A few nights ago, a couple of guys in a big truck (Misty described it as an airbrushed redneck truck with big Friday Night lights on top) sped up from a block away and swerved toward Misty and Carl, our little rat terrorist, as they were crossing Felicity Street in front of our apartment building. Then, as they passed, one of the two black guys in the truck threw a UFO that nearly hit Misty in the face and yelled,
“Get out of here, you white bitch!” “Get the fuck out of here, you fucking ugly white bitch!” (Misty corrected me on Facebook.)
She came inside crying. And then she told me a story:
As she came inside the gate to our courtyard, a black girl who lives two doors down from us, Brandy, who was sitting outside smoking a joint, yelled to her, asking, “What did those niggers just say to you?” Misty was stunned just by the use of the word. Growing up in California, the grating racism she experienced for the first time that night was traumatic.
Brandy is attractive; younger than us. Misty told her what happened.
She handed Misty the joint and said, “Here. You need this.”
While Misty took a couple of hits, Brandy explained to her that those two people are just ignorant.
“You don’t know if they were touched in the head or touched by their daddy. It’s just ignorance. Don’t take that negativity into your home,” she said.
Those last seven words are exactly what I’d expect from a New Orleanian.
The pervasive strain of racism that still runs through our country is just much more evident in the South, and, maybe especially, New Orleans, if only for its long history of violence. For that reason alone, I think, people speak of emotions here more than any other place I’ve lived – the importance of keeping your love, your peace, your home safe. Amidst the violence, they realize the importance of family, friends and one’s inner life – and the thick skin required to protect all those things; most important, the last. And an acknowledgement of how quickly even the thickest skin can be physically broken.
In fact, it’s these emotions that are most important yet play so much part in the violence here. Hate. Anger. Shame.
Misty is one who has always stood up for equality and justice and compassion – sometimes to a fault. As John, a New Orleans native, said, “Those guys don’t give a flying fuck about your politics.”
The South will always slip definition. It will never be the template so many people and so much of the country would like to envision. It will never be singular and discrete. Something to be put away and never used again. The South is the United States. Uncovered. But it’s the duality of the Southern thing, as the Drive-by Truckers sing in their song about racism in the South, that will make it always as slippery as a catfish to define.
Through all the hate, culture flourished and continues to – jazz, blues, gumbo, writing, comfort food, boiled peanuts and much more. And, like everywhere else, it has its inequalities, its lost jobs, its lack of industry and, yes, its racism. The magnolias and oaks demand art.
Racism exists. Like Brandy said, it’s ignorance, and ignorance is only a single symptom of the core illnesses of our society – inequality, a belief that choice equals freedom and that freedom always trumps big-J justice.
There is no justice in racism. If you can go 42 years without experiencing it in some way or another (white on black, black on white, black on black, etc.), you’re one of the lucky few.
I still love living here. Maybe it’s just being back on the Gulf Coast. It just feels more natural when I walk down the street. More so than even Austin, which I have a hard time envisioning myself moving back to in the near future. New Orleans is a dangerous city, yes, and with the heat, even more (just like Texas). More guns will go off. The newspapers will, as always, be filled with stories of strings of unrelated robberies and shootings from the night before.
It will take Misty a while to recover from the trauma, and it’s obvious we need to move to a different part of town, but, as long as we can keep from bringing that negativity home with us, prevent it from poisoning our own relationships and worldview, we can see reality a little more clearly and with a little less hubris.
Title lyrics from Arcade Fire’s “Neighborhood #2 (Laïka)”