Archive for Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Recovering New Orleans is still dancing

August 30, 2006


Editor's note: This is the last of a four-part series written by Leonard Pitts Jr. in connection with his visit to the Gulf Coast, one year after Hurricane Katrina.

Here is how this city commemorates one of the most wrenching tragedies in history: It dances.

It does other things, too, on this first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. It prays. It dedicates memorials. It says thank you. At 9:38 in the morning, the hour when the first levee broke and the city began to drown, it rings bells of mourning.

But it dances, too, and that is what makes you know you are not in Columbus, Ohio, or Jacksonville, Fla., but New Orleans, by God, Louisiana. Because where else is death a dance and suffering a song?

They round the corner coming from the Superdome, a brass band playing "Just A Closer Walk With Thee," swinging it slow, stretching the notes like taffy 'til they wallow in a drunken extravagance of grief. But this is a jazz funeral, where grief is allowed to linger only so long. So after a moment, the drummer kicks it up a notch, the horns give out bawdy growls and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" comes on like unbridled joy. Out in front, the parade's grand marshal, a man named Babatunji Ahmed, dances with a lethal seriousness, his moves economical, yet filled with grace.

Here and there among the crowd that follows the band, there are spontaneous outbreaks of happy feet. If you have toes, they're tapping. If you have a head, it's bobbing. If you have a soul, it sings.

Somewhere in cyber space, somewhere in the wilds of talk radio, they are damning this city right now. They've been at it for a year, calling it stupid, criminal, unworthy of saving. The way the city drowned, the way thousands of people were left stranded in harm's way, begging for rescue, fits nicely with an old right-wing narrative that says some of us are congenitally inferior to the rest of us. So Katrina gives them a code, allows them to say "white trash" and use the N-word without quite saying the one or using the other.

And somehow, these venal people, these wannabe masters of the universe, conveniently ignore that what happened last year - how many days did it take for help to arrive? - fits even more neatly with another narrative, the one that says the federal regime is so incompetent it could not pour water from a bucket if the instructions were printed on the bottom.

But you know what? All the narratives are white noise on this day. This day is about remembrance. And renewal.

Katrina was a million hurricanes in a million places. It was the hurricane of a 911 operator, helpless to send help, talking to a woman trapped in an attic with water rising to her chest. It was the hurricane of a child crying in the heat and stench of the Superdome. It was the hurricane of a man huddling with his family in the shade of a traffic sign on the I-10 freeway. It was the hurricane of a teenager breaking and stealing, the hurricane of a cop with a gun making him drop his loot, the hurricane of a body, someone's mother, someone's wife, someone's child, floating anonymous in a watery grave.

A million hurricanes. And now, a million recoveries.

Because that's what human beings do, what we always do. Climb out, assess the damage, adapt to the new reality, start to put things right, find a way to live through this. It is courage, it is foolishness, it is faith. Sometimes there's no difference among the three.

The jazz funeral ends in the shadow of a historic church built by black freedmen in the 19th century. People are shouting on the high notes, raising palms to the sky, the music representing not just victory over death, but defiance of death, death kicked in the backside by happy feet.

When the song is done, Ahmed talks to the crowd. He speaks of the failure of the levees, of being stranded by the government. He never loses the lethal seriousness, the stoic dignity. Until he does. Until suddenly he is crying.

People close in about him protectively, lead him to where he can grieve privately.

A million hurricanes. A million recoveries.

Live through this.

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.


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