A Debt That Is Difficult To Repay

Last night I watched the PBS series, “American Experience.” This two-hour episode was entitled “New Orleans” and it was a look at the history, from beginning to post-Katrina, of my second-favorite city. I am naturally drawn to anything about New Orleans as I consider it my other childhood home, having been raised nearly half my young years in this oh so unique city. I absolutely love New Orleans and of course was incredibly saddened by what happened to the city and its people during and immediately after Hurricane Katrina. My mother, sister, nieces, cousins and some friends still lived there, though they got out in the mass exodus just before the storm hit. None have gone back yet.

But actually that is not why I bring up the PBS show, though it did replay a lot of the tragedy based on racism and classicism that was at root of so much of what we all saw on television in the ugly aftermath. What was even more eye-opening in the documentary was a look at the unique history of New Orleans in terms of its “race relations.” The city was, surprisingly, at one time so very far ahead of the rest of the country in terms of how the different ethnic groups intermingled. As pointed out last night, that all changed though due to to two major and yet equally impacting social realities, first the backlash against Reconstruction and then again during the days of “separate but equal.” What was so powerful for me to watch, though it was not the first time I had seen such images, was how truly demoralizing this state-sanctioned and legalized bigotry should have been to a whole ethnic group. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like having to live every single day being treated as less than other people – riding the back of the bus, “colored only” dining halls and balconies, sub par and separate schools, areas you cannot live.

Watching that I was truly saddened thinking about how stupid and badly people can treat other people. And I was reminded that I should not be surprised that people of color cannot be entirely blamed for harboring even a minimum belief deep in their bones, no matter how unfounded the belief since the opposite is true, that somehow they are not good enough, not worth what other people are worth. After all, racism that went as deep as what those people experienced, to the point that the government even backed it with laws cannot be just shrugged off. And obviously, based on what we saw with the overwhelmingly black victims left to die and suffer in the aftermath of Katrina, things have not gotten altogether better in this regard.

And yet I am also reminded by the images I saw last night of what a debt I owe to those incredible people of color who came before me and carried themselves with unmistakable dignity in the face of a personalized and focused evil, that I don’t even know how I would have responded to. And thanks to them, I do have the choices I do, and my kids can exist and be who and what they are. Were it not for their strength and perseverance none of us, no matter what our ethnic group or groups, would be as free as we are. Black people aren’t the only ones who owe a debt to all those who made it through those very very ugly days.

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