your shoes are on your feet and your feet are on the street and this street is Bourbon Street.
The past is never dead. It‘s not even past.
We open the blinds slightly and look outside, about shoulder height. Outside there is a car parked. A man staggers around the hood, he stops in front of the driver‘s door standing with his back towards us. He gets out his dick and supporting himself on the car top with his left arm he pees at the closed driver‘s door in front of him. He puts his dick back in, gets out his car key, unlocks the car door and drops down into the driver‘s seat. The door wide open, his feet still on the street, he dozes off, already far away in another place, his mouth hangs open, utterly stoned.
In the room, the air-conditioning is running as is a large fan on the ceiling, at least one meter in diameter for sure. Intuitively one imagines that here, every room, every smallest compartment, is provided with at least one of them. Here, south, hot and humid, so different that you doubt that this here belongs to the USA, to the United States, to the same United States to which New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Albuquerque belong. To which Donald Trump as well as Barack and Michelle Obama also belong. And the Mississippi River, that name always seemed to me as if it could have easily emerged from a fairy tale. Is there really such a thing as the Mississippi River? Does there exist such a thing? If someone would tell me, that in fact the Mississippi River has been created like the tale of Sleeping Beauty, for the sole purpose of telling a story. A kind of informative story, in this case a story of extraordinary dimensions, I wouldn‘t doubt it. The Mississippi River doesn‘t exist, it’s just a word, a made-up word. A confirmation that you don’t know anything, and you don’t understand either, because you never could get close enough or will you ever and for certain you will never be able to comprehend it all. It’s just so.
While here, oversized fans are rotating.
They are rotating in the dark and noisy bars at Bourbon Street, full of music. Parallel to Bourbon Street, just a few blocks away, there lies the Moon Walk, the promenade along the Mississippi River.
New Orleans. New Aaaw-lens, is a port city and Bourbon Street might be a kind of „Große Freiheit“ (the „Great Freedom“, a street in Hamburg) it seemed to me, although the scale is different.
Drunks, tourists, party mood. Out of nothing, some tourists chat to us in German: In such and such bar, they serve the best Irish Coffee, and they are about to go there now. And, sure thing, the couple said, they also did a Plantation Tour. It‘s all part of the package. And after all they are already here for some days, and now they know their way around. Bourbon Street. Mississippi River. Moon Walk.
The Moon Walk. There, on Mardi Gras, carnival Tuesday, they spread the ashes of the deceased mixed with glitter into the river. While the ashes vanish in the water immediately, you can still see the glitter floating on the surface for a while.
A new birth of sorts.
In the middle of June, we are sitting on the stairs, looking at the water of the Mississippi River at our feet. A few hundred meters further along a steamboat is piping a swaying, husky melody with its full boiler, while the tourists stand in line waiting for the evening cruise.
Broad stairs are leading down to the river, which sloshes against them with slow waves. So very sluggish seeming more like an ocean then a river. But wait, over there, don‘t you see? Is that a body sloshing back and forth and against the debris at the riverside? So very slow, almost with pleasure and without any refusal, back and forth with the waves, like only a lifeless body can slosh. A relatively large dead body, splish, splash, is it a dead seal? But how in the world did a seal get here?
Visiting a swamp is a main attraction. New Orleans had to be constructed, that was certain from the start. There was no way around it. At the mouth of such a big river, at the entrance of such a big country, there has to be a big city, an important city, let‘s say a metropolis. A fact, for sure. In the case of New Orleans, there was no doubt. First of all, wetlands had to be turned into land. You do what you can. The swamps must be drained, then a city can be built upon it. Yet still, giant pumping systems are continuously pumping water out of the swamps, on which the city stands. Otherwise, the city would turn into swamp, it would suck up water like a sponge. What an achievement.
Marshland works as a natural defense to hurricanes. As they sweep through the swamps, they lose power. No swamp, no defense.
2005. The lower of Lower Ninth Ward, a district of New Orleans, is the same lower like in Lower Manhattan in contrast to Upper Manhattan. It has often been misinterpreted, that the Lower Ninth Ward is located lower beneath sea level than the rest of the city. In fact, it is just describing the area south of the Ninth Ward.
The Lower Ninth Ward is within the area that had been most worst affected by the devastations due to Hurricane Katrina. But why? To protect from various risks- such as the missing swamp defense and the dangerous proximity to the Mississippi Gulf Outlet, the MRGO, which was built as a shortcut for the shipping industry. But working like a large funnel it leads storms directly into the city. To protect the city from several risks levees were constructed. Amsterdam, located below sea level like New Orleans, is protected from flooding by a levee. But what is the use of a levee, if it is built on mud. Against multiple and subsequent engineering failures none of it helps in the end.
2005 because of hurricane Katrina, the levees breach at several points. Instead of 17 meters as is required the levee was barely anchored to the ground. It is washed out and washed away. In 2005 between 1100 and 1800 people died in New Orleans because of Katrina. To this date there is still disagreement as to number of deaths.
There was a lot going wrong in 2005, not to say everything. About 20.000 people took refuge from the storm in the Super Dome and waited for help in inhuman conditions. Help didn’t come. They waited for about a week. Finally, coaches arrived, in which they were being sat, driving them anywhere. Specifically meaning: the people on the bus have no idea where the bus is going. Baton Rouge, Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, New York City? The residents of New Orleans, citizens of the United States, are being dispersed throughout the entire country as fugitives, families are torn apart.
And how can you come back home again after it all? When? And what kind of home? Is the house still standing? The insurances refuse to pay. The worst damages are not storm damages but damages caused by flooding. And these are not covered by the hurricane insurances.
Soon it is under discussion to just tear down the most affected neighborhoods- in which predominately a black population live. Perhaps turn it back into marshland? What about a health resort? A city park, to promote the health of the city people? And again, the misunderstanding: „The Lower Ninth Ward is just so low, lower than the rest of the city. It is only reasonable to not build it up again. The residents would do better elsewhere after all.”
In the chaos that lasted for years, different, mainly white stakeholders see their chance to gain influence in impeding the return of the people that are dispersed throughout the country as fugitives. Houses are torn down. Even those without essential damage. Following thesis is put forward: „Maybe the storm was an act of God, so that the city of New Orleans could rise from the ashes but only white.”
Tenants of social housing in the city center are being locked out by their residential districts. The so-called Public Housing Projects were torn down by private real estate companies. More than 99 percent of the affected residents are African Americans, among them primarily single mothers, disabled and elderly people.
The bridge to Gretna.
As the city lay in ruins, covered by water, immediately after the storm, a group of people wandered through the destroyed streets looking for shelter, for help and probably for drinking water too. The heat was almost 40° centigrade. Now and then they encountered overwhelmed police officers. Now and then they encountered other helpless people who join the group. Finding a way out together, out of the destroyed city, looking for help.
Finally, they were told, they should cross the river. “On the other side of the Mississippi River, there in Gretna, coaches are waiting to bring you to safety.”
The group, already in their hundreds, included elderly people, people in wheelchairs and children among them. In the heat, they trudged over the asphalt of the huge four lane bridge, the Crescent City Connection. From a distance, they could see police officers standing on the other side of the bridge. Obviously, they were expecting them. As they came within earshot, they heard the armed policemen shout: “Stay where you are, don’t get any closer, or we’ll shoot.”
The people in the group thought they had misheard and came closer. “Where are the busses that will get us to safety? Is there any drinking water? Some of us just cannot take it any longer.” “Turn back, or we shoot”, the Gretna police shouted towards the helpless New Orleans citizens. Gretna, by the Mississippi River, on the opposite side from New Orleans. Then they started firing into the air. The group turned back. “We really thought now they’re going to shoot us.”
“We were acting for the safety of the city of Gretna. We couldn’t just let anyone come into our town”, said the police department afterwards. The threat was a group of people escaping a destroyed city. Up to 95% black people.
“We‘re not having black people coming into our neighborhood”, that at least is what Larry Bradshaw from the group of the fleeing people understood.
We are doing a swamp tour. Here a swamp is called bayou. A small boat, six people, a silent engine, perhaps we’ll even see a crocodile. It’s swarming with alligators here. The meeting point is at a truck stop on the Pearl River. There huge trucks are parking one next to another, ten, maybe fifteen. Each truck easily the size of one and a half European trucks. A heat of nearly 40° centigrade and nearly 100 percent air humidity. How are you supposed to breath? Is it sweat or air moisture? Everything is soaked. While in every room at least one disproportionate fan is rotating, the whole row of parked trucks keep their engines running. What? Why? What a terrible noise, and what about the environment? The drivers are resting inside, without air conditioning it would be unbearable.
In the bayou, the water level is low. You can read different water levels at the trunks of the mangroves. In New Orleans plastic beads are hanging from all lampposts and trees in all colors. Mardi Gras Beads. Here, Spanish Moss is hanging from the branches. In photos it looks damp, like a kind of moss, but it is not, it is rather dry, like a kind of lichen. Garlands.
There is a lot of noise in the bayou: chirping, rustling, whistling. It’s going to rain. The hurricane season had started at the beginning of June. Here and there, around the next river bend, we see little huts on stilts. Some are even floating and will rise with the water, others are likely to sink soon, built for one season, just until the next storm comes up or the water rises. Who lives here? What would it be like to spent the night here? What kind of sounds could you hear at night? The huts are about caravan-size. Tiny houses. Most of them have a small porch with a rocking chair. Maybe they watch too much TV, one wonders. Probably not, but one does wonder.
At the next river bend, there is a sandbank. Toys are lying scattered in the sand. Really? I thought it was swarming with alligators? And yet children are playing in the sand by the water?
On the water which stands motionless in the bayou, a surface like mercury, an infinite number of flies are sitting. Whole nations of tiny flies, sitting on the water surface with their flyweight. The surface doesn’t move at all_________________________
As we are coming closer tiny waves are formed, rolling towards the flies. Now suddenly, they are panicking and start fleeing jumping over each other. In a velocity, so that the panic seems more like an elaborate choreography, which is set in motion by our boat.
As soon as we are back in the car, it starts raining. First it rains, then it pours. Water is whipping over the windscreen like waves. The wiper works in full swing, but just as well one could use it to paddle through the bayou. Not much good. We can also turn it off.
We are driving on Interstate 10, which is leading over bridges and lakes and swamps. Quite impressive. But we can’t see anything because of the rain. If we would drive on Interstate 10 to the end, we would arrive in Los Angeles. Water is whipping across the windshield. The street is flooded. Like the END OF THE WORLD. Then the rain stops.
The Mississippi River Road runs directly along the Mississippi River, which one does not see, because it is hidden behind a tall wall of grass.
Here is where some time ago the richest residents of the United States lived. A map shows it in the Land Registry: Strip to strip to strip. Plantation to plantation sugar cane was cultivated here. The harvest and processing of the sugar cane is very painful, because the leaves are rigid and sharp as razor blades.
The German immigrant Ambroise Heidel founded the Whitney Plantation in 1721. Its name comes from a later owner who ran the plantation after the time of slavery. Today’s owner, John Cummings, a New Orleans lawyer, created the open-air museum and memorial place, the so-called Whitney Plantation Historic District.
In a small Baptist church built by free slaves after the civil war we are watching a short introductory film. All around us are dozens of life-size bronze figures of children, girls and boys, in dresses and overalls. These 40 sculptures by the sculptor Woodrow Nash portray the children of the Whitney Plantation, witnesses of the past. Our admission tickets depict one of these sculptures each. One of the children and his name. We learn they are survivors. All sculptures are portraits, each of it made according to original pictures.
The survivors are getting a chance to speak about the time when they were other people’s property. Each sculpture is a portrait of a human being with their own name and their own story. On my ticket, I read the name “Henry Reed”. On the back a quotation tells about his life at the plantation. The child on the front is about 7 years old. At the time, Henry Reed was interviewed he was 86. He has survived.
On a “Wall of Honor” the names of 2200 children are engraved, children that died at the Whitney and the bordering communities.
On average a grown man would survive 7 years of plantation labor. Women usually lived longer. Women were more expensive, more valuable than healthy, strong men, which were used up for slave labor. From women, they could breed new working power. Two human beings were locked up in a cage, until the woman was pregnant. Cages, metal blocks, in which the heat must have been unbearable. Unborn life, valuable property. New life, more capital. The container-sized cages were manufactured in Philadelphia. The whole country was involved, not only the South. In the South is where the nasty business happened, inhuman and murderous, the rest of the country would be turning their backs to it. But here is where most of the millionaires lived.
Before the time of slavery, the US was a subordinate trade partner of the major European powers. After the time of slavery, it became an economic superpower.
At the Whitney Plantation Historic District there are black marble memorials with engraved names in commemoration of the victims. One name after another. Names of the people that lived here as slaves. Bodies, which served only to accumulate their owner’s capital. More valuable or less valuable, according to health, sex, working power, fertility and the ability to give birth. One marble block is left blank intentionally. It is for those that remained nameless. A large blank surface.
Somewhere on the estate the gong still hangs that marked the beginning and the end of the daily slave labor. A brass plate with a heavy hammer. We get invited to ring it to remember the victims, those who died and those who survived. It sounds heavy and resonates for a while. Even though we had expected unsettling things keeping our composure feels kind of tough.
Again, it starts raining. Our guide Ali intently says, that retelling is important. We can all see how deeply he cares, and that he is right. It is not over yet. The half has never been told. He says loudly: Slavery and oppression are not past, it is not over yet. In the USA, more citizens are in jail as in any other country in the world.
25 % of those imprisoned worldwide are in an US penitentiary. Out of 100.000 white US-citizens there are 478 prison inmates, out of the same amount of black US-citizens there are 3.023.
Out of more than 35.000 museums in the USA the Whitney Plantation Historic District is the only one dedicated exclusively to the history of the enslaved plantation inhabitants.
The Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve is located south of New Orleans. On wooden planks one can walk right through the wetlands and explore it. We see swarms of dragon flies, giant locusts and two alligators. Later, we chat with a Ranger. He tells us about an alligator den which is being guarded by an alligator mother somewhere around here. Don’t get too close! The Ranger is a little man with an uncanny resemblance to Steve Buscemi.
Maybe because we are from Germany he suddenly starts talking: His ancestors came from Europe. His ancestors settled in the north of the USA. His ancestors didn’t cast out native Americans neither did they murder them, yet they benefited from the fact that others did.
When the ships brought tons of cotton from the plantations up the Mississippi River to the north of the country passengers could travel on empty ships back southwards almost for free. So, his ancestors moved on. He says: “My ancestors never traded in slaves neither did they keep slaves, but, again, they benefited from the fact that others did.”
From what have we benefitted?
Finally, we want to visit another plantation. I say: the way that they are processing the past of course is American. But they do process it and from the perspective of the victims and of those who survived, that is a good thing. I had no idea and have learned a lot.
At TripAdvisor, the Laura Plantation is highly recommended. Five stars, best plantation ever: Immerse yourself in the history. Visitors enter the Laura Plantation through the gift shop. Obviously, the marketing is working. Shower gel, cookies, bottle openers, towels, all kinds of souvenirs, most of them with an image of Laura on it. Laura, youngest member of the plantation owner dynasty, she soon left the plantation to live in a big city, an emancipated woman. At some point, she wrote down her memories of the plantation. That all was not well with it, sure thing.
We are a large group, US-Americans from all over the country looking forward to seeing a real plantation. Southern states’ glory, North and South. At least one selfie in front of the mighty oaks that are quite a bit younger than the plantation itself, but never mind: The manor house is a splendor. Our guide is squeezing her PET bottle in her back pocket and introduces herself as Katie: “You know whenever you have a question...“. Her eyes wide open she tells stories of life in the plantation: “Sometimes, when a slave did something wrong they would just, shoot him. And nobody would be accused of murder because: a slave’s life was not worth much.”
In the basement, we are seeing life-sized cardboard stand-ups of the plantation owners. It had been the largest plantation so far. The Master and his wife lived like king and queen. Of course, there was a lot of work, with such a giant plantation– “Hey Katie! Is this furniture in the original state?” No, of course not, we just collected it somewhere, who cares. But hey, we planted banana trees: They are thriving in our hot and humid Louisiana climate. “Come on and check it out! Now, let’s have a look at the kitchen, the cooking barn. Here the slaves prepared all their delicious dishes they brought to us from their old homeland, Africa. Jambalaya, Gumbo– watch out: Each paving stone on which we’re standing, each and every brick you’re seeing, the slaves made with their own hands. Brick by brick. From the MUD, that they carried here from the shores of the MISSISSIPPI RIVER…”
I mean... whaat?
They love the Laura Plantation on TripAdvisor: If you ever wanted to see a major sugar cane plantation, you go there. Gone with the Wind.
We are waiting until the whole group has entered the kitchen barn and then we run across the plantation, take the back door out, and breath a sigh of relief to be back in our car.
The series NOLA (New Orleans) is shown is this issue. Ten pieces, watercolor on paper, first the back, then the front. It is all beads, water, water like mercury, flies on the water surface, the bayou, huts mounted on stilts, with porches and rocking chairs, Mardi Gras Beads, mud, mold, Spanish Moss, fans, trucks with their engines running, heat, swamps and wetlands, a levee built on silt, heavy rain, storms, destroyed houses, demolished housing blocks, the Mississippi River, and the millionaires who lived along its shores.
Ayumi Rahn, 2018