Thursday, January 19, 2006

Talking with the King

When I worked in politics, I would sometimes accompany my candidates to the obligatory Sunday morning stops in the African-American churches of . White bread suits like myself had to wait outside.

I usually spent the church visits smoking a cigarette and leafleting the neighborhood cars, but I always enjoyed sneaking up to the door or an open window and listening to the sermon, as much if not more than I enjoyed the music.

That's why there was nothing terribly shocking in what I heard when I listened to the full speech Mayor Nagin gave on Martin Luther King's birthday.

What Reverend-for-a-day C. Ray Nagin delivered on Jan. 16 was nothing more than a real pulpit pounder, dragging out every trick in the preacher's book from the Old Testament invocation to the imagined conversation with Dr. King to the hell fire bit about God sending the hurricanes to punish us all for our waywardness.

His "chocolate" remark was arguably intemperate. Not inappropriate, not for the crowd he was addressing, or the day he was honoring, or the issues he was speaking to; but in the heat of his remarks, the mayor forgot the broader stage he is forced to strut upon these days, the silent witness of the videographers.

He should have known the chocolate remark would not just be taken out of context; it would be taken out, gotten really drunk and made the subject of all sorts of embarrassing Polaroids. Sadly, that's how politics works in our country these days.

I am a tad disappointed that more people didn't get the Chocolate City reference. I mean, didn't all you other white folks grow up listening to George Clinton's Parliment/Funkadelic? (Get Down With P-Funk and Tear the Roof Off the Sucker!) I mean, it was the 70s, and that stuff sure beat Disco. You didn't? No, he's not related to Bill. Never mind.

But that's the nut, that's the real problem. The reason for the fire storm is that so many white New Orleanians don't comprehend what he was about, have never heard the sort of sermon he was delivering, didn't get the song reference. It was as if much of white New Orleans were reading a bad translation from another language. That the African-American community demands this sort of patronage does it no service either.

The unintended outcome of the speech, both in its religious rhetoric and in it's signature "chocolate" moment, was to rip the scab off of the huge gash that separates New Orleans into separate, warring camps: by race, by section, by church, by income. It's not all Nagin's fault. It's all of our fault, that we measure each other by skin color or the car we drive, or where we park that car on Sunday morning or at night.

As long as we view each other like fellow travelers through a fun house mirror maze, distorted and funny strangers who are just part of the wild carney ride's landscape, we will never make it.

The Bitch didn't care. Her waters came up the MRGO and took the paint-bare, black-eyed-pea shotguns of the Lower Nine the same as it took the Bunny Bread, virgin-in-a-tub brick ranch houses of Chalmette. Claiborne Avenue or Judge Perez drive, they cried and struggled and drowned just the same. The waters that swept up Canal Boulevard and Paris Avenue didn't stop in at the Hibernia to check anybody's balance. They took everyone in their path, no checks accepted.

That is the lesson I wish Reverend C. Ray had imparted, but we shouldn't need him to preach us this. Just look around you. Tell me the difference between the water marks on the houses on Filmore and Florida Avenues. What color are they?

We are so far apart. So many of us just don't get one another, and apparently has done nothing to change that. Instead, we awaken like the statues in the hall of the Ice Queen of Narnia, picking up just where we left off.

Look around you, at the city and at the people. How are we ever going to come together to rebuild if we can't read this text ourselves, and take its lesson to our hearts?

I love the line. It ties us all together, across expressways and neutral grounds - up and down avenues.

When it is washed off and gone will we forget?

Even now it seems like people are forgetting.
You get a big "amen" from the congregation on that one.

I'm a white boy, obstensibly Catholic, and for me church was this not an especially joyous thing. My only exposure to other religions was that scene in the Blues Brothers movie and I thought surely that was an exaggeration.

Then in 1992 I was in Atlanta working on Bob Kerrey's presidential campaign and was assigned to leaflet the cars outside the Ebenezer Baptist Church, which was Dr King's "home" church. It was a warm spring day and the doors of the church were open and I could hear them in there, singing and clapping while a band was kicking out the jams. It was a joyous sound of people getting down and righteous with the Lord. It was certainly an eye-opening experience. Not only that, but the service lasted about 3 hours, as opposed to the 1 hour Catholic services.

Having experienced that gave me a little more insight into the speaking style of black leaders like Jesse Jackson, who I say is one of the more brilliant orators of our time. Even if he is sometimes a bit oblique and one isn't sure exactly what he's going on about, you can't help but to be caught up in the energy in his voice.

So when I heard Nagin's speech, I smiled because I understood where he was coming from. I'll admit I missed the P-Funk reference, but certainly got that "old time religion" vibe.

I'm not sure what's going to come of all this. I think Hizzoner has opened an enormous can of worms that was well past the time it should have been opened and now that it's been done, well, folks are just going to have to deal with it and discuss some things that have been off-limits in the past.

I think the one thing that will make this possible is the feeling that many people are feeling "but for the grace of God go I".
People all over the country -- white folks -- are interpreting Nagin's remarks as racist. They say they don't feel welcome in New Orleans now! Ridiculous but true, alas. This is not just a local problem. Race relations are stilted, to say the least, all over these United States. Those of can are now duty-bound to explain Nagin's remarks to the rest of the country. Damage control. So, thanks for posting this.

PS: Parliament rocks.
Another great post. You make it start to make better sense. Thanks.

"The Bitch didn't care..." made me cry.
Wow, this is about the most cogent thing I've read on this subject yet. And I've read a LOT. Annette
An intelligent, insightful, emotional blog. Thank you for giving us your point of view. The uproar over the Mayor's comments show not only the lack of conversation here, but all over America. Keep up the great work!
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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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