July 13, 2008

"The Beginning of wisdom is to get you a roof." (African proverb)

If you want to understand New Orleans and Louisiana you must have some understanding of southern slavery: the Master would never give you that turnip, watermelon, chicken, or pig. He might give you some of the slop for the pigs, but not much more. You wore rags if that and no shoes. You slept chained at night in the hot Louisiana swamp, preyed on by everything from mosquitos to alligators and moccasins. Your life was only worth your labor. If you couldn't labor, you died. You died even if you could. The pressure-cooker heat and humidity, the scorching sun, the whips and chains, the pests and untreated diseases, the inadequate diet, the daily injustice, the hated toil, the leaky roofs if any, freezing in winter, boiling in summer, and the hopelessness, the utter hopelessness of any change except that delivered by merciful death, all that and more made New Orleans and Louisiana about the worst place a slave could be. "Please don't sell me down the river," meant this place in that time. New Orleans. Louisiana. The slaves who survived were made tough by the ordeal, and their descendants were, too. They all knew and never forgot that if you needed and wanted that turnip, watermelon, chicken, or pig, you were going to have to steal it. It was a risky thing to do, but there was nothing unethical about it, and if there was, the crime of slavery justified it. Slaves caught stealing were beaten and tortured severely and sometimes killed. At the same time, whites saw they were never going to stop stealing, death or not, knowing they probably would do the same if they were slaves, so the not-wholly-incorrect perception that "niggers steal," was born (and never died.) Need I mention that the whites weren't exactly winning any awards for moral probity, since slavery itself was the greatest theft and race murder still is the greatest crime.

Now, I am not a scholar or a Louisiana historian. I can't give you dates, names, or many specific incidents, but I feel safe in saying that from the time it was "discovered," Louisiana was a paradise for pirates, smugglers, thieves, businessmen-thieves, slavers, criminals, outlaws and riff-raff not to mention capitalists and other muggers of every kind from every place in the known world. New Orleans is a port. Enough said. Everybody came here and jumped ship. There were no employment agencies and no question that the rich ruled and the poor served. It was all out in the open. And it was French (and Spanish) for 200 years, before the Americans who stole their country from the Indians bought it from crafty Napoleon, who knew they were going to take it anyway. He needed the dough to fight everybody in Europe. President Jefferson, sly dog, asked his advisors how much it would cost to win a pissing contest with Napoleon for Louisiana. They said 3.5 million dollars. He said let's offer it to buy it from him at that price. "The greatest real estate deal in history," is no exaggeration. So Louisiana came into the slave-owning South politically, but Louisianians were French (and Spanish,) and their version of slavery was somewhat different. Because many blacks had come from French-colonized Haiti, there were free blacks and creoles in New Orleans from the beginning, and even during the Civil War. The French, especially, had a different approach to blacks and Indians: they married them, bred with them, and made special dispensations to exempt some from slavery. Blacks owned some property. The Americans were shocked and put an end to it. If the Spanish had won their tussle with the French over Louisiana, slavery would have been abolished, because all Latin American nations except Cuba had abolished it after the Bolivarian Revolution of 1821. The French themselves, though a distant colony, were already incorporating the reforms of the French Revolution toward liberty and equality, and attitudes toward black slavery were changing. The French were outraged by Napoleon's sellout, and they poured scorn on the rude, uncultured, barbarian (English-speaking) invaders from the north. The middle of Canal Street (and every other street in Louisiana with a middle ground) is called a "neutral ground," because it was one place where Americans and French could meet and not duke it out. So race and ethnic relations in Louisiana have always been complicated and brutal. The descendants of those slaves are the majority in New Orleans and other places and throughout the "black belt" generally, that stretches in a crescent from Maryland to Texas. The blacks have been toughened by adversity and smartened by time, and are damned right to be suspicious of whites. If you don't think so, then you know nothing, absolutely nothing, about black history. The whites themselves generally are tough and hardened by the unbelievable history of this place. Southern Baptists themselves came from a hard condition. Queen Mary burned 900 of them to death in one night, for saying baptism should be postponed until the baptised knew what was going on, and that unbaptized infants didn't go to Hell. Being favored whites no matter how poor, they own more property and are well aware of who wants it, needs it, and will steal it. They are also naturally suspicious. And honesty has never been high on the list, because survival is first and times are always hard for somebody. That shoves hypocrisy to the fore--we are a nation of hypocrits but it's always the other guy who is most guilty of it-- because few want to be known as scurrilous, lying, stealing, dishonest people. If you understand this, you have the key to the library about Louisiana and New Orleans. Stealing and dishonesty, torture and murder, gangsterism and corrupt officials, smuggling, drugs, prostitution, gambling and all the official sins have always been on the agenda here. Despite all that, this is still a pretty nice city, if you have enough money not to live on the street. Sure it's dangerous. So is the South Bronx at 3 a.m., South Houston almost anytime, and a hundred other places in the United States, where murder has become as ordinary as television commercials.

Probing the past, an old book crumbled by time, changes it of course. Pieces fall away. They are too small to be pasted back. Sometimes, things can be taped back together, but the letters don't always meet; sentences, whole paragraphs, pages, whole chapters, and even the books themselves, disappear, lost forever. Who knows what was said or why? There was only this one copy, almost no references, no other witnesses, and some who were there lied about it. Is there any sense in preserving the past? History, so-called. We have no choice, because the past is all we have. The future never arrives, and the present is now past, now past, now past. So we hoard and prettify the past, enoble it, fill museums with artifacts, every piece duly-recorded, logged, photographed, drawn, catelouged, verified, digitized, write-protected, buried in a time capsule, engraved on a golden tablet and sent into outer space. See? We were here. And this is the way it was. And that is why we are like this. Even if we put the past under lock and key classified crypto-clearance only, it is ever-changing, for ultimately the past is nothing more than how we or somebody perceived their present and their ideas and notions of it. William Carlos Williams said it best: "History is all lies of course."

Then, if you consider that there is no bigger lie than war, and that there have been approximately 7,500 wars in the past 5,000 years, you might have a different take on the present alarm about criminality here and there. Dishonesty and criminality are not making their first surprising appearance on the planet. Not an inch of earth is in the hands of its original owners. It has all been stolen and stolen again. Most people, I believe, are first of all dishonest with themselves. All else follows from that. They tell themselves magnificent lies, and believe them. They see their neighbor stealing and condemn it, forgetting they didn't pay back their student loan. They rave about someone stealing an electric saw, and don't remember all the hubcaps they boosted in Metairie growing up. Remembered, it's a lark. But someone had to buy new hubcaps. Stealing and insensitivity are corpuscles and blood. Someone breaks into your house and steals the practically-worthless old lamp your grandmother got from her mother and gave to you. A Mexican snatches your bookbag and you lose a fingernail, a month of writing, a $28 library book, pens, and worst of all, a $5 brass dragon belt buckle with a leather belt you've worn for 20 years, heavy enough for self-defense. You start stealing from your mother's purse, and 20 years later you are running out on a house loan and absconding with your partner's share of the profits. You grow up in a poor neighborhood where you can't get hired to bus tables and everybody steals or sells drugs for a living; it looks "legal" to you. Why not? They are robbing you blind. "They been robbing us blind for 400 years." Since the Civil War, southern jails and prisons have been full of blacks. They were and are pressed into chain gangs to provide free labor to favored whites. They were arrested and charged specifically for the purpose of re-enslaving them. So stealing didn't disappear when the Civil Rights Act passed, it already was a lifestyle, a habit, a necessity, ingrained behavior, expected by the whites, more rewarding than "slave labor wages," and, if you didn't get caught, easier. Thieves have shorter workdays. It's a separate economy, a "black market," and a lot of people see nothing unethical about it at all.. "In New Orleans," a streetwise black man told me, "Everything sold on the street is stolen property." He said his best customers were white people, especially contractors. Probably the same guys who are complaining about black crime and clamoring for more prisons and longer sentences. This is all by way of leading into what I want to say about New Orleans, where, for many, "stealing is a way of life," and hypocrisy is the coin of the Realm.

No comments:

Post a Comment