It's been two and a half years since Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans. And now, walking through the French Quarter or downtown, one sees absolutely no physical sign that the catastrophe ever happened. Walk through a neighborhood in the Lower Ninth Ward and the same is definitely not true.
Acknowledging the contrast, my mind was flooded with questions — one right after another.
First and most daunting for me, was a question born out of the now infamous Kanye West declaration: "George Bush doesn't care about black people." My question now is; Does anyone care about black people, and more specifically, do we even care about ourselves? As I walked through the neighborhood the answer became obvious: NO.
I traveled to New Orleans with the non-profit organization, America Speaks, to participate in Tavis Smiley's recent Annual State of the Black Union/Day of Service workshop and symposium (SOBU). I'm told more than a thousand people attended the conference. And there was certainly no lack of esteemed panelists —including professors and authors Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West, and a host of black elected officials.
Yes, Mr. Smiley had convened, in one room, a tremendous array of African-American intellect, political power and financial wherewithal. So it was amazing for me to look up at the stage and see all that success knowing that just blocks away the Lower Ninth Ward still existed in absolute, desperate disrepair; and that just a few miles away many of New Orleans' still-displaced residents are living in trailers filled with formaldehyde (a highly reactive hydrocarbon, reported to have caused nasal tumors in rats and is thought to be an agent involved in some asthma cases.)
I looked at the panelists and recalled that just the day before I had performed my day of service at the Lafayette Academy where some 700 children attend classes, but only 15 of them are reading at grade level.
With the juxtaposition of the well-heeled panelists and the Lower Ninth planted in my mind, I wondered if poor black people would ever experience even the slightest degree of equity in this society. My answer: Not if it depended on anyone other than themselves. And though that might seem like an impossibility given how far behind we are, it seems entirely possible to me.
There are just a few things we'll have to do as a community.
First, we'll need to "put aside childish things." For instance, we'll need to redirect our spending habits, so that in times of crisis we have emergency and investment funds to draw on. We should be embarrassed by the research that says cars and liquor are among African Americans' most frequently purchased items and that our teenagers spend six percent more per month than the average teenager in the United States.
Meanwhile, the number of black people purchasing books continues to decline.
Black people need to take seriously our responsibilities around self determination, voting and participation in the political process.
And perhaps, most importantly, African Americans will have to, somehow, return to the way of the extended community—the community in which the commitment to one's own is such that it compels members to hold one another up, to teach the children, and to care for and protect one another.
After what I saw in New Orleans just a few days ago, I am convinced that these efforts, among others, will have to be undertaken by the mass of the African American community. That is to say everyday black people, not the Jesse Jacksons of the world, but the community itself. If this work is not done, then the Lower Ninth will never be revived and the African American community will continue to lose whatever stake we have in this country—whether through natural disaster or political conquest.
We have come to a place where we are in need of renewal, a renaissance, a place from which we can reach into New Orleans and take responsibility for the Lower Ninth and the Lafayette Academy. In this way Katrina would not be a catastrophe; rather, the storm could be a way to teach a people who they could be if they could simply discard their dependency on so called "leaders," and beat back the scourge of learned helplessness and hopelessness.
The Selig Center at the University of Georgia business school notes that African-American buying power in 2007 was $852.8 billion. That economic leverage, coupled with the fact that there are models to work from several neighborhoods along the Gulf Coast have been restored after disaster – tells me that restoration for the Lower Ninth Ward is possible.
But it is not up to George W. Bush or the black politicians at the SOBU conference to care about people who seemingly don't even care about themselves.
The press, neither mainstream nor African American, covers what's happening—or not happening—in New Orleans. So I ask that we all rethink who we are as a community and then actually do something that shows we do, in fact, care.
Vickey Wilcher is a writer based in Washington, D.C.