Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Bearing Witness

Tomorrow I’m off to NOLA for the National Performance Network’s (NPN) Annual Meeting. Despite the fact that I’ll miss the mango tribe terribly, I’m looking forward to catching up with friends and seeing new performance work. I wish I could say the same about visiting New Orleans.

This will be my second trip to New Orleans this year and as with my previous trip, I’m heading to the Big Easy with lots of trepidation. I’d visited the city years earlier, but Katrina and its aftermath completely ruined my charmed view of the city. Another sad reminder of this country’s disdain for people of color, but of course, that’s a whole ‘nother post.

When I arrived in New Orleans for a business meeting last March, I grabbed a shuttle to my hotel in the French Quarter and during the ride I silently surveyed hundreds of homes in various stages of rebuilding. I saw hundreds more that appeared to be completely abandoned in all types of neighborhoods.

While meeting with my colleagues, I tried to find the right moment to request a tour of the 9th Ward. As I hemmed and hauled looking for the right words, the Louisiana natives I was meeting with, looked at me plainly and asked, “Do you want to go on a disaster tour?” “Uh, yes,” I stammered and went on to explain I wasn’t looking to see the devastation just for a sensational thrill and my colleagues explained that they want as many folks as possible to see what's really going on because they feel as if most people in the country have no idea of how slowly, and in some instances, nonexistent the recovery is. They needed folks from the outside to be a witness.

About five of us went along for the tour and it was unbelievable. As I mentioned, our hotel was in the French Quarter, which appears as if Katrina never happened or at least is a distant memory. Folks were partying up and down Bourbon Street like all’s well with the world.

During our disaster tour (I still can’t believe that’s what they call it) we visited a number of neighborhoods in addition to the 9th Ward. In all of the neighborhoods, except the 9th Ward, I saw dozens of FEMA trailers parked in front yards and driveways. The woman taking us on the tour explained that she was having trouble getting her bearings because so many street signs have been swept away and whole streets are actually missing. She also explained how to read the markings on every house. Each home is marked with a big X and in the Xs four quadrants are numbers indicating what authorities found when investigating the property after the storm. This info included the number of dead bodies found in the house, the date of the inspection, if any pet carcasses were found and so on. Each house also had a line that wrapped around the entire structure and was usually found close to the roof. These are water lines and indicate the water at its highest level. I remember thinking these Xs, numbers, and lines are post-Katrina hieroglyphics.

By this time I was totally bummed, but nothing could prepare me for the absolute bareness of the 9th Ward. At least in the other neighborhoods there were signs of life, activity, things were happening. Here in the 9th Ward--- nada. The silence was deadening. There was an absence of energy, life. We drove for maybe two miles and all I could think of was that at one time, this place was home for thousands of people and now no one is home. It actually looked like a movie set designed to look like a disaster zone. I thought of all of the people who want to return to their home, their city, but can’t because there’s no infrastructure to provide their most basic services, gas, electric, water…etc.

It took hours for me to find words to describe what I’d just seen. I bought back photos and shared them with everyone and anyone who would listen. I relayed stories I’d been told, the generosity and grace I’d witnessed. I was touched by the human spirit’s ability to forgive and heal. I learned that residents of the Gulf Coast no longer trust or depend on the federal government for shit, but their faith lies in their fellow man, their neighbors.

On Thursday, I’m going on another disaster tour, with a busload of people and this time, I’m hoping to witness change.


jillybean said...

Mango Mama,

Before you go to NOLA check this site out http://tripusa.org/finishedbio2.html.

My linesister started T.R.I.P (Travel. Rebuild. Inspire. Progress.) . The mission of T.R.I.P is to travel to low-income, predominantly African American inner cities in the U.S. to help rebuild communities and inspire hope among its residents in order to help improve the quality of life for African American families to progress towards a new beginning. By partnering with local residents, community development corporations, civic and community groups and faith-based organizations, T.R.I.P.’s development projects may include the following based upon the needs of the community:

Building new housing
Housing rehabilitation
Building and/or renovation of recreational parks
Building and/or renovation of community facilities
Building community gardens
Neighborhood clean-up
Repurposing of abandoned lots
Assistance with existing community development corporation projects (i.e., community lighting installations, restructuring neighborhood streets, enhancing public common areas, etc.)

T.R.I.P. began in November 2006 when 30 friends and family from all across the country traveled to New Orleans, LA during the week of Thanksgiving to help with post-Hurricane Katrina rebuilding and clean-up efforts. The desire to travel to the “Crescent City” came about from wanting to do more than just watching others in action, but coming together as a group of concerned citizens to make a positive impact on those in need.

Maybe you and your colleagues and friends can organize a T.R.I.P. to NOLA sometime in the future.

Enjoy yourself professionally, eat some delicious food, and let your spirit be fed and energized. Also, be sure to let that huge Light that youhave shine!


Mango Mama said...

Thanks Jillybean, This is FABULOUS! I will check this out and pass it along. mango mama!

Mama Kim said...

Mango mama,
Wow! I remember when you went down last year and telling me about the "disaster tour". I thought at the time that you had made that name up.
Lisa, I pray that you witness change too. Somehow, however, I know you won't see any.

Even amongst those devestated areas, God is there.

I'll be thinking of you:)

Mama Kim

Mes Deux Cents said...

Mango Mama,

Your post leaves me speechless. This is a tragedy that just keeps going and going.

It seems that there are some insidious things going on behind the scenes. I bet land developers are sitting in backrooms all over Louisiana drooling over the prospects.


Thanks for this post and be careful down there.