Call For Ideas Lens: Cultural Identity
Scared and Hopeful
BY ASHANA BIGARD
I am a black native, a New Orleanian who’s family goes back at least five generations that I can prove. I find myself in a time, post-Katrina, where I am both scared and hopeful. Gentrification and disaster capitalism have hit my city in a unique way; there are now two New Orleans.
One is just New Orleans, the other is the new New Orleans and in its present formation it does not have space, place or value for what was here before. The storm, which was horrifying and devastating, also had the opportunity to bring much needed changes to help its’ citizens and infrastructure. Don’t get me wrong; doing real, meaningful, culturally appropriate work in my small, unique, beautiful, and enchanting, magical, corrupt, racist, classist, City would in no way be easy…. but what it would be worth it.
Gentrification is not new to New Orleans, nor is the saturation of people with different cultures from different places. The only thing different is the amount of people and the fact that a lot of these people think that the city is buildings and land, and not its people. Everything that is beautiful, unique, and magical and ugly and corrupt in New Orleans; all of that is that way because of the people. Get rid of the people and the City as you know it will no longer exist. New Orleans has always been majority black and a people of color city. I don’t know why that’s hard for people to accept when we have so many cities that are majority white.
When Ray Nagin made the controversial statement that New Orleans was a chocolate city, he wasn’t lying, and there’s literally hundreds of years of data to back that statement up. So then, why was the statement so controversial?
New Orleans suffers from three things: anti-blackness, neoliberalism, and short-term thinking. I am hopeful because more and more, I think people are starting to understand that cultural resistance is the way to fight all oppression, and in order to have cultural resistance you must be rooted in culture. I am hopeful because even if there are people who don’t understand what is going on, or how to fight it, or are unaware that things need to be changed and done differently. We have an opportunity to be the generation that does not keep re-enacting the insanity of the past. To be clear, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
My culture teaches me to value the people in my community more than capitalism; it teaches me that love and joy are much-needed exercises that we must incorporate in our lives on a daily basis in order to survive. It also teaches me that we all have intrinsic value that we were all born with gifts that will enhance our lives and the lives of the people we touch. That is our responsibility- to leave the world a better place then when we entered it. In addition, taking care of the air water and land is a part of taking care of ourselves, our children, our grandchildren, and our future.
I’ve also been taught that people who do not have these values are not evil, just ignorant or misguided, and you cannot fight the ignorant and misguided with hate and judgment. But it is also my responsibility to survive- to keep those in this mindset from continuing to perpetrate harm on me, my children or my community. Decisions we make now will affect generations to come, as we can see the landscape of what is happening now has been created through decisions made in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s.
When you talk to most people, people want to stay positive and only focus on solutions and while I understand that thinking, we must identify the problem to correctly identify the solution. If you have the flu and I give you allergy medication that won’t help. So in order to know how to help, we must first examine how we got here which will bring us in contact with dark and ugly places, but it is necessary if we’re going to build a better future. We must know where we have been to know where we’re going, We do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past thinking it is progress.
New Orleans housing developments: “The projects,” and the policies that were implemented after black people move in: Like the “dad and the dog” policy, meaning that families who lived in low-income housing couldn’t have a father or a dog in the apartment. Social workers who covered the Projects would often go through apartments looking for adult male clothing, shoes, etc. If they found them you would be evicted and cut off of all social service programs. Because of extreme racial discrimination, a lot of working women had extremely low-income jobs and needed assistance, especially with health insurance for their children, because, unbeknownst to them, they were living in housing with lead paint, asbestos, roaches, rats, and mice. Service workers were not allowed to unionize, which kept the workforce disenfranchised. This Service workforce was critical to the tourism industry—the predominant industry in the city to this day.
The war on drugs: In addition to the sentencing disparities and the police brutality, in the last 25 years, New Orleans has been number one in police corruption several times. We’ve also been the murder capital of the world several times. Louisiana also incarcerates more people then Iraq and Iran put together; we incarcerate more people per capita than any place else on the planet. In the juvenile justice system, the deplorable “school to prison pipeline,” is alive and well as are the disparities between white and black brown students in the public school system. Currently the schools are more segregated then they were in 1950s, if you look at race and class.
We are living in culture that is struggling to hold onto its’ resistance to this. To be able to dance in the street and second line, to rejoice despite all of this, is an act of resistance, but these things are also necessary to maintain our collective sense of our own humanity, despite being seen as non-humans. But it goes deeper still; both my grandfather and uncle were Mardi Gras Indians, and there’s a lot more to the culture then what people see and understand. Culture is like an iceberg, what you see is very tip, the top, and the bigger part is underneath the water. This, I can guarantee you, as a native born within this beautiful, corrupt, and magical city.
Ashana Bigard. Photograph courtesy of author.
In addition to education equity activism at the Education Justice Project of New Orleans, Ashana Bigard organizes with the Woman’s Health & Justice Initiative for expanded housing affordability opportunities for low-income families. Ashana has worked with a diverse range of youth, education, and juvenile justice-based organizations including the New Orleans Parents Organizing Network, Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, and the Agenda for Children. Ashana is a life long resident of New Orleans, mother of three, social justice organizer, and a long-time advocate for the health and wellness needs of children and families in Louisiana.