area, and also into Ocean View, wherever they can find reasonable rents. South of Market, and all those other places. Wherever they can find cheap rent. In other words, going from one ghetto to the other.
Baldwin: Yes, yes. So, this is the Negro housing project in effect.
Baldwin: Uh-huh. I know a lot about housing projects in New York. But I am sure this isn't different at all.
Man: No, houses there have some of the same problems although the buildings, the exterior looks--
Baldwin: Oh, the exterior looks marvelous, that's the whole point. But I know what goes on inside. Correct me if I'm wrong... Better housing in the ghetto is simply not possible. You can build a few better plans but you cannot do anything about the moral and psychological effects of being in the ghetto. This is the point. Everybody living in those housing projects is just as endangered as ever before by all of the things that the ghetto means. By raising a kid in one of those housing projects I would still have, at the front door, or probably right next door in the housing project, all the things I was trying to escape. I mean, even such things as dealing with insurance companies if I want fire insurance, you know, to the fact that, in the playground, my boy or my girl will be exposed to the man who sells narcotics, for example, to a million forces which are inevitably set in motion when a people are despised. You can't pretend that you're not despised if you are. We were saying yesterday that children can't be fooled. But I could be fooled, and be glad about having a whatever it is, a terrace, a garage. But, my kid won't be. It's my kids that are being destroyed by this fantastic democracy.
It isn't only what it's doing to Negro children which is, God knows, bad enough. It's what it does to white children who grow up believing that it is more important to make a profit than it is to be a man. And that's the way that society really operates. I don't care what society says, this is how it operates and these are the goals it sets. And these goals aren't worthy of a man.
Friday, April 15, 2011
|They were hungry|
Thursday, April 14, 2011
In Morgan City, Louisiana, I move with a tour group through Mr. Charlie, the first submersible, moving oil rig, wandering through the spaces once inhabited by tough men who lived here for up to forty-five days at a time, doing dangerous and difficult work. The oil rig is now a museum designed to give visitors an idea of how it worked, though its former life as an actual workplace lends it an eeriness, as though its men had merely gone on furlough at the same time. Signs still remind people of rules and regulations, staterooms stand clean and ready for occupants, cooking utensils hang waiting for mess hall preparations. This is a micro-community devoted to seeking out and extracting one of the most precious commodities on earth, its existence defined, controlled, and informed by oil.
In a dimly lit, long abandoned recreation room, amid a foosball table, TV and VCR, packs of cards and boxes of dominoes, God makes his first appearance on this tour. Comfortable couches range around a coffee table, on which lie two Bibles -- one a generic hardbound volume of the Gideon variety, the other something that looks more like a technical manual. God's Word for the Oil Patch: Fuel for the Soul, it says. It's produced by the Oilfield Christian Fellowship, and inside appears to be a standard Bible in a modern American translation, prefaced by some inspirational material targeted at the men who work the rigs. God is here, I said to myself.
A rather strange place for God to be, this behemoth that moves and acts with sublime power, conquering bayou, river, gulf, and ocean floor. God here is an enabler, granting human beings dominion over the earth and its lesser creatures, entitling them to seek out the fulfillment of a promise -- a reward for faith, loyalty, and service.
God's promise was also the theme of the sermon at the Trinity Bible Church in Lafayette, Louisiana. It's a boxy structure that feels more like a concert hall than a church, reinforced by the band onstage. Members of the congregation are handed a questionnaire upon entrance, the answers to which play into the sermon.
The theme is "Life in Transition: Where is my Focus?" The pastor, a virile, energetic man, walks his people through the questionnaire, tying an episode from the Old Testament to the contemporary challenges facing his flock which, by his own admission, depends on "the oil" for its survival. This is shepherd as motivational speaker, gospel as self-help, and I am reminded yet again of the absolute necessity of charisma in keeping a congregation congregated. Bullet points projected on the cyclorama summarize his affable patter, and he manages to bring his discourse back to the enabling power of Christian rhetoric. We end with exhortations to focus not on people, tasks, or oneself, but on "God's promises," and "God's presence." God is here, as well, the fierce, awesome, vengeful Yahweh who led armies into battle, who would brook no doubt or disagreement.
Days later, we would find ourselves in another church -- the famous 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where the bombing that killed four little girls fanned the flames of the civil rights movement in America. The centerpiece of the church is the Wales Window, which depicts a dark-skinned Christ-like figure in a slightly modified crucifixion pose: one hand outstretched to block oppression, the other to ask for forgiveness or mercy. Running along the lower edge of the window are the words "You do it to me," a paraphrased extract from Matthew 25:40. God is here too.
Our guide, the charming T.R. German, doesn't miss an opportunity to extol the goodness of God, and to urge us to honor the mystery of God's intentions and trust in God's wisdom. This seems to be his way of dealing with the problem of evil in the world. Because he is a black man who lived through the days of segregation and the civil rights movement, we press him for stories, personal perspectives on the historical narrative. Race is clearly still a sensitive topic here -- "We ain't going to get into that," he says, though allowing that "The devil is busy" -- but he surrenders everything to Jesus Christ, believing that wrong will be righted in the end. It's a faith that emphasizes endurance and patience, even in the face of persecution. It's a faith that could slide easily into passivity if allowed.
"It's a taught thing," he says, referring to racism as well as respect. The face of God is a taught thing as well, and people learn to see it in many different things. God is everywhere.
As we leave, Mr. German says, "Y'all be blessed." It's a gesture of kindness and generosity that is aware that many people move in unblessed ways in an unblessed world.
Translated from the Croatian (nd)
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
so unmoved by the boat’s slow approach – the boat
drifting across the flat green acre of water; a small prayer
for these acres of water which, in the low light, seem firm;
the squirrels, however, are never fooled or taken in;
a small prayer for the squirrels and their unknowable
but perfect paths; see how they run across
the twisting highway of cedars, but never crash;
a small prayer for the cedars and their dead knees
dotting the water like tombstones;
a prayer for the cedar balls that break
as you touch them, and stain your fingers yellow,
and release from their tiny bellies the smell of old
churches, of something holy; a prayer for the holy
alligators; you owe them at least that;
just last night you thought of Hana and asked them
to pray with you (the prayers of alligators are potent);
at night the grass is full of their red and earnest eyes;
a prayer for the grass that alligators divide
in the shape of a never-ending S; you lean over
to gather it because your friend says it can be cooked
with salt and oil; she says in Burma it is called
Ka-Na-Paw; a prayer for the languages we know
this landscape by; a prayer for the fragile French
spoken by the bayou’s fat fishermen, the fat fishermen
who admit to the bayou, we all dying. You understand?
Savez? A prayer for the bayou and its bayouness
and the fabulously unflummoxed beaver,
so unmoved by the boat’s slow approach.
Monday, April 11, 2011
Evening, 10th April 2011
Setting: Crazy ‘Bout Crawfish Cajun Café, Lafayette.
Eaters: Natasa, Vicente, Maddie, Billy, Kei, Khet, Alice
Things we ate in collective total, during the course of one meal:
Crayfish po boy
Sweet potato fries x 3 serves
Deep fried corn
Chicken breast smothered with French fries
White garlic bread
Bourbon Street rice
Atchafalaya seafood jumbalaya
Corn and chilli crab shu mu
Six large crabs
Deep fried oreos
Deep fried bread and butter pudding
Every travel blog has to have one of these entries about food, accompanied by photos which we will later attach. Those last two desserts brought us closer to our respective Deities in more ways than one.
After nearly forty-five minutes, I had left the crisp, air-conditioned church where the Pastor was rowing powerfully through the stories of Moses, Joshua, the chosen people and their first step into the bounty of the promised land. "'I will give you every piece of land you step upon,'" the Pastor had said, intoning the voice of God. "The country you are about to conquer: Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, they're not going to just pack up their homes and go. There's going to be a war." The Pastor's face radiated triumphant sunshine. "God never reneges on a promise. It's not about how good Moses is. It's about the goodness of God. 'I will give you every place where you set your foot.' God promised the land."
Soon after, I had stood up and left. It was clear to me that this House was not mine. Left to my own devices I might pick a fight (once again), and so I chose the wiser path: to stand amongst the shiny cars in the parking lot rather than inside the belly of the Old Testament. As I pushed through the double doors, the Pastor's voice followed me via a sophisticated audio hook-up system: "To navigate properly, you have to keep your eyes on the Word."
While waiting in the parking lot outside, it's New Orleans that looms large in my mind. To protect them from the rising water, the dead in New Orleans are buried above ground; the concrete chambers stand in neat rows like a city of the dead. John Biguenet, who gave us this description, then directed our attention to the living--men and women rebuilding after the levees broke in 2005, and those without the means to come home.
"No American understands what happened here," he said. "They don't comprehend what it is to lose a city." Immediately after the catastrophe, New Orleans was occupied by Humvees, military and mercenaries, including Blackwater. "Everywhere you went," Biguenet says, "someone was holding a gun." Terrified of looters, the powers that be set their sights on American citizens.
On August 29, 2005, the levees of New Orleans were breached in more than 50 locations, a catastrophic disaster caused by design failures "so obvious and fundamental" that the United States Army Corps of Engineers would finally, after months of about-facing, admit some culpability. In Biguenet's play, Rising Water, a man and woman wake to find their bed surrounded by a foot of water. They climb upstairs, and then up to the attic, and finally through a vent--except that one of them, Sugar, can't get all the way through. The play ends with Camille on the roof and Sugar unable to free himself, waiting for help "that does not come". Rising Water has an innocence and ease which makes it all the more harrowing: how easy it is to be left behind. How easy it is to become detritus.
During the service this morning, the Pastor had spoken of how God parted the waters for Moses. "He stops the river upriver... what they're left with is dry land. 'I'm gonna give you the land.' God has not changed. The promises of God have not changed." The Pastor asks us to celebrate to the blessings of God's constancy. "You got to believe those things."
One of my fellow writers asked someone here why this catastrophe befell the residents of New Orleans. "That happens," she said, "to people who put their faith in institutions other than God."
In New Orleans, we had visited St. Bernard Parish and the Lower 9th Ward. We saw the houses not yet rebuilt six years after the levees broke; we saw abandoned hospitals, boarded up schools, and many, many empty lots. "This place," the otherwise chirpy tour guide had said, as we passed through a collapsed neighborhood, "is not coming back." Some homes still bore the insignia of a spraypainted X on their walls, marking the date military units arrived at the property, the existence or non-existence of toxic water, and the number of dead people and animals. Charlie Duff had entreated us: "If you see something that doesn't make sense, ask why."
Here is my question: how can there ever be a recovery if a place, a country, does not notice that there is anything to recover from?
It is now awhile since we passed through Gettysburg, an unbelievably neat and tidy giant diorama, with straight lines, wide avenues in parts, cute awnings and clean streets that disturbed my urban chaotic psyche. I invariably looked for some of the crazy energy, that ‘institutional’ madness of the ‘Afro-urban’ modern space, ‘cosmo-natives’ and their ‘life-energy’ and their dismissal of architecture, and the material. Gettysburg refused to indulge me. Between older spruced up buildings that had metal identity plates that said ‘Civil War History’, stood T-shirt and Civil War paraphernalia shops and possibly the biggest commercial game in town, ghost-tour offices.