I am in New Orleans, Louisiana, today, heading home to New York after attending Netroots Nation. The city evokes many memories for me, like childhood visits down to NOLA from Baton Rouge; eating gumbo and cushaw; jazz music and Black Indians; and past political struggles of the Black Panther Party. But most of all, I remember New Orleans artist and Hurricane Katrina survivor Carmel Collins, who has passed on.
He became a part of my life when he evacuated to live with us in upstate New York and stayed because he had no home to return to. Carmel’s daughter and my husband traveled with him back to New Orleans to see what could be salvaged. All was lost. He was one of the lucky ones who managed to climb into the attic, chop a hole in the roof, and get rescued. Far too many others died, and some of them were shot in cold blood by white racists as they tried to escape the city.
Before I leave today I’ll be participating in a non-denominational spiritual service where, as an Iyalorisha (priestess) I will pour libation and say prayers for the ancestors. I will call upon the dead—of New Orleans, as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands—and implore the living to carry on the struggle for justice and against white supremacy and racism in their names. Many residents of this city share common Afro-Caribbean spiritual practices with folks from Haiti, Puerto Rico, and Cuba dating back to the times when free people of color as well as the enslaved danced in Congo Square.
In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina tore through the city of New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast, leaving death and destruction in its wake, just as Hurricanes Maria and Irma have done to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. These events have been linked in U.S. political discourse: Katrina will always be remembered as a fail for FEMA, and for President Bush saying, “Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job" to then-FEMA head Michael Brown, just as Maria is now a fail on Brock Long’s FEMA watch. Hurricane Maria will be known as #Trumps Katrina, complete with thrown paper towels as the visual image. The most recent WTF moment was Long describing the FEMA agency response as “phenomenal.”
The massive government failure in both mainland New Orleans and in our Caribbean territories has been linked to racism and racist attitudes toward U.S. locations with large mixed ethnic/racial populations. Then there are the language and cultural differences compared to “Real ‘Murika” (read: WASP).
The media has also played a role.
The USVI has had even worse coverage. Back in October 2017 I wrote, “Are Trump & the media ignoring the U.S. Virgin Islands because most of the residents are black?”
That was rhetorical question, since the answer was a resounding “yes.”
Tiphanie Yanique wrote this opinion piece for the New York Times.
Today Virgin Islanders are led by a president who makes clear delineations between “real” Americans and all the rest. True, the people of the Virgin Islands didn’t vote for this current president. The people of the Virgin Islands didn’t vote for any president of our United States of America, because voting in the general election is not a privilege of citizenship that the federal government extends to us. Like the citizens of Puerto Rico, Guam and the other United States territories, we are not yet real Americans. No wonder TV networks and even the president’s homeland security adviser, Tom Bossert, can’t seem to get it right.
In a press briefing last Friday, Mr. Bossert appeared to chastise the news media for not covering the government response to Hurricane Irma’s assault on the Virgin Islands. Watching him, I held my breath, wondering if now someone would claim us. But he mentioned the evacuation of American citizens from the Virgin Islands in the same way he talked about the evacuation of American citizens from St. Maarten and St. Martin. I took him to mean: We are evacuating the real Americans from these foreign Caribbean islands. Nowhere did he note that we should be concerned about this American land, because it is American land. Has been for 100 years.
In the continental United States there has been little coverage of this centennial of Virgin Islands Americanness. In Transfer Day ceremonies in March, the Danish flag again went slowly down in the Virgin Islands and the American flag went soaring up. All this year Virgin Islanders have been marking our Americanness with such exercises of memory, but it is a bitter celebration. When we Virgin Islanders leave the Virgin Islands for the mainland, we find that we are immigrants in our own country.
She was also a guest on Democracy Now!
Other people (most notably Lieutenant General (Ret.) Russel L. Honoré, who helped save citizens of NOLA) have been openly critical of all things related to the Maria response.
Though his military nickname is “The Ragin Cajun” he points out that is a misnomer: Cajuns are of white Acadian ancestry. His roots are from the West Indies.
“Honoré describes himself an "African-American Creole", a combination that includes French, African, American Indian and Spanish ancestry.”
When I was teaching a course on the Caribbean, my students were often surprised that I included New Orleans as part of the Caribbean Basin. But Creole languages are found throughout the Caribbean, including Haitian Kreyòl.
It is one of only two officially recognized Creole languages in the Caribbean.The other is Pamamientu, which has official status in Aruba and Curaçao.
An important person in the history of civil rights battles here in the U.S. was Louisiana Creole Homer Plessy, who I discussed in “Separate inequality: Homer Plessy and discrimination by law.”
Because Louisiana was colonized by the French, a "tripartite legal distinction emerged"— whites, African slaves and free people of color or gens de couleur libre. These free coloreds were the products of sexual liaisons between white planters and slave women initially, but generations of crossing lines created not only mulattos (half-white), but also quadroons (one-fourth black), octoroons (one-eighth black), and mustees (one-sixteenth black). Called "colored creoles" to make a distinction between these mixed-race persons and those white Frenchmen and women born in the colonies, the free persons of color in Louisiana enjoyed an economic freedom and an opportunity for education denied to other mixed-race slaves or free Negroes in the rest of the South (Dominguez, 1986).
The system of racial hypodescent, better known as "the one drop-rule," meant that no matter if a person "looked white," they simply were not white if they had African ancestry. Homer Plessy "looked white" and was a perfect choice to become a test case.
The color-caste system of racial hierarchy in Louisiana replicates similar socio-racial hierarchies in the rest of the Caribbean
Another difference between Louisiana and the rest of the U.S. were some of the racial laws, especially the one governing Congo Square.
Congo Square was unique because it was virtually the only locale in North America where African people were allowed to gather to perform their traditional music, especially their drumming. The music they made was founded on African-based, cultural retentions: call and response, improvisation, and rhythmic sophistication, and, eventually, these building blocks of expressive, black folk culture interacted with and absorbed elements of the cultures they encountered to create something distinctively American. In Africans in Colonial Louisiana, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall asserts that the African people who developed the Afro-Creole culture of New Orleans had a profound influence on the dominant Anglo culture of the United States. “They turned inhospitable swamplands into a refuge for the independent, the defiant, the creative ‘unimportant’ people who tore down barriers of language and culture among peoples throughout the world and continue to sing to them of joy and the triumph of the human spirit”.2 Congo Square was the epicenter of this culture and played an essential role in the Africanization of American culture.
Congo Square is still a place for drumming in New Orleans.
There have been drum circles in Congo Square for centuries, a deeply meaningful tradition that carries on to this day. On June 5, 2016, today's Congo Square drum circle regulars were joined by a group of Nigerians who were celebrating the ordination of the first Nigerian priest in New Orleans, as well as tourists from South Africa and other places, and a group from Breakout, a local support group for LGBTQ youth. We happened to catch a few minutes of the celebration and are sharing it here with you.
Afro-Caribbean people in Puerto Rico and the USVI still dance and drum, no matter the pain and suffering.
The racism that infects those in power will never extinguish the spirit and resilience of Afro-Caribbean peoples—here on the mainland or on the islands.
Donald Trump and his Republican racist enablers, supporters, and defenders will not win.
We’ve been here far longer than they have and we ain’t goin’ nowhere.
Pass me the drum.