An Incomplete National Dialogue

Henry Louis Gates. Jr

We approach the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in an America still struggling to address the legacy and the lessons of that catastrophic event. On the surface, one can argue that much has changed. Since 2005, we have experienced a recession, a historic African-American presidency, the rise of social media, and the political conflict between an entrenched conservative establishment and a nascent and wide-ranging progressive movement. But the longstanding problems that Katrina exposed did not go away, and the city to which the event is most closely tied—the Crescent City of New Orleans—remains a microcosm of the American experiment.

A century ago, few other African American communities showed as much promise for development and creativity as New Orleans. But, at the same time, few other cities suffered as much during the worst years of the Jim Crow era, and fewer still took as long to emerge from it. To name a few surprising examples of the city's forward-thinking ways, the local police department was in fact integrated at the turn of the twentieth century. Several black newspapers were in business, with venerable institutions such as L'Union, the New Orleans Tribune, and the Crusader. In the 1890s, an ambitious federal program drained the swamps surrounding the city, creating new neighborhoods for the expanding black population. As a result of these activities, a black middle class emerged, and by the 1920s, nearly half of all black-owned businesses in the state were located in the city.

And of course, there was the rise of jazz, that uniquely American art form that continues to influence not only how we sing about our experiences, but how we think about ourselves. The free expression, the improvisation, the focus on overcoming hardship, and the blending of different sounds and cultures make jazz one of the great American gifts to the world. It is impossible to imagine popular culture—from hip hop to Beat literature to stand-up comedy—without it.

And yet, despite this promise, it took only one generation for New Orleans to become one of the most segregated cities in the South. The police force mentioned above stopped accepting black applicants for decades. The new neighborhoods created from the drainage project were never properly shored up, and the notoriously rickety system contributed to flooding during multiple hurricanes leading up to Katrina. Black businesses were hit the hardest during the Depression, and the infrastructure suffered as a result. Not surprisingly, the city became a legal battleground during the Civil Rights Movement, with Thurgood Marshall among others initiating lawsuits over equal pay, educational opportunity, and access to the ballot box. And even after these judicial and legislative battles were over, there remained pockets of the city mired in poverty and vulnerable to political corruption—a side of the community largely ignored by those who viewed the city as merely a party town and tourist destination.

When Katrina hit, there arose an opportunity to have a national discussion not only on the future of the city, but on the structural inequality that has become so ingrained in American society. At the same time, the images of determined residents stubbornly rebuilding New Orleans contradicted the pernicious narrative that depicted the black community as helpless at best and self-destructive at worst. That discussion, unfortunately, remains incomplete. The city itself is permanently changed from its experience in 2005, with many lives upended and several historic neighborhoods transformed through a rapid process of gentrification. An ideological battle between the progressive and conservative movements have made Louisiana one of the major political battlegrounds of the Obama era. And more opportunities for reflection and action have come and gone, from Ferguson to Baltimore to Charleston. As long as the rebuilding process continues, the black community of New Orleans can provide inspiration—and a blunt reminder—to anyone who would forget how far we've come, and how far we have to go.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Editor in Chief
Oxford African American Studies Center
The Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
July 2015

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New Orleans
New Orleans, Louisiana