September 4, 2005
By ANNE RICE
La Jolla, Calif.
WHAT do people really know about New Orleans?
Do they take away with them an awareness that it has always been not
only a great white metropolis but also a great black city, a city
where African-Americans have come together again and again to form the
strongest African-American culture in the land?
The first literary magazine ever published in Louisiana was the work
of black men, French-speaking poets and writers who brought together
their work in three issues of a little book called L'Album Littéraire.
That was in the 1840's, and by that time the city had a prosperous
class of free black artisans, sculptors, businessmen, property owners,
skilled laborers in all fields. Thousands of slaves lived on their own
in the city, too, making a living at various jobs, and sending home a
few dollars to their owners in the country at the end of the month.
This is not to diminish the horror of the slave market in the middle
of the famous St. Louis Hotel, or the injustice of the slave labor on
plantations from one end of the state to the other. It is merely to
say that it was never all "have or have not" in this strange and
Later in the 19th century, as the Irish immigrants poured in by the
thousands, filling the holds of ships that had emptied their cargoes
of cotton in Liverpool, and as the German and Italian immigrants soon
followed, a vital and complex culture emerged. Huge churches went up
to serve the great faith of the city's European-born Catholics;
convents and schools and orphanages were built for the newly arrived
and the struggling; the city expanded in all directions with new
neighborhoods of large, graceful houses, or areas of more humble
cottages, even the smallest of which, with their floor-length shutters
and deep-pitched roofs, possessed an undeniable Caribbean charm.
Through this all, black culture never declined in Louisiana. In fact,
New Orleans became home to blacks in a way, perhaps, that few other
American cities have ever been. Dillard University and Xavier
University became two of the most outstanding black colleges in
America; and once the battles of desegregation had been won, black New
Orleanians entered all levels of life, building a visible middle class
that is absent in far too many Western and Northern American cities to
The influence of blacks on the music of the city and the nation is too
immense and too well known to be described. It was black musicians
coming down to New Orleans for work who nicknamed the city "the Big
Easy" because it was a place where they could always find a job. But
it's not fair to the nature of New Orleans to think of jazz and the
blues as the poor man's music, or the music of the oppressed.
Something else was going on in New Orleans. The living was good there.
The clock ticked more slowly; people laughed more easily; people
kissed; people loved; there was joy.
Which is why so many New Orleanians, black and white, never went
north. They didn't want to leave a place where they felt at home in
neighborhoods that dated back centuries; they didn't want to leave
families whose rounds of weddings, births and funerals had become the
fabric of their lives. They didn't want to leave a city where
tolerance had always been able to outweigh prejudice, where patience
had always been able to outweigh rage. They didn't want to leave a
place that was theirs.
And so New Orleans prospered, slowly, unevenly, but surely - home to
Protestants and Catholics, including the Irish parading through the
old neighborhood on St. Patrick's Day as they hand out cabbages and
potatoes and onions to the eager crowds; including the Italians, with
their lavish St. Joseph's altars spread out with cakes and cookies in
homes and restaurants and churches every March; including the uptown
traditionalists who seek to preserve the peace and beauty of the
Garden District; including the Germans with their clubs and
traditions; including the black population playing an ever increasing
role in the city's civic affairs.
Now nature has done what the Civil War couldn't do. Nature has done
what the labor riots of the 1920's couldn't do. Nature had done what
"modern life" with its relentless pursuit of efficiency couldn't do.
It has done what racism couldn't do, and what segregation couldn't do
either. Nature has laid the city waste - with a scope that brings to
mind the end of Pompeii.
I share this history for a reason - and to answer questions that have
arisen these last few days. Almost as soon as the cameras began
panning over the rooftops, and the helicopters began chopping free
those trapped in their attics, a chorus of voices rose. "Why didn't
they leave?" people asked both on and off camera. "Why did they stay
there when they knew a storm was coming?" One reporter even asked me,
"Why do people live in such a place?"
Then as conditions became unbearable, the looters took to the streets.
Windows were smashed, jewelry snatched, stores broken open, water and
food and televisions carried out by fierce and uninhibited crowds.
Now the voices grew even louder. How could these thieves loot and
pillage in a time of such crisis? How could people shoot one another?
Because the faces of those drowning and the faces of those looting
were largely black faces, race came into the picture. What kind of
people are these, the people of New Orleans, who stay in a city about
to be flooded, and then turn on one another?
Well, here's an answer. Thousands didn't leave New Orleans because
they couldn't leave. They didn't have the money. They didn't have the
vehicles. They didn't have any place to go. They are the poor, black
and white, who dwell in any city in great numbers; and they did what
they felt they could do - they huddled together in the strongest
houses they could find. There was no way to up and leave and check
into the nearest Ramada Inn.
What's more, thousands more who could have left stayed behind to help
others. They went out in the helicopters and pulled the survivors off
rooftops; they went through the flooded streets in their boats trying
to gather those they could find. Meanwhile, city officials tried
desperately to alleviate the worsening conditions in the Superdome,
while makeshift shelters and hotels and hospitals struggled.
And where was everyone else during all this? Oh, help is coming, New
Orleans was told. We are a rich country. Congress is acting. Someone
will come to stop the looting and care for the refugees.
And it's true: eventually, help did come. But how many times did Gov.
Kathleen Blanco have to say that the situation was desperate? How many
times did Mayor Ray Nagin have to call for aid? Why did America ask a
city cherished by millions and excoriated by some, but ignored by no
one, to fight for its own life for so long? That's my question.
I know that New Orleans will win its fight in the end. I was born in
the city and lived there for many years. It shaped who and what I am.
Never have I experienced a place where people knew more about love,
about family, about loyalty and about getting along than the people of
New Orleans. It is perhaps their very gentleness that gives them their
They will rebuild as they have after storms of the past; and they will
stay in New Orleans because it is where they have always lived, where
their mothers and their fathers lived, where their churches were built
by their ancestors, where their family graves carry names that go back
200 years. They will stay in New Orleans where they can enjoy a
sweetness of family life that other communities lost long ago.
But to my country I want to say this: During this crisis you failed
us. You looked down on us; you dismissed our victims; you dismissed
us. You want our Jazz Fest, you want our Mardi Gras, you want our
cooking and our music. Then when you saw us in real trouble, when you
saw a tiny minority preying on the weak among us, you called us "Sin
City," and turned your backs.
Well, we are a lot more than all that. And though we may seem the most
exotic, the most atmospheric and, at times, the most downtrodden part
of this land, we are still part of it. We are Americans. We are you.
Anne Rice is the author of the forthcoming novel "Christ the Lord: Out
* Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
Grace E. Lee