On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making landfall in New Orleans, I’m linking to the cover article of the September-October issue of The American Conservative, “My People, Black & White: How I came to see my country through African-American eyes,” by TAC senior editor Rod Dreher. The subject of Dreher’s article is his collaboration with actor Wendell Pierce—best known for his role as Detective Bunk Moreland in The Wire—in the writing of Pierce’s memoir, The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken, which will be published on September 8th by Penguin. Pierce, who was born and raised in middle class black New Orleans, sought out Dreher’s collaboration after having read the latter’s 2013 memoir of growing up in a small town north of Baton Rouge. The collaboration seemed unlikely but as they were both native Louisianans—with cultural commonalities spanning the racial divide—and of the same generation—both born in the mid 1960s—it worked.
I thought this was a very interesting article. Dreher thus writes
The centerpiece of [Pierce’s] book would be the unparalleled devastation that Hurricane Katrina wreaked upon the city in 2005 and how that catastrophe galvanized him to help rebuild his hometown. Wendell starred in a nationally celebrated production of “Waiting for Godot,” staged in the ruins of the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly neighborhood. In his book, he wanted to write about the power of art to move and to heal a people.
All of that sounded great to me and was something I confidently thought I could help with. There was a part of it that made me feel extremely uncomfortable, however: racism.
I was born in 1967 and went to integrated public schools in my small Louisiana town. Nobody talked about what things were like under segregation. Looking back, it’s bizarre how we kids—we white kids, anyway—were raised with near-total ignorance of the world into which we were born, a world that was passing away even then. We knew that segregation had happened, of course, but we only heard about Jim Crow and civil rights on television, and it was easy to believe all that was a long time ago and far away.
My memory of my hometown did not include Klansmen, racial terror, or any of the things that were common throughout the Deep South. So you can imagine my shock when, shortly after I returned to my hometown in 2011, a white friend passed on to me an Ebony article from 1964 that described the scene outside of the West Feliciana Parish courthouse on October 17, 1963, when the Rev. Joseph Carter became the first black parish resident to register to vote in 61 years.
It was ugly, and that night ended with Klan terror. The sheriff and the registrar of voters quoted in the story speaking with racist gruffness to the old black preacher are now long dead, but they were men whose names I grew up respecting. The courthouse where a white mob cursed the blacks was on the other side of my backyard fence. (…)
And further down
With the digital recorder running, Wendell reminisced at length about growing up in Pontchartrain Park in the 1960s. He talked about the sports leagues, the church fairs, the adventures he and his pals had on the golf course. “Every home had a mother and a father in it, and you knew that everybody’s mother and father was like your own,” he said.
It was a close-knit community that inculcated a culture of hard work and perseverance. Pontchartrain Park became an incubator of the rising black middle class in New Orleans. Ernest Morial, who in 1978 would become the city’s first black mayor, lived in the neighborhood and raised his kids there—including son Marc, who would also be a New Orleans mayor. Lisa Jackson, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama, grew up in Pontchartrain Park, as did jazz legend Terence Blanchard.
Pontchartrain Park may have been founded as a way for the white power structure to bleed off black restlessness, said Wendell, but it became a haven for African-Americans in a heartless Jim Crow world. Inside the neighborhood, black children found peace, order, and love, which fortified them to meet racial hostility and other obstacles with resilient determination. Wendell cited the judgment of Herman Plunkett, a longtime resident of Pontchartrain Park: “It came out of something ugly, but it turned out to be something beautiful.” And it was this beautiful community—the one that had nurtured him but had been wiped out by Katrina—that the actor was determined to restore.
On the long drive back to the hills, I thought about how I had never heard of Pontchartrain Park, indeed how none of us outside the city ever heard about its black middle class. When race is in the news, it’s almost always about poor black people and their problems. African-Americans who live middle-class lives are all but invisible to many in white America.
Just as many of us who came up outside of New Orleans had our opinions formed largely by media reports of its violence, the history of the city’s black middle class was hidden by its simple success. People who go to work day in and day out, coach softball in their neighborhoods, and raise their kids without drama never make the news. (…)
Dreher’s writing about having known nothing of New Orleans’ black middle class neighborhoods brought back a memory of mine. In 1987, when I was living in Chicago, four friends from the east coast came to town—precisely over Memorial Day weekend—for the wedding of a couple with whom we were all friends. As it was the first time in Chicago for all four, I took them on a driving tour of the city. Showing them the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park, I then headed south, to the black neighborhoods of South Shore and Avalon Park, just to show my friends black middle class Chicago, where people live in single family homes (that they own), mow their lawns, maintain their property, etc. (pour l’info, this is the part of town Michelle Obama is from). My friends—all well-educated liberals—were surprised by what they saw. One called it an “eye-opener”: like Rod Dreher, she had no idea. Like almost all white people—and across the political spectrum—my friends’ image of black neighborhoods was the ghetto, of slums and housing projects where one risked physical aggression, if not violent death, if ventured into. As white people never see black neighborhoods unless they make a wrong turn in the car, their stereotypical images are not surprising. (It’s likewise in France with the cités in the banlieues, BTW).
Reassuring his ideological kindred spirits, Dreher offers this
I did not become a liberal Democrat from this experience. In fact, conservatives who read the book—The Wind in the Reeds—may be astonished by how culturally conservative the Pierce and Edwards family ethic is. The well-ordered Pontchartrain Park world Wendell grew up in, and is trying today to re-create, is one that nearly every social conservative longs for. Few will read of the religious devotion and the fierce patriotism of the actor’s clan without shedding tears. (…)
I’d be curious to know if TAC founder Patrick Buchanan’s views on race have evolved, as he was an ardent defender of apartheid South Africa and whose attitudes toward blacks were comparable to his well-known ones toward Jews. People’s world-views can change, even late in life.