Sunday, the group of us that went to New Orleans to volunteer last May, did our church service to let the congregation know about our trip. It ran longer ahan we would have liked, but I think overall, it was a good service. I think people were interested in what we were saying. We shared some of the pictures of our trip, along with personal reactions and reflections.
Working on what I was going to say, and reading back throught the journal that I kept, made me fall in love with New Orleans all over again. I was supposed to read some of my journal entries, but instead I took a few of my entries from that journal, and mixed them in with childhood memories and reflections of a recent anti-racism workshop that I went to.
The following is what I said:
I grew up hearing the story of the first time my dad met Louis Armstrong. Pops took my Pop under his wing and suckered him into making his first public appearance. Because of this, I have always held Armstrong in my heart as a hero. One of my dreams, since I was little, was to go to New Orleans to see the place that created such an incredible musician and generous human being.
Unfortunately, I didn’t make it before hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated much of New Orleans.
I was, however, honored to be able to experience this incredible place through volunteering this year with others from the UU Church of Flint. I soaked up the jazz from the French Quarter in through my pores at night and I sweated the devastation and anger out through my pores in the daytime heat.
I fell in love with New Orleans just as deeply as I fall in love with Louis Armstrong each time I hear his grainy voice sing to me through my stereo speakers.
Although some people criticized “Satchmo”, saying that he played as an “Uncle Tom” to white audiences, Armstrong fought racism quietly. He donated much of his money to anti-racism activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. He treated people as his equals, including a scared white kid during the early 1950s. Armstrong even refused to play in his beloved New Orleans for many years because of the segregation there, returning only to play in 1965 after the Civil Rights Act was passed.
As soon as we got settled in to our temporary home at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, several of us took off to the French Quarter. We were led by our new friend and guide, Gabe, who had been volunteering in New Orleans for about a month and a half. We were headed to a bar called “The Spotted Cat”.
Once we got to Frenchman Street, kitty corner to “The Spotted Cat”, a brass band was playing outside to a crowd of one or two hundred people dancing… on cars, in the back of pick up trucks, on sidewalks and in the middle of the street. It was incredible.
As I watched and listened to the brass band work the crowd, I looked around at that crowd. Black folks and white folks were dancing, drinking, and singing together while these very talented young black men rivaled the angels in heaven on their horns. I kept wishing that Louis Armstrong could have been here to see this mix of humanity that he dreamed would come together. I wondered if he would have finally come home after the hurricanes came to devastate the area.
When I talked to people in the quarter, at the Rebuilding Together warehouse, and at the church where we were staying, I learned that there is so much more to New Orleans than jazz and delicious food. I learned that, even though much of the city is segregated, no matter the color of their skin, the people there seem to genuinely care about one another. Neighbors look out for one another, especially the young and the elderly. Something that I heard about again and again was that people were doing everything they could to help their neighbors rebuild and get home while they themselves were still living in FEMA trailers and hadn’t been allowed to enter their own homes for months.
That got me to wondering if people would look out for each other that way here in Flint if a tornado were to strike and devastate our area.
I don’t know.
The segregation in Flint breaks my heart, much like Satchmo’s heart was broken by the segregation of the New Orleans that he grew up in.
A few weeks ago, I attended a workshop here, at the Flint UU, in the chapel. The workshop was run by the cast of the play called “Truth in Translation”, which is about the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa.
I mention this because I believe that Flint, New Orleans and South Africa have a lot in common. All three places are struggling with issues of poverty and prejudice. All three are striving to evolve past segregation toward integration.
New Orleans, for many years, lost a most beloved son, Louis Armstrong, due to the people of that city being too willing to allow the status quo of inequality rule their everyday lives. South Africa, for years, instituted legalized racism resulting in hatred and misunderstanding between people of different skin tones. Flint has maintained an atmosphere of quiet segregation without very many questioning the inequalities.
For each of these places, speaking truth to prejudice has been- and still is- necessary in order to remind ourselves of the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.
Through my dad’s experience with Louis Armstrong, the lesson I learned is that a person is a person no matter the color of their skin, their rank, experience, talent or their material possessions. Satchmo could have left corporal Loubert to face the wrath of his commanding officer when he gave in to cowardice and failed to execute his orders to introduce Louis Armstrong to a bunch of loud, rowdy soldiers. Instead, he treated my dad with dignity and compassion. Satchmo put his arm around him. Talked soothingly to him, then basically pushed him out on stage where he had little choice but to speak.
Louis Armstrong was wise enough to listen to what my dad believed his own limitations were. Then he pushed my dad to go above and beyond what he thought himself capable of.
After going to New Orleans and experiencing the show and workshop of “Truth in Translation”, I have to ask myself: what part do I play in listening to what the people of Flint believe to be our limitations as a community. And: how can I help to push this place into going above and beyond what we think we are capable of.