After the flood, the Big Easy is still a target
April 9, 2007
Your home is a FEMA trailer.
There was a time when your home was a home like anybody else's, but that was before Hurricane Katrina drowned everything. Now your home is a trailer, where late at night you fix yourself a drink and talk to the dog about how it hurts to see your city in ruins, how frustrating it is trying to navigate a rebuilding process the local newspaper calls ``nightmarish.'
So one day, you are invited to appear on a panel in late March before a convention of newspaper editors in Washington. You were one of the most memorable voices in Spike Lee's HBO documentary, When The Levees Broke, and you and other survivors have come to exhort the editors to stay with the story, follow the rebuilding of a major American city at least as closely as they do Anna Nicole Smith, Britney Spears and other important newsmakers.
Afterward, this guy comes up, identifies himself as a columnist with The Miami Herald. You give him your card. It identifies you as Gralen B. Banks, managing director of a New Orleans consulting firm.
The columnist wants your response to something that's been circulating on the Internet. It was supposedly writ-ten by an emergency manager in Colorado, though different versions carry different points of origin.
The e-mail describes how the area has just recovered from a blizzard of 'Biblical proportions' -- 44 inches of snow, winds up to 90 miles an hour, utility poles down, roads closed, communities cut off.
And yet, says the e-mail writer, 'George Bush did not come. FEMA did nothing. No one blamed the govern-ment. ... Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton did not visit. ... Nobody demanded $2,000 debit cards. No one asked for a FEMA trailer. No one looted. We did not wait for some affirmative action government to get us out of a mess created by being immobilized by a welfare program that trades votes for `sittin at home' checks.'
What's your response? Your response is to smile. A tolerant smile. A Lord-give-me-strength smile. You point out patiently, calmly, that no snowstorm compares to Hurricane Katrina. 'When the snow melted,' you say, ``your city was still there, so you're comparing apples to transmissions.'
KEEP YOUR COOL
But it is hard to stay patient and calm. It just gets to you, how niggardly, stupid and flat-out cold some of your own countrymen can be. Why, you ask, do they play this game of Whose Disaster Was Bigger? ``What's the f------ point of that? We have a disaster and we expect help. Are we arrogant, are we wrong for expecting it? Why are you pissed off with us? What did we do other than ask for what anybody else would quite naturally ask for and in all likeli-hood get quicker than we did?'
People were not this nasty toward Miami after Hurricane Andrew. So what is it about you?
'New Orleans,' you say, 'has always been known as the place where anybody can come. You're an accountant in real life and you want to be Marilyn Monroe? Do your thing. We ain't gon' say nothin'. But what did we do to you that would make you turn on us, that would make you say something like, 'We had 10 feet of snow, f--- 'em.' What were we, other than citizens in a position where something happened to us same way something could happen to you?'
You cannot take it in. It does not compute.
You are the son of a funky little river town once known as the place the world went to hear jazz and taste beig-nets and walk where Satchmo walked. But all that is part of another world now, another world 19 months gone and so five minutes ago.
Now you live in this new world of government forms and empty places and fools who think a snowstorm com-pares to the loss of everything you've ever known. So you smile ('Lord, give me strength') and you try to be patient and you try to explain it to them.
At night you go home. And home is a FEMA trailer.
Copyright 2007 The Miami Herald
Memorial to a father who served proudly
May 28, 2007
I never listened to the stories he told.
Either Speed Racer was on or the new Fantastic Four was out or the Spinners were on the radio. Whatever. I never listened.
Things were not good between us. He had a drinking problem, which meant he had a hitting problem. I tried to stay out of his way.
But sometimes, when things were quiet and his mood contemplative, my father just wanted to talk, to tell me who he'd been and what he'd seen in the years before I came along, the years of worldwide war.
What did I care? Speed Racer was on. What did those days, those olden days, mean to me, child of the era of perpetual new?
I never listened.
"This was taken in Belgium," he would say, pointing to some black-and-white picture of him as a 20-something soldier, his uniform crisp, his salute crisper. "Um hmm," I would say, giving a cursory glance before moving back to more important things.
I never listened.
Years later, I would wish I had. Years later, when the military told me the records of his service were lost, burned in a fire, I'd wish I had paid attention. If I had, I might know more than the fact that at some point, he was in Belgium.
I do know that he was a driver on the Red Ball Express. I learned this because he told my cousin Nate, who told me. Nate was older than I. He had been in Vietnam. So he listened.
The Red Ball Express was 6,000 truck drivers, many of them African American, who ferried supplies to the Allies as they advanced through occupied France. And I realize now that this is what he was referring to when he used to boast that he could drive anything on wheels. "Can you drive a tank?" one of us would ask. And he would say yes, he could drive a tank.
"Can you drive an airplane?" I would ask.
He would point out that an airplane is not a ground vehicle. "But it has wheels," I would say, because I could be a pill when I wanted to, even at 10 years of age.
He died two days after Christmas in 1975. Cigarettes, throat cancer. At the funeral, two soldiers took the American flag that draped his casket, folded it into a tight, triangular wedge, and presented it to my mother. When she died, it passed down to me.
For years, I kept his flag on a shelf in my closet with her Bible. A few years back, the kids got into the closet and I found the flag unfolded, just lying there. I was furious. Tried to explain to them what this flag was. But you know how it is with kids. They don't listen.
I took the flag to a military recruiting station where two young soldiers refolded it for me. It sits in a frame on the mantel now.
Somewhere in Northern California, there is, or was, a man whose name is the same as mine. He was a teacher and apparently a very good one, because not a month goes by that one of his former students doesn't send me a note praising him and wondering if he was my father.
Memorial Day, this day we set aside to remember and honor the sacrifices of men and women in uniform, seems an apt day to clear up the confusion. That teacher sounds like a wonderful man, but he wasn't my father.
My father was Cpl. Leonard G. Pitts, United States Army and, later, United States Marines. He was not a perfect man, but he could drive anything with wheels.
He was a soldier.
Beginning Sunday, you can find Leonard Pitts' At Large column on The Miami Herald's editorial pages on Sundays and Wednesdays.
Copyright (c) 2007 The Miami Herald
I know He's out there – some-where
Sept. 2, 2007
I was sitting on the deck in a chaise lounge. God was floating on His back in the pool.
I pointed to the night sky, a white disk of moon rising magisterially into an infinity of black. 'Nice work,' I said. God didn't answer.
'And hey, thanks for the weather today,' I said. ``75 degrees, low humidity, a nice breeze. Well done.'
Still no answer. He gets in these quiet moods sometimes.
'Now I know how Mother Teresa felt,' I groused, laughing to show Him I was just kidding. Might as well have been laughing at the moon.
I picked up the copy of Time magazine from where it had fallen during my nap, held it up so He could see the Mother's portrait on the cover. 'You should read this,' I said. ``It's fascinating.'
The article was about a new book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, based on 66 years of her correspondence. The letters reveal a startling fact: For the last 50 years of her life, this iconic, holy woman felt spiritu-ally abandoned, cut off from God. She felt no Presence. She felt alone.
'. . . [T]he silence and emptiness is so great,' she wrote in 1979, ``that I look and do not see,-- Listen and do not hear . . .'
'. . . I am told that God loves me,' she wrote in an undated letter, `` -- and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.'
'You know,' I said, ``you could have given her a sign. Would that have killed you?'
'Answer me when I'm talking to you!' I was mortified to hear myself yelling at Him, but I couldn't make my-self stop. 'Do you have any idea how much easier you make it for atheists when you act like this? It makes their argu-ment so much simpler. If a woman who had given her very life over to this `God' couldn't get a word out of Him for years, isn't the logical conclusion that He does not exist? Is that really what you want people to think?' God drifted in the pool, silent.
'Is this a faith thing?' I asked. ``Is that it? Even though she had doubt, she continued to minister to people in one of the poorest places on Earth. Is that your point? Have faith?'
The sound of a breeze playing among the trees drew me around sharply. 'Was that You?' I said.
Silence. I said, 'You know you're making me crazy here, right? I feel like the conflicted priest from that TV show, Nothing Sacred. There was this one episode where he gave a homily and asked, `Which man is crazy, the one who hears thunder and thinks it's the voice of God, or the one who hears the voice of God and thinks it's only thunder?' '
I sighed my frustration. For a moment, the only sound was the water lapping in the pool. Then I said softly, 'You know, sometimes, I think atheists have a point. When you see nothing, when you feel nothing, isn't it logical to conclude it's because there is nothing?' I couldn't bear to look at Him as I said this.
'I think the only reason I don't go with them,' I whispered, 'is because of all those other times when you do see . . . something. When you feel connected to something so vast it defies comprehension. It fills you. It settles you. It gives you peace. And you say to yourself, `Lord, where did that come from? It couldn't be my imagination, because I couldn't imagine anything so . . . perfect.' '
Still He was silent.
I looked up.
``You know, this mysterious ways thing gets a little . . .'
I froze. God wasn't there. God was gone. Sitting alone under the blind white cataract of the moon, I shivered. Then I saw Him. He had climbed out of the pool and was drying himself with a towel. He had been there all along.
'Thank God,' I breathed.
'I used to like that show,' He said thoughtfully.
``Huh? What show?'
``That Nothing Sacred. That was a good show. I hated when they canceled it.'
God finished drying Himself and went into the house. It started to rain.
Copyright 2007 The Miami Herald
Racism: Multiply sense of betrayal by 388 years
Sept. 26, 2007
Please indulge me as I answer an e-mail I received last week in response to a recent column decrying unequal justice as represented by the controversy in Jena, La. A fellow named John wrote:
Your columns usually merit reading. But this time, You sound like the typical Black guy crying "victim." Leonard, you list instances of Black injustice and I'm sure there are many. However have you forgot about O.J.? He got away with murder Leonard. He killed his white wife! . . . Or how about Sharpton and the Brawley case? . . . Or the Duke case. . . . I could go on and on. You want more respect for you and your race? Stop sounding like a nigger and start sounding and acting like a Black man. You'll get respect and justice. Try being a Black man all the time, not just when it fits your agenda.
John, thank you for writing. Here are a few words in response.
That column you disliked argued that Jena, where six black kids were initially charged with attempted murder after they gave a white kid a black eye and knocked him out, is part of a long pattern of the justice system being used to keep African Americans in line. Indeed, black students at Jena High report that even before the fight, the DA warned them in an assembly that he could make their lives go away "with the stroke of a pen."
The students say he was looking directly at them when he said it. The DA has denied this, but I find the denial less than credible given the unfathomable charges he sought to file against the black kids while a white kid who attacked a black one got off with a comparative slap on the wrist.
Anyway, you were one of a number of readers who wrote to remind me of Simpson. If the point of your reference to him, Tawana Brawley and the Duke lacrosse case was that the justice system has repeatedly and historically mistreated whites, too, on the basis of race, I'm sorry, but that's absurd. Not that those cases were not travesties. They were. And if those travesties leave you outraged, well, I share that feeling.
But, here's what I want you to do. Take that sense of outrage, that sense of betrayal, of having been cheated by a system you once thought you could trust, and multiply it. Multiply it by Valdosta and Waco and Birmingham and Fort Lauderdale and Money and Marion and Omaha and thousands of other cities and towns where black men and women were lynched, burned, bombed, shot, with impunity. Multiply it by the thousands of cops and courts that refused to arrest or punish even when they held photographs of the perpetrators taken in the act. Multiply it by a million lesser outrages. Multiply it by L.A. cops planting evidence. Multiply it by the black drug defendant who is 48 times more likely to go to jail than the white one who commits the same crime and has the same record. Multiply it by Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo. Multiply it by 388 years.
And then come talk to me about O.J. Simpson.
You may call all that "playing victim." I call it providing context. Jena did not happen in a vacuum. It did not spring from nowhere. So this false equivalence, this pretense that the justice system as experienced by white people and black ones is in any way similar, is ignorant and obnoxious.
Much like your turning to a racial slur to describe how you think I "sound." I found that word interesting coming near the end of an e-mail whose tone, while critical, had, until that point, been reasonable. I suppose you just couldn't help yourself.
It says something about the intransigence, self-justification and retarded self-awareness of American racism that a man who uses the language you do would, in the same breath, offer advice to black folks seeking "respect and justice." Appreciate the effort, John, but I'm afraid you can't solve the problem.
See, you are the problem.
Copyright (c) 2007 The Miami Herald
`Murder is the greatest injustice of all'
Dec. 2, 2007
And once again, this is how we die.
Fallen, crumpled, bleeding from a bullet's hole. Woman and child left to wail, left to mourn. Left.
It was, of course, not a 'we' who died that way last week in Miami, but a 'he,' NFL star Sean Taylor, 24, shot in his home by a burglar. But maybe we can be forgiven, we African-American people in general, we African-American men in particular, for placing a 'we' where others would a 'he,' for seeing in the fate of this singular individual all the brothers and sisters we have wept and mourned and given back to the soil. Maybe we can be forgiven for feeling the only difference is that the world knows his name and did not know theirs.
And this is how we die. We die in profligate numbers. Just under 15,000 Americans were murdered in 2006. Roughly half of them -- 7,421 -- were black. African Americans are 12 percent of the nation's population.
And this is how we die. We die young. Of the 7,421 African-American murder victims of 2006, more than 40 percent -- 3,028 -- were Taylor's age or less.
And this is how we die. We kill one another. Of the 3,303 African-American murder victims whose assailants are known to authorities, 92 percent were killed by other blacks.
It's easy to make too much of that last statistic. After all, murder, like other violent crime, tends to be a segre-gated thing. About 82 percent of white murder victims owe their demise to another white person, yet one never hears lamentations about the scourge of 'white on white' crime. Violent crime is, more than anything, a matter of proximity and opportunity.
Still, with all that said, that difference of 10 percentage points of likelihood whispers a soft suggestion that sometimes, we don't much value us, that some of us have learned to see our lives the way the nation historically has: as cheap and lacking in worth. Note that even before three people were detained Friday, it was being taken for granted by some Internet posters and at least one African-American columnist that Taylor's assailant would prove to be black. That is a dangerous, and potentially embarrassing, assumption. But at the same time, no one will exactly be shocked if police end up parading disheveled black kids past television cameras.
Because this is how we die.
We die shot in the head and shot in the gut and shot in the back and shot in the chest and shot in the thigh. We die on asphalt and on concrete, and lying in bed and slumped against refrigerators and prostrate on gurneys in the back of ambulances hurtling down city streets and quietly inside, too, in the soul a little, at the carnage our communities be-come.
We die and it goes unremarked, die so much it's hardly news anymore. A child dies from random bullets or a famous man dies at a burglar's hand and the media are all over it, yeah. But 12 percent of the nation is 50 percent of the murder victims, and it's mainly business as usual. No government task force convenes to tell us why this is. No rallying cries ring from podiums and pulpits. Crowds do not march as they did in Jena, demanding justice.
But one could argue that murder is the greatest injustice of all. And life the most fundamental of civil rights.
We ought not -- I ought not -- deny Sean Taylor his singularity, his personhood, in the rush to make him a symbol. So let us say here for the record: No, this is not 7,421 murders. This is one. One heartbeat stilled. One child fatherless. One family shattered. One.
I understand all that. Still, maybe we can be forgiven for feeling that, in the broadest outlines, we've seen this story before. Because this is how we die. And yes, Sean Taylor is one man.
But he's also one more.
Copyright 2007 The Miami Herald
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