(The Root) — On Mother's Day, someone decided to shoot into a crowd of parading New Orleanians, injuring 19 people. Video footage of the event indicates that I was just feet away from the shooter. My family and friends think I should stop going to second-line parades or into "bad neighborhoods" (read: black neighborhoods, of course).
And some of them want me to leave New Orleans altogether. But this Sunday I am going to the second line, just as I will go any other Sunday when I wake up feeling like dancing — which is more often than you'd think. I want people to know why.
New Orleans brass bands play what you might call second-line standards. There are the local favorites, such as "Roll With It" and "It Ain't My Fault"; there are the traditional dirges played to an upbeat tempo, like "I'll Fly Away"; and there are the popular covers that everyone sings in unison. My personal second-line jam is the Stooges Brass Band's rendition of the O'Jays' R&B classic "Back Stabbers."
On Sunday at the Original Big 7 Mother's Day second line, it took me only three or four notes to recognize Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," another crowd pleaser. People immediately started swaying, the "buckjumpers" trotted out some of their finest footwork and soon enough everyone was cheering, "With somebody who loves me!"
As the brass band pealed out the melody, I sidled up to my husband, a New Orleans transplant of three years and a second-line fanatic. I held his hand as we danced in the street with hundreds of other people — black, white, Asian, Latino, young, old, native, transplant and all kinds of in-between. I silently rehearsed the only words I have to describe the second line: pure joy.
Only seconds later, just after we turned into the narrower streets of the 7th Ward neighborhood, we heard the all-too-familiar sound of gunfire. I think I heard four shots before I realized that I needed to get to the ground. I dropped to my belly right in the middle of the street, and other people fleeing the violence fell on top of me.
I remember that a soft, white T-shirt brushed my cheek, and I instinctively caressed the shoulder of a stranger, hoping to calm myself as much as her. Three or four more shots rang out before the firing stopped. Only feet from where the shooter had reportedly emerged from the shadows of a family home, we all lay in a silent pile, collectively holding our breath for several seconds more before we felt it safe to run.
When we returned to the corner a minute or so later, the scene was gruesome. People were writhing, bleeding, on every corner, on all sides of the spot where I had just dropped to the ground myself. The shooter had been indiscriminate, and if he had a target, it was impossible to tell who it could have been, because there were children, older ladies and dancing men among the 19 innocent people he callously wounded.
As the days pass and the fear and anger that emerged at the scene release me, a new frustration emerges. I can't help but keep wondering why more people don't seem to care or even know that this happened.
And I am going to say this very clearly: The reason so few people seem to care about this mass shooting is that the victims are assumed to be black.
Not So Normal
Every time I say something like this, I feel as if I'm preaching to the choir, but when I listened for that familiar chorus of affirmation this week, I didn't hear it. Somehow I keep expecting people to stop me on the street to process it, as many did when I was heading home through predominantly African-American neighborhoods right after the event. I expected Facebook and Twitter to be on fire with sympathy for the victims. I suppose I half expected there to be nationally organized fundraisers for the 19 people in the hospital. But all I heard were crickets.
How can so many people in this country — people for whom violence is not the norm — resign themselves to violence simply by relegating it to the category of "street violence" or "black-on-black violence"? When people thoughtlessly repeat this refrain, they suggest that everyone in that crowd should equally be considered a perpetrator simply because he or she is black, even though there was only one shooter, maybe two, who took aim at hundreds of innocent, dancing, celebratory black citizens festively enjoying a sunny Mother's Day afternoon.
When white people designate this as a "problem in the black community," the glaring implication is that violence is a problem endemic to the black community, that it is inherent and that it is both impossible to solve and not "our" problem anyway. That is the assumption motivating all the horrendous comments that make blackness the explicit or implicit source of violence instead of laying the blame on one cruel person. And it is that same assumption that silences and repackages our mourning over the violence that occurred in New Orleans this weekend.
Instead, what is endemic, and certainly feels intractable, are the systemic inequalities that persist in New Orleans and in the U.S. overall, injustice for which we are all responsible. Research coming out of the Orleans Parish Place Matters project indicates that life expectancies can differ by 25 years in New Orleans, depending on ZIP code, an indicator of the racial breakdown of a population. Place Matter's work shows that "social, economic, and environmental conditions in low-income and non-white neighborhoods make it more difficult for people in these neighborhoods to live healthy lives."
Furthermore, the study proves what should be clear to everyone: Neighborhoods that lack good schools and worthwhile opportunities are correlated with higher rates of violence. When we know this, we cannot hold individuals solely responsible for violence; we must respond urgently to the inequality in our educational institutions, employment opportunities and health care.
And maybe it is easier for many white and middle-class people to turn a blind eye to violence that happens in black communities because they think it cannot happen to them or to anyone they know. How does an entire race become anonymous to the point of seeming alien? How do white Americans live in this country and pretend that they do not know and are not responsible for their neighbors simply because of race?
Second-Line Community Building
I dance and talk and sing and debate with people of all races and classes and professions on Sunday afternoons. We are friends, neighbors and dancing partners, despite all the differences that may divide us. It is hard for me to imagine how anyone could live in New Orleans and not have relationships across what might seem to be impossible boundaries in some other towns. And it is hard for me to imagine living anywhere else anymore.
Knowing and loving people who are different from us, embracing their talents, joys and jokes, as well as recognizing and responding to their hardships and suffering is what makes us able to fight for and get passionate about justice in this world. Sometimes I get angry when I hear that someone is concerned about breast cancer only after a family member suffers from it or follows news from Ireland because he or she has some imaginary ancestral connection to the place. Why are the people who look like you more valuable than the people who don't? Why do we bother to learn about the suffering of our own community when we completely fail to respond to the suffering in others?
The story of violence and injustice in the black community is not my story to tell. There are many people who know it better than I do and have the most effective strategies (though often not the resources) for responding to it. But it should not be the sole responsibility of the African-American community to inform white Americans of the discrimination and inequality that determine the very life outcomes of the citizens of this nation and world.
It makes me sick to have to write this. I didn't want to say anything about being a witness to violence in New Orleans to anyone. I didn't want to post to Facebook or to Twitter that I had been in the 7th Ward on Sunday because I am afraid that it will be my story, the story of an innocent middle-class white person who was affected by the shooting, that gets picked up.
I am afraid that friends and family and colleagues will only finally believe that this is a significant event because it happened to someone they know. Look at the photos of the shooting that did make the national papers — there are white folks everywhere in those photos, even though we made up a minuscule segment of the people who were attending the parade, and only a fraction of the people who were harmed. And let me not exonerate myself: After teaching and writing about injustice for years, I am writing about violence in my own community for the first time only after it hit close to home.
I decided that I had to say something, however, because I am a professor, and the way I attempt to effect change is through the words I write and the students I teach. I teach my students that the systemic, racialized inequalities that persist in our community and in the world carry prices and consequences that are much more significant than the cost of effective, ubiquitous education and health care — basic necessities that we deny the majority of black citizens in my city and many others in the U.S. I teach them that it is the responsibility of every citizen to ensure that every other citizen is provided with his or her right to health and security.
And I insist that every human being deserves far more than the basic necessities. Many have suggested this more eloquently before today, but this event provides us with a moment to reflect again on our commitments. And personally, I suppose I am trying to transform the sadness and anger that grew out of my experience this weekend into something worthwhile.
The mass shooting that occurred on Sunday is not a black problem or a poor people's problem or a New Orleans problem. It is the responsibility of all of us to end the vicious inequality that leads to violence. We must all make a commitment — regardless of our race or our class — to the people and organizations that work to increase opportunity, education and well-being for all citizens in New Orleans and around the world.
We must support culturally informed, community-driven and -led conflict-resolution initiatives, like Project Ceasefire, that teach all of us that hatred and violence are the least effective solutions to our problems. We must dedicate ourselves wholeheartedly to addressing the problems that no doubt affect all of us, but affect us unequally.
I will be at next week's second line. I can't wait to hear the opening strains of "Back Stabbers," which I suspect will be met with an unusually emphatic "What they do!" from the crowd. I know my family and friends will be horrified, worrying that I take my life for granted.
But let me explain: The second line is the most vibrant and loving cultural tradition I know of in the U.S. It celebrates life as it commemorates death. I will be there to celebrate and commemorate, alongside all the diverse members of this community who also take that work seriously, because I never feel more alive and more a part of this community than I do when I am at a second line.
Laura Murphy is assistant professor of English and the director of African and African-American studies at Loyola University New Orleans. She is the author of Metaphor and the Slave Trade in West African Literature and editor of the forthcoming Survivors of Slavery: 20th and 21st Century Slave Narratives.