Red, White and Blues -- by Nathan Rothstein, July 2006
Goapele, a young soul singer, enters the stage a little past ten. The mostly black crowd fills up half of the House of Blues smaller room. It is rainy outside, but still not cold, yet the central air has a way of preventing people from drying off. But this young woman from Oakland has radiated the crowd. They are quickly nodding their head, some even, waving their arms. She smiles confidently and stares into the crowd. Her first words come out with a powerful, yet sensual tone, "Red, white, and blues...waving in the room, from the east to the west, north to the south, tears falling down endlessly, the news turn from sorrow, fear to anger..." The groove hits in stride, "Even though we are winning, we are losing, it is a state of emergency," then again, "Red, white, and blues..." The licks of the guitar bombard off the large speakers. The static fills the airs, and the guitarist moves his fingers rapidly and effortlessly around the instrument. New Orleans may be winning, but at the same time it is losing.
On July 4th, our revolution day, it is a celebration of America winning, but in New Orleans, we may be losing quickly. In Central City, there were shootings on Independence Day. The fireworks planned for 9PM were set off in the afternoon and nobody seemed to be cheering. Instead, people see the red, slowly dripping off another victim, the white, of the ambulance slowly driving to the scene of crime, and feel the blues.
The sorrow and anger turns into fear. People are scared and some don't even have time to fear. Late in the afternoon on July 4th, a middle-aged black man walks into our office, wet from the rain, and tired, from being sick and tired. He is looking for a place to stay, and then, a place to work. After he knocks several times at the door, I open the door, and let him in, but it takes some encouragement to get him to walk through the door. When he finally enters, he looks around the office, never focusing on one subject for too long. The night before he had stayed at the Ozmann Inn, near the French Quarter. It is the only homeless shelter in New Orleans for men since the storm. The Covenant House is open to the younger, but at age 45, this man is too old. So he comes here on Independence Day, saying he can not go back to the Ozmann Inn.
I ask, "Why?" His answer makes no sense, as words jumble, twist, and jump from one subject to the other. As he speaks to me, I surf the web trying to find an open homeless shelter. None of have opened up since the storm, only the Ozmann Inn. I get desperate. In the end, we give him 20 dollars and tell him to get a bed at Good News Camp and to come back to see about a job. Before he leaves, I look at his face, and see the color of his skin. What does it mean to be black in New Orleans?
The next day, he does not arrive. A neighbor, mother of the blocks troublemaker, pushes me to come to Good News Camp to get food for the volunteer house. By the time we get there, she has smoked three cigarettes, and told me all about her son. He is bi-polar, and does not take his medicine. When I tell her a bar is opening up down the street from her Palmyra Street Home, she is not happy, "Shit, New Orleans doesn't need another place to drink at. It's going to be bad news." At the camp, more bad news arrives. There is a small line outside of the food tent. Having to first navigate through all the "Jesus Saves: signs, we get to the line. An older man with dreads and a cast on his left arm claims, "They aren't giving anybody food. The manager stubbed his toe, and hasn't been back since 2:30. I've waited here for an hour." I looked at the others shaking their heads. I was hungry, tired, and wanted to go back to the office. I had no desire to stay and wait. I lifted a part of the tent, and saw that a woman had gone in from around the other side. The people in line watched me as my sense of entitlement was drastically different than their own. I felt like I was doing nothing wrong by exploring and maybe touching and going places I should not. It was my right to get what I wanted, so I followed some of the people into the big supply tent.
There were hundreds of disposable food and clothing, and a young, white woman, probably college educated, sat behind one of the tables. I smiled and looked her in the eye. "Hi, the people outside have been waiting for hours, do you think we can get them their food?" It all seemed very simple. She replied earnestly, "Yeah, I'm sorry; we are having a staffing problem with the food, but yeah, make sure they have their FEMA numbers and their Louisiana licenses." I walked through the tables filled with young whites and past the stage where a Christian Rock group had performed the night before. The groups of Katrina victims' were still waiting, talking softly among themselves. "Okay, you guys can come in." They looked at me perplexed, and a young black man asked almost rhetorically, "What'd you do, sweet talk her?" I laughed it off, and as I walked with them, I dropped, "I think the color had something to do with it." There was a second of awkward silence and then some laughter. The man with the dreads uttered, "I didn't want to say anything, but you know, that could have been it."
It could have, or the woman had finally decided she couldn't say no anymore, but never less, they had waited too long for a very simple procedure. All she needed to do was write down their numbers and let them pick out their food, but for some reason she had insisted the manager needed to be there to do that simple task. There is something about people not being able to see past the clear wall ahead of them. When my driver and I finally left the place, we were happy to have the food, but there was a strange feeling between us, like things had not changed. That whites still got what they wanted, and blacks still had to wait in long lines. We were silent for most of the ride home until she said, "We would have been there forever if you hadn't done that." We both shook our heads, and I mentioned softly, then a little bit louder, "It's not alright."
Back at the House of Blues, Goapele is about to finish her set. It has been a rousing performance. She is vibrant and the room feeds off her electricity. Black and whites are smiling together, dancing a long each other's side, and enjoying the music of a very talented woman. Right after eleven, she stops, and speaks into the microphone, "I want to now play a song from one of my favorite artists-Stevie Wonder," and then, almost instantaneously, the band begins, and she proceeds, "As around the sun the earth knows she's revolving/And the rosebuds know to bloom in early may/Just as hate knows loves the cure... I'll be loving you always."