(Boing Boing guestblogger Ned Sublette is a writer, historian, photographer, and singer-songwriter based in New York. Embedded audio in this post: Ned reads an excerpt from chapter one of his latest book, The Year Before The Flood, live at Joe's Pub in New York City. After the jump, the full text of that chapter, republished in entirety here on Boing Boing.)
New Orleans is a subjective town that demands a point of view. Depending on where you're coming from, you have a different vision of the city. So I felt it was necessary to tell people where I was coming from, so to speak, before I could tell my story of New Orleans.
I'm not from New Orleans, but I lived in Louisiana until I was nine years old–in Natchitoches, Louisiana, which is 282 miles northwest of New Orleans and four years older, the first town the French founded in what later became the Louisiana Purchase. That was back in the bad old days, the 1950s. In August 1960 (just before the desegregation battle erupted in New Orleans) we moved away, to El Paso. I never lived in Louisiana again, until 2004, when I was fifty-three. Returning to Louisiana all those years later, I was a kind of insider / outsider. As I tried to learn the ropes of living in New Orleans, all kinds of long-buried fragmentary memories came surging forward. Like, I already knew what it meant for a deliveryman to leave a package "under the house," because the houses are raised up off the ground. And no one had to explain to me about southern racism, because I went to a segregated school.
The main body of The Year Before The Flood is Part Two, which tells the story of our year in New Orleans. But there's a shorter Part One, a childhood memoir that explains what I was bringing to my New Orleans experience. Here's an excerpt from the first chapter of the book, which is called "Jump Jim Crow." If you want to listen along while you read, here's a clip of me reading it at Joe's Pub on November 20.
THE YEAR BEFORE THE FLOOD: CHAPTER ONE
(MP4 audio link)
Even in slavery days, "white" and "black" children might have personal contact, but in the South of my childhood we were kept as separate as humanly possible. We literally didn't know each other. I lived until I was nine in an approximately half-black town without ever having any social contact with a black kid. I don't mean I didn't have any as close friends. I mean I never had a single conversation with an African American child. As people say when they talk about those days, that was just the way it was. I can remember having it explained to me that no, their color didn't rub off when they touched things.
The polite way of describing southern society in those days is to say that it was segregated. But it is also fair, if less polite, to say that it was a white supremacist society. The program of the Ku Klux Klan had been implemented. African Americans were overtly, legally, literally second-class citizens.
When Mrs. Harrison asked us if we knew why our school would always remain all white, I hazarded a guess. "Because the Negroes have schools of their own?"
"Yes, they do," she replied, "and they're just as good as ours!"
Bullshit, they were just as good as ours.
She probably believed it. A lot of white people lived in fantasyland. But the push to integrate schools didn't come because black people loved being around white people so much that they wanted to come hang out with them. It was because if there were two separate school systems, the black one would get less of every resource. In 1950, "colored" 1 schools in Shreveport had no electricity, and the students used outhouses.
Which is not to say that no educating took place; African Americans who came up in that system remember heroic teachers. Jerome Smith, born in New Orleans in 1939, told me: "We had the worst books that you can imagine, but we had such dedicated educators that it gave us a kind of readiness… We didn't recognize that [at the time], but in the years that followed, we had a foundation." Not everyone was so lucky, and the deck was stacked against African American children getting an education. Overcrowding was the norm for their schools; the Macarty school in New Orleans's Ninth Ward had 2,536 children in a building designed for 1,200. No wonder Fats Domino dropped out of that school in the fourth grade.
No, Mrs. Harrison explained, the reason Northwestern Elementary would always remain white was that the nuns who deeded it to the state had included that as one of the conditions.
Well, that settled it. The deal had been cut long before we were born.
Our white-forever school was a lovely place. Located on the campus of Northwestern State College, where my dad taught, it had expansive, handsome grounds, with a long, sloping hill that led down toward Lake Chaplin, and big airy classrooms with a piano in every one.
We were raised with the southern ideal of the innocent, indolent child. With its pretensions to aristocracy and perhaps a French aversion to exercise, Louisiana was never big on making kids do calisthenics, so for physical education we played Drop the Handkerchief and singing games. I was what was later called hyperactive–I always had a rhythm, or a rhyme, or a song going on–and visibly bored. The class seemed to work on the alphabet all through the first grade.
My parents, being teachers, had taught me to read and do arithmetic at home, so I was considered a gifted child when I started school. This was surely, presumed my biologist parents, the result of good genes, though I think it was more the amount of attention and care they gave me. It was the era of IQ tests, and I was given batteries of them. When I was seven, in some kind of educational experiment that my parents must have had a hand in promoting, I was placed five grades ahead of my level, into a seventh-grade class, for two weeks. I found I could handle the academics pretty well, not because I was a genius but because they weren't that tough. Socially, however, I wasn't prepared to be in a roomful of seventh-graders all day.
That was the year Attack of the 50 Foot Woman came out–where is this kind of inspiration today, when our cinema needs it?–and I felt myself surrounded by fifty-foot women. There's nothing as mysterious to a seven-year-old boy as a passel of twelve-year-old girls. To further heighten the eroticism of the experience, they had portable transistor radios, and could summon up rock 'n' roll at recess. I could read better than they could, but so what? They had something else going on.
One of my enduring memories of Natchitoches dates from that surreal stint among the giants and giantesses of the seventh grade. The social studies class was instructed to break up into groups and write, and act out, scenes that were to dramatize . . .
A slave auction.
They had us play slave auction in social studies class.
I'm not sure what the purpose of that exercise was. But what it demonstrated for me was that some people lived between the piety of knowing that slavery was bad and the desire of living it once again. It proved something I already knew, even at that age: the white South loved to reminisce about slavery days.
Since I wasn't a bona fide seventh-grader, I was an auditor for this event, not a participant. No one interpreted the slave roles. No one would have wanted to. The slaves were imaginary. One kid, playing the role of an auctioneer, read haltingly from the script he had laboriously written himself:
"I. Don't. Like. To. Break. Up. These. Families," he read.
"But. What. Can. I. Do?
"It's. My. Job."
(c) 2009 Ned Sublette