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The Kingdom of God Is A Hand. February 9, 2013

Posted by The Typist in 504, Carnival, Central City, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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MLK Band

The evening begins with Ruby Bridges and ends with this picture of two young men in the Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School Marching Band. I wonder how many in the crowd remember who Bridges is, the small girl sent by parents as obedient as Abraham through the spit and vitriol walk to Golgotha past the Ku Klux mothers, into the segregated 1960 William Frantz Elementary School in the Ninth Ward. This evening she rides a float of honor in a Carnival parade staged by women the eldest of whom were likely raised like myself in Catholic and suburban schools as white as 1960 William Frantz and everyone in the crowd and on the floats likes to think we are far past all that.

The two unnamed young men attend a Ninth Ward school named for the famous civil rights leader, a school as uniformly black as William Frantz was white in 1959, a new school in the charter anarchy unleashed after the Federal Flood in the name of free-market reform. I wonder if their parents, likely raised in the Bantustan New Orleans Public School System and turned loose after their allotted sentence with half an education, carefully reviewed the dozens of new schools before selecting this one, or if they chose it because of Dr. King’s name, because it opened in the mostly de-peopled Ninth Ward, its name and location a symbol of a struggle that began in 1960 but which has never really ended.

The pair stopped right in front of me on St. Charles Avenue and 2nd Street during a stop in the parade, the older keeping up the parade rest beat while verbally schooling the younger one who struggled to keep up. I study the picture for some resemblance, perhaps they are brothers, but I don’t find any and think a wise band director chose to place the novice next to the older one, someone willing to take the younger under his wing and teach him the ropes. The seriousness of his face before I raise my phone camera as he speaks to the younger, all the while keeping up the rigorous tattoo, the way the younger one tries hard to match the drum strokes, shows the older to be someone with the innate authority to lead by example. He will make a fine teacher or preacher or military officer someday, in one of the few openings in America where the color of character really matters.

When I raise my camera the young men are both suddenly eyes-front and Marine Band erect, representing at their best. In a city where too many young men his age mistake fear for respect, he has mine immediately, both as teacher of the tradition and as the clearly proud person picture who wears his uniform patches as if they were a Nike swoosh drawn by the hand of God. It’s not fair to judge their school or the entire charter school movement by one young man but I have to think that the Dr. King school is doing something right. His pride and discipline shine like the best military band or ROTC unit you will see this carnival. His willingness to take responsibility for the younger drummer while never missing a beat, the way he snaps to attention and the young one follows his lead, is a badge of character as clear as the letters on his jacket, stands out from the crowd like the white plum on his hat.

I can’t help but think of how the most successful charter schools cherry pick students, of all the kids left behind in the Orleans Parish and Recovery School Districts, the ones unlucky enough to land in a corporate McDonald’s charter to be processed like so much meat, those who wind up bleeding out on someone’s porch over slights real or imagined. The teacher Jesus did not set out to save the whole world. Translations later he is said to proclaim that the kingdom of God is at hand but I have to wonder if he meant his own hand; take this, he said, and be lifted up. Someone has lifted this young man up and he extends his to the younger and even as I type up this years list of the murdered I find in the middle of a Carnival parade not a moment of escape but a moment of hope.


A Cry in and for Central City March 30, 2008

Posted by The Typist in 504, Central City, Dancing Bear, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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Here is another way our local media fail us, as all of our so-called leaders fail us. Poppy Z. Brite offers this glimpse into and plea for her new neighborhood in what a real estate agent might euphemistically call the “Upper Irish Channel”, but which she calls by its true name: Central City.

The Times-Picayune had its own name for this area a while back: the Triangle of Death. As Brite points out, that is all it is to most Orleanians, a cringe over morning copy or a route to Magazine Street we once might have taken but most no longer dare. It is as remote for us as “darkest Africa” to the nineteenth-century British newspaper reader.

Brite is one of New Orleans most eloquent defenders. For a while the local blogging community took up her cry of We Are Not OK, but that seems to have dwindled to just a few of us She offers us another perspective on Central City, and a plea that the place and it’s people not be swept under the rug. Since her blog does not allow for direct links, I’m going to copy her entire open letter to Jarvis DeBerry here, in case you stumble onto this long after the cited article falls off the first page of her website.

She writes: I just sent the following e-mail to one of my favorite Times-Picayune editorial writers, Jarvis DeBerry.

Dear Jarvis,

You may remember me — I sent you a Barnes & Noble gift card a while back. At that time, I was living in a temporary apartment on Prytania Street after we lost our Broadmoor home to the failure of the federal levees. I’ve since bought a house in Central City.

Man, I had a lot to learn when I moved here. I do not regret it, but the learning curve has been steep. We are the only white people within about three blocks in any direction. There are a few older homeowners around, but most of our neighbors are desperately poor renters, squatters, and semi-homeless people. They are mostly kind-hearted and even protective of us. They are also junkies and crackheads. When a white, middle-class person hears the word “crackhead,” he tends to automatically think “criminal” and then “bad person.” Many of us have known someone who had a pill problem or even heroin, or have had these problems ourselves, but I’ve met virtually no white people who had any contact with crack or its effects. It has an evil mystique that transfers itself to its users. Most if not all of my neighbors have indeed been to jail, but they are not bad people — they are only hurting and desperate. In many cases they are hungry and living without electricity or water. I give them sandwiches and cold drinks and help them out a little when I can. If they choose to spend it on drugs, I don’t begrudge that; I am not one to criticize anyone else’s high, and I am hardly pure in that respect myself (but that’s another story).

The system has failed these folks, and past a certain point, they have also failed themselves. It makes me sad, but sometimes it also makes me angry — not on behalf of myself and certainly not on behalf of white people, but on behalf of all the people who endured horrors in Selma and Birmingham and Neshoba County and so many other places so that everyone could live more freely, and also on behalf of those of us who want to help drag New Orleans back from the abyss. None of my more transient neighbors has ever exercised his or her right to vote. Only one of them, a sweet, badly abused lady in her mid-forties named Sharline, can read on more than a rudimentary level. Some of them are very smart and have skills like electric work, landscaping, professional cooking, etc., but their drug habits prevent them from using these skills to help themselves. Everyone is hustling and/or jonesing all the time. Having lived here just under a year, we have already known two people who died drug-related deaths — one a shotgun murder, one a 32-year-old OD whose funeral and second line we attended earlier this week — and seen a young man wounded by gunfire right in front of our house. I have never felt afraid for myself; they are the ones in great danger, not us. I will never leave New Orleans, but I often despair for it.

I asked [the editorial page editor] if I could do a semi-regular column called “The View from Central City,” because I truly don’t think most T-P readers have any idea what goes on in Central City. To them we are just a series of violent squibs, head-shakes, and turning the page over their morning coffee. There is no knowledge and no outrage. However, there wasn’t room on the editorial page. I guess I am writing to see if you would consider turning your attention to this neighborhood on occasion. I know I’ve never liked it when people tried to tell me what I should write or even made suggestions, so please feel free to ignore me or tell me to mind my own business, but I sure wish someone would do it. I am just coming out of a long morass of physical pain and severe depression, and I hope I will be able to write about this myself eventually, but as of now I’ve written almost nothing for 18 months — perhaps it is good that I didn’t get to do the column, because I might have been unable to live up to my commitment, and having made my living as a writer since 1991, I would have been deeply ashamed of that.

Anyway, I hope I haven’t bugged you. I realize I may be spouting cliches that you, as a black writer who often addresses race, will have heard a million times. At any rate, I think you have a valuable voice and I hope one day you will consider using it on behalf of Central City. I would be happy to speak more about this at any time.


Poppy Z. Brite

A challenge to my fellow New Orleans bloggers: do not let this post of Brite’s slip into the Internet memory hole unlinked and unnoted.