We are writing about race whether or not we consciously choose to address it. We can’t help ourselves—as we write, we disseminate our own views, our own attitudes, our own ideas of what it means to be a person in the world. We choose who populates that world: who is present, who is absent, who’s forgotten.
And so we have to, as we grow, reconcile our initial geography of social structure with the larger context of the world we’re entering into. Sometimes, as we enter this larger world, we have no kind of reliable map. We have to create our own.
I grew up white in one of those small, overwhelmingly white towns that bus in inner-city kids to the public schools. The program is called METCO, and part of its purpose is to “reduce racial isolation.” The result of the program at our school was essentially that small groups of lonely black kids roamed the halls, and we didn’t interact, and nobody really expected us to.
Up in New England, where racism is conventionally viewed as less of a problem, that was our method of desegregation. I didn’t have any minority friends until my family ran out of money and we all moved south. Still later, after college, I moved to New Orleans, one of two dozen US cities with a white minority, and one of the poorest and most violent cities in the US.
When I first moved there, I lived in a bad house in a rough neighborhood, Marais Street, kitty-corner to some drug dealers. We heard gunshots a couple times, and we owned no furniture. We bought Vicodin from our welfare neighbor, Marie, who spent all day sitting on her stoop. We went into the bar across the street and we were the only white kids around. Sometimes we were welcomed, and sometimes we got yelled at for “just sitting there, why you just sitting there, girl?”
But the woman who yelled was right. We should’ve done our part to support the community we’d moved to, and weren’t contributing anything to the neighborhood besides our tinny music. Privileged as we all were, we crossed town to do our shopping at Walmart. But I wanted the people there to like me. When I bought a stolen computer, I gave it to Marie the day we moved out.
In the spring, there is a New Orleans holiday called St Joseph’s Day. St Joseph’s Day is supposed to be a day when all the Mardi Gras Indians come dressed out pretty in their costumes, huge affairs of feathers and beads that the dancers have spent all year making. The St Joseph’s Day tradition is old and secret and celebrated, and evolved out of violence—it used to be connected to turf wars; there used to be murders. I was excited.
But when I got there, it felt like a college football game. Indians stood on the green park lawn posing for photographs. Vendors sold food and drink, and overweight tourists walked the lawn with cameras slung around their neck, happy to witness the authentic. When the Indians walked down the street, photographers swarmed around them, crowding out the children. One angry photog screamed and cursed at the people getting in his way, yelling that he was trying to make a living, here, as they all walked backwards click-click-clicking. I followed them for a while. Then I left.
I love New Orleans. I wanted to be a part of the culture there. I lived in the Ninth Ward for a while, I danced in second lines in parades, I worked in a health clinic for the underserved for below-poverty wages, and I bought crabs with my food stamps. I went to crawfish boils and neighborhood barbecues and bought drinks from the backs of trucks, ate free red beans and rice in dark bars. I wanted to be involved.
At the health clinic, I heard horror stories. The Haitian taxi driver who came in for depression, who was trying to send money back to his blind friend in Port-au-Prince, who had spent more on gas that day than he had made in fares. The young woman who came in for suicidal thoughts because she couldn’t take care of her baby daughter and her mother didn’t care if she lived. The man who could not get surgery, for months, on his painful hernia because he couldn’t afford insurance and it didn’t qualify as an emergency. I listened to their stories and tried to get them help, and I walked around afterward, carrying it with me. I carry it with me now.
When I got arrested, I spent just twelve hours in holding. I was walked down a hall that smelled like Christmas oranges and left in a big concrete room of jumpsuits. While I waited for my ID bracelet I lay on my back and sang Nina Simone and nobody noticed. Holding was like high school: it was cold and boring, and the food was terrible, and all the grown-ups gave you dirty looks and yelled. I was the only white girl there. When they separated the men and women, I listened to the conversation next to me.
“Why you here for?”
“My boyfriend. He got picked up for possession. I was at his house so they got me too. It’s some bullshit, damn. Bullll-shit.”
They asked me what I was doing there. I told them possession of stolen property. I sat and watched The Price Is Right on the little screen in one corner of the giant room, and a fat woman won a scooter, and she jumped for joy. In the end, I was out long before the others because I hired a pretty little lawyer. The closest I got to a cross-cultural connection was when an inmate jumped at the chain-link fence in back and climbed halfway to the ceiling, and we all turned and laughed together while he got dragged down and ankle-cuffed.
I wanted to be a part of it. For months, I thought that meant drinking, eating, buying, taking pictures. And at some point, I realized I was doing a disservice to the community around me by being a spectator, being part of the gentrification problem commodifying “difference.” I was two steps removed from the fat tourists who walked Bourbon Street marveling at the shops with names like “Voodoo Drink” and “Zydeco Cajun Stop” and “Reverend Zombie’s House of Blues.” I was two steps removed from the photographers who crowded around the Mardi Gras Indians. I realized that I needed to stop looking at the life of poverty around me through a glamorized, soft-focus lens of “difference.” It wasn’t there for me to soak up and regurgitate for cultural cool points. It wasn’t there for me at all. I did not grow up afraid of gang violence. I did not live through Katrina. I don’t know what it’s like to be trapped in a cycle of poverty, to be forced into drug culture because it’s the only way you see of a future. When I spent a day in lock-up, I was still in the bubble of privilege, and I got out within twelve hours because I had a lawyer, and it was not fair and I raised no objections.
I can’t spend an afternoon talking to Marie, or go get a High Life at Lorraine’s, or strut to brass bands on Poland Avenue, and pretend like I know what it’s like to be black and poor. It is not a thing I can possess, as much as I’ve tried to absorb it through long talks and friends and neighbors and photographs and stories. I think it’s ultimately disingenuous and insulting to pretend like I can ever really insert myself into neighborhood traditions, good or bad, which have been around long before me.
And yet. This does not mean that I’m not going to attempt to represent difference (specifically, the black and underprivileged population of southern Louisiana) in my work. I’ve worried about this a lot, as I write from the perspective of black girls and women fairly often, and I’m always praying that I’m doing it justice. What it means is that I have to work hard to represent difference with an element of understanding, rather than sprinkling in minority elements so that I can show off my appreciation of equality (and this sort of other-representation-crop-dusting irks me most of all). It means making a sincere effort to bear witness, to become involved, to participate in the experience of those who are different, without resorting to stereotypes or shading one character’s skin to brown and claiming that I’m representing the minority experience.
The purpose of good literature, as far as I can tell, is to find a common human ground that we can all relate to. So I’m not going to represent difference by pretending like I know exactly where Marie’s coming from, or by throwing in a rainbow-colored cast. But I know, at least, some things we have in common now. I know what it’s like to rely on family who’re in a hard place themselves. I know what it’s like to be isolated, to be powerless. I know what it’s like to be, in some sense, unhoused. I don’t know precisely what life is for the people on Marais Street, but I can get myself partway there, and the rest of that bridge is what makes fiction necessary and superlative—empathy, understanding, and a sincere belief in some common thread of humanity.
My last year in New Orleans, my boyfriend at the time saw the Indians on Mardi Gras morning. It was early, on a bad corner, a couple blocks from where I used to live on Marais. On Mardi Gras, there’s no announcement. The Indian routes aren’t told to anybody. When he arrived, there were no journalists around, just friends and family. That day, on streets busted by floods, on streets the government won’t pay to repair, Indians danced alone down the street, singing. They were fierce in bold colors and heavy costumes. Nobody crowded round, at least not at first. They were locals and they’ve been doing this for years. They were doing this for themselves—establishing their own atlas of race, of social structure, and their place within it, what they choose to represent.