YEARS

CityPress - - Voices -

There, and the Ishak called it Nun Ush (The Big Vil­lage). Many of the places and lo­ca­tions known to tourists and trav­ellers world­wide, such as the Port of New Or­leans, the French Mar­ket and Congo Square, served as thor­ough­fares for trade and cul­ture long be­fore the ar­rival of white peo­ple. Born and raised black in New Or­leans, I speak an English marked by its African and Na­tive Amer­i­can vo­cab­u­lar­ies and pat­terns of speech. I like my short ad­jec­tives re­peated two and three times each. The food is good-good and the pic­ture might be pretty-pretty-pretty. I grew up with a dis­tinct aware­ness of our long-stand­ing ties to this land and the peo­ple who orig­i­nally in­hab­ited it. New Or­leans is our place, a place with a syn­cretic and in­de­pen­dent cul­ture and a mul­ti­lay­ered re­la­tion­ship to the di­as­pora – a re­la­tion­ship not of the­ory, but of prac­tice.

Su­per Sun­day is one tra­di­tion of the Mardi Gras In­di­ans in New Or­leans. A gath­er­ing of na­tions, it is an homage to and a re­it­er­a­tion of the po­lit­i­cal, spir­i­tual, and blood bonds be­tween in­dige­nous peo­ples. Oc­ca­sions like this, along with St Joseph’s Night, are the times apart from Mardi Gras when cer­tain cit­i­zens of New Or­leans mask and trans­form them­selves. Raised black in New Or­leans, I learnt to see the full ex­panse of our cul­ture, the to­tal ex­pres­sion of what it means to be tran­scen­dent, to be free, to re­sist. Grow­ing up, I cel­e­brated Tet, the Viet­namese New Year, with my school­mates ev­ery year. Oc­ca­sion­ally, I would at­tend Mass or bring flow­ers to the Mary Queen of Viet­nam Church. Other times, I had to ar­gue for re­spect in neigh­bour­hood busi­nesses that were al­most never black-owned but al­ways black-sup­ported. I strug­gled to un­der­stand where we had all come from, the his­to­ries that landed us in this place to­gether.

My life in New Or­leans has been an in­ter­sec­tional black ex­pe­ri­ence, one that con­tin­ues to teach me about the globe and the jour­neys of peo­ples across it. For me, Ka­t­rina and the 10 years that have fol­lowed are as much a story of move­ment as any­thing else. Many of us raised black in this city have had to wan­der else­where in the years since; oth­ers of us have ad­justed our eyes to home’s jar­ring new land­scape. I know that there is power in an iden­tity of group and in­di­vid­ual sur­vival. I call upon it daily to un­der­stand my body in this new place. Raised black in New Or­leans, we are all look­ing to make a way, through mem­ory, to the life stretch­ing out in front of us.

The one-year an­niver­sary of Mike Brown’s mur­der, and of the start of the protests in Fer­gu­son, pre­cede this 10th an­niver­sary of Ka­t­rina. The chill­ing news of San­dra Bland’s death in a Texas jail cell, and the mur­ders in be­tween these deaths, haunt this first decade of the storm’s de­struc­tion and af­ter­math. The news media’s cov­er­age of Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina cre­ated loot­ers of hu­man be­ings. There were or­ders to shoot those hu­man be­ings on sight. This year, we have all been in­un­dated with the pho­to­graphs and video clips of hu­man be­ings suf­fer­ing and dy­ing. We have all seen them: some in choke holds, oth­ers rid­dled with bul­lets. Peo­ple hanged or laid out on the con­crete. This year has been the end­less loop­ing on tele­vi­sion of hu­man be­ings who look like me, ren­dered black and dead. Ten years since Ka­t­rina and 10 years among the un­dead, I re­call hav­ing had my hu­man­ity in­ter­rupted, my com­mu­nity made fod­der to a cul­ture in which gaz­ing upon our deaths is an act as sim­ple as a few guilt-free clicks. These days, I share my cul­ture with those who zoom their lenses in on me and my son – those who de­mand with point-and­shoots to know if we are a part of the fes­tiv­i­ties. Rememberin­g our suf­fer­ing

The Maafa is a cer­e­mo­nial gath­er­ing and pro­ces­sion from Congo Square to the Mis­sis­sippi River that has hap­pened an­nu­ally in New Or­leans over the past 15 years. At­ten­dees are asked to wear all white to hon­our those who came to New Or­leans via the transat­lantic slave trade. The pro­ces­sion makes sev­eral stops through­out the French Quar­ter. One pur­pose of the gath­er­ing is to say: We re­mem­ber. The Maafa is a day for those of African de­scent to show up in places where our an­ces­tors were bought and sold. It’s a day to let it be known that we have an ac­count of what we have en­dured in this place. On the walk, I can­not help but reimag­ine the tens of thou­sands amassed at the Su­per­dome, the Con­ven­tion Cen­ter, those on rooftops, highways. Those peo­ple who were al­ready dead, the bloated and de­faced bod­ies that cam­era lenses could find, but help could not reach.

At the con­clu­sion of this year’s Maafa, we walked from the river through the Quar­ter, and a white man grabbed my friend’s shoul­der. Shout­ing with a weird, ex­pec­tant grin on his face, he pressed: “Hey! My girl­friend wants a pic­ture of you.”

All night af­ter this en­counter, I was re­minded of the mem­o­ra­bilia that pep­pers the French Quar­ter’s sou­venir shops: the post­cards fea­tur­ing smil­ing black faces at the cen­tre of sun­flow­ers or hap­pily eat­ing or chop­ping sugar cane. Also post­cards of a more sa­cred va­ri­ety. These are the relics of univer­si­ties, mu­se­ums, and lay col­lec­tors, post­cards with the im­ages of black lynch­ing vic­tims and the mobs re­spon­si­ble for their mur­ders.

Lately, I think daily of the peo­ple, the fam­i­lies, the Amer­i­cans, who waited pa­tiently for the ar­rival of these post­cards in the mail. The peo­ple for whom these pho­to­graphs served as a form of en­ter­tain­ment and a way to com­mu­ni­cate shared val­ues. I am will­ing my way through the new im­ages of black death that ac­cost us this year. I still do not know what to do with the ones that live in my mem­ory. A re­minder of im­per­ma­nence

Cur­rently, I re­side in New Or­leans’ rapidly gen­tri­fy­ing Fifth Ward/Mid-City neigh­bour­hood. Nav­i­gat­ing it mostly on foot, I am al­ways rid­den by the rec­ol­lec­tions of what was there be­fore Ka­t­rina. All over the city are the places that no longer ex­ist, the di­men­sion of my child­hood, ado­les­cence and early adult­hood, the ev­i­dence of which has been mostly washed away. Lost to for­ever are still more hu­man be­ings. Where did all the peo­ple who dis­ap­peared go? Ten years hasn’t been long enough to call any of them back across land or ether. It is some­thing to be erased – or to be pho­tographed like a relic while you’re still liv­ing.

This 10-year an­niver­sary is a cross­roads, a time for all refugee cit­i­zens to live in the full­ness of what we re­mem­ber. I come from a peo­ple who have al­ways as­serted their right to as­sem­ble, to show up and be seen, to be counted as na­tions within a na­tion. Those of us who re­main in New Or­leans are tasked with sep­a­rat­ing the mere pas­sage of time from ideas of progress, of back and bet­ter than ever. We are fight­ing the no­tion of death as a path­way to new and more re­silient cities. We will not be the thing that bonds other hu­mans to one another – the dead bod­ies to re­mind oth­ers to cher­ish their mor­tal­ity. We are black and alive, still. This is the truth, de­spite what the pic­tures say. Now is not the time to cede the story of the past 10 years, or the next.

Re­call­ing the sum­mer of 2005, the first mem­ory is heat. It was a hellish Au­gust. Al­ready there were things I would have liked to for­get. The New Or­leans I grew up in was a strange and dan­ger­ous and ex­hil­a­rat­ing place to be. There were traps and pit­falls and early deaths. There was also no place like it on earth, and much to look for­ward to.

I was a se­nior in col­lege when Ka­t­rina came in from the Gulf of Mexico. The lev­ees breached and topped, and MR-GO, a chan­nel built to shorten the route from the Gulf of Mexico to the In­dus­trial Canal, pushed a wall of wa­ter through all that I had ever known. Hu­man be­ings were left be­hind to face this wa­ter. Some lived. More than 1 800 died, many of them by drown­ing. Many oth­ers have died pre­ma­turely in the months and years that fol­lowed. The drums beat on

Ev­ery day is a fight to make sense of the shape of my new ex­is­tence. In the 10 years since, I have earned two de­grees, be­come a mother and buried my son’s fa­ther. I have grieved, fallen in love, been heart­bro­ken, and moved more than a dozen times. Be­cause I was raised black in New Or­leans, I was taught many tricks on how to sur­vive – that even heartache can be cause to make pretty and celebrate.

Here, de­spite all that has changed, the drums beat as they al­ways have: a lit­tle some­thing to help the chil­dren re­mem­ber that we have been here a long time, and a long time ain’t go­ing nowhere. I strug­gle against those in my city who say that with progress must come our era­sure.

I don’t know how long my city has for me, but ev­ery day that I re­main, I am work­ing, search­ing for a newer, truer mean­ing for the con­cept of for­ward.

The Na­tion – dis­trib­uted by Agence Global

Robin­son is the co-editor of Mixed Com­pany, a col­lec­tion of short fic­tion by women of colour. Her work has ap­peared in The Baf­fler, Xavier Re­view and Guer­nica

PHOTO: DER­ICK E HINGLE / BLOOMBERG PHOTO: THE TIMES-PICAYUNE VIA AP

New homes that have been built for peo­ple in need Vol­un­teers paint one of the city’s new schools last week

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