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Long before Katrina raised the floodwaters in New Orleans, African-American urban

 communities were flooded with despair and neglect. Without . . . an activist

middleclass . . . poor Blacks have been left to fend for themselves



New Orleans: The American Nightmare

By Amin Sharif


They call it the Big Easy,

but it ain’t easy any more,

They call it the Big Easy

but it ain’t easy anymore.

I’m feelin’ lost and so forsaken,

my soul can’t bear much more.

                  -- from "Big Easy Blues"

There has always been more than a suspicion among this country’s poor and working class Blacks that if they peeled back the veneer of the American Dream they would stand before an American nightmare. In this nightmare, all the pretense of being an American citizen would be shown to be false. Black men and women would see clearly that they are nothing more than gristle to be ground in the clogs of a system that sees them as antiquated as last years automobiles-something to be tossed on scrap heap. Or at best, a Frankenstein Monster used by Neo-conservatives to keep working and middle class whites and Blacks in line. The Black poor and working poor have always suspected that they stand alone with few allies among their own people and nearly none among a greater, whiter America.

Of course, there was a time when there was no veneer to cloud the vision of poor Black people against the American Nightmare. There was slavery and Jim Crow to remind not just poor Blacks—but all Black people—that there was no place for them in the America Dream. And, even as Dr. King attempted to transform the virulent racial hatred of the Old South through the alchemy of love and brotherhood, there were other voices that warned us that America’s demonic nature could never be exorcised.

Malcolm and before him, Elijah Muhammad, prophesied that righteous incantations no matter how skillfully performed would never cast out the devil of white hatred and the benign neglect of Black folks. The Nightmare may be made to slumber for a while, Malcolm and Elijah insisted, but it would never die. For a while, it seemed that folks like Malcolm were wrong. Civil Rights brought progress.

Those Blacks who could moved up and away from their poorer brothers. Soon, this physical separation was followed by a psychological separation. And, now being Black means one thing if you live in the “hood” and another if you live elsewhere in America. It seems now after the deaths of Martin and Malcolm that Black solidarity has been euthanasized by American callousness and our own forgetfulness.

Even today, we still underestimate the value of these two men to African-American people. Though many would separate them by ideology, they both offered their own vision of where Black folks should go and how they should get there. They kept each other honest and at the heart of each of their efforts was an uncompromising love of their people. King died in Memphis giving support to poor, sanitation workers. Malcolm died in Harlem—our Jerusalem and Mecca.

Had they been alive today, each would have stormed the halls of Congress and lobed political dynamite onto the White House lawn minutes after they saw the images of New Orleans broadcasted on television after Katrina. If it was the sixties now, urban centers would have been set ablaze at the indignation that our people could be treated with such utter disregard. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale might have even launched their own rescue effort from Oakland, California to liberate the people trapped in the Crescent City. The headline of a special edition of Muhammad Speaks would have proclaimed the intention of America to kill poor Black New Orleans to the world. But, back then, we weren’t so far removed from the whip and the burning cross that we had forgotten how bad things could be for Black people in America.     

Today, radical measures to alleviate the appalling conditions suffered by poor and working poor Blacks are considered passé. Solutions to our problems now arise from folks like The Black Congressional Caucus, the NAACP, the Urban League, Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson.  But where were they when our people were starving to death?  Why weren’t all of them camped out in front of the White House threatening to impeach Bush for his neglect of Black folk?

They have in this crisis shown extraordinary cowardice in the face of all that has happened in New Orleans. They call themselves our leaders. But, in the face of Katrina, they have shown themselves to be thoroughly impotent in defending the lives of poor African-Americans. Even now, after all that has been done to poor Black New Orleans, not a single one of them has called for the resignation of George Bush. Not one is willing to throw a wrench in the workings of the American political system until there is justice for the hundreds of thousands of Black and poor who have suffered in New Orleans.

Cowards, they are now. And cowards, they shall be branded until the end of their days for their fear to confront those who are responsible for natural and man made destruction rained down upon our people.

It seems that only a young rap artist named West had the balls to speak truth to power. And, as much as I am a critic of all that rap music stands for, I applaud him. Or should I say that I give the young man his proper respect. West, you were right to say that Bush doesn’t care anything about Black people? How could he let Black pregnant women and children starve if he had any compassion (Christian or otherwise) for Black folk? How can he dare speak of fulfilling a promise of democracy for the people of Iraq when he can not fulfill the promise of water, food, medicine for Black Americans in his own country?

But West, you didn’t go far enough in your condemnation. What do you say to a Black mayor who knows that nearly thirty percent of the population of his city lives under the poverty level and tells them to evacuate the city with little or no resources? Or what about some of the Black folks who shot at helicopters, gang raped women, or attempted to jack a nurse, or fired on policemen who were trying rescue people? All of them deserve to be visited by God’s wrath.

The reason New Orleans is a nightmare is not simply because of what Katrina did to the city. New Orleans is a nightmare because it is symptomatic of what is going on in and outside of Black America. Long before Katrina raised the floodwaters in New Orleans, African-American urban communities were flooded with despair and neglect. Without the resources of an activist middleclass as was evident in the Civil Rights Era, poor Blacks have been left to fend for themselves. Katrina simply showed how desperate the plight of the poor, of all racial, gender, and ethnic backgrounds, is in America.

It was just reported that some million Americans have slipped into poverty during the last years. At the same time, the news media just released a report that said that unemployment is at an all time low. Those who are in power will say that the latter statistic points to continued economic progress. Those who are the victims of power will say that things are getting worse. American Dream or American Nightmare, it is all, as Einstein pointed out, relative to where you are in the scheme of things.

One thing is clear. If we do not learn as poor and working Black people to be advocates for ourselves, we will remain in our desperate situation. The conservatives are partly right when they encourage people not to rely on government to solve our problems. New Orleans clearly showed that local, state, and federal government have no interest in the real problems of the poor. Unless we find a way to put a political gun to the heads of these politicians who neglect our interest and threaten to pull the trigger, Katrina or some other disaster will hold us hostage again.

We have got to get organized. We have got to vote for real political leadership that does not fear to speak the truth. We have got to get off drugs and stay clean. We have got to get our kids in school and keep them there. We have got to stop killing each other. We have to make our churches, mosques, and houses of worship centers for a new holy war against our own apathy. We have got to rise to the test of not only surviving but thriving in America.

The funny thing is that we already know that we need to do these things. Katrina only showed us the consequences of our inaction. She showed us that we—poor and working poor Black people—are on our own. And, that if we wait for others to help us, we may be waiting unto death. It has always been that way for us. But the fact we are on our own should not cause any fear in us. The blood of Nat Turner, Vesey, King, Malcolm, Fanny Lou Hammer, Tubman, and Truth flows in our veins.

The survival game is nothing new for us. We have mastered it from cotton fields of the Southland to the plant floors of Detroit. We have simply lost focus of who we are, where we are, and who is out to stop us from reaching our goals. And as we move to give our people in New Orleans our love and support, we must open our eyes to what has happened to us. The same way that Nazis walked Jews into the gas ovens was the way that the city officials of New Orleans walked the poor into the Superdome. This can never be allowed to happen again. 

Some will say that this is not the time to point fingers. Cowards always fear the light of day and the sound of the truth. The dead and floating corpses of New Orleans must have justice. They cannot seek it for themselves. And justice will never come to them if we do not point out those who betrayed them and hold them accountable for their actions—be they white or Black. The Black Congressional Caucus, NAACP, Urban League, Sharpton and Jackson can all redeem themselves if they seek justice for our dead and speak truth to power.

But, if they cannot stand up for the least of us, why should we ever again lend them our support? Let us watch, even as heaven watches to see, what they do. Show us your backbone! Shout out for justice in the temples of power—become our leaders and you will have our respect. Or remain silent and be condemned by the dead of New Orleans, the world and your very souls. The choice is yours. We, the Black and the poor, await your answer.   

posted 8 September 2005

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Fourth World Essays

Afro-America & The Fourth World 

The Black Middle Class & a Political Party of the Poor  (essay)

Dark Child of the Fourth World  

The Fourth World and the Marxists

The Fourth World: In the Belly of the Beast

New Orleans: The American Nightmare

On the Fourth World: Black Power, Black Panthers, and White Allies

Why I Support the Latino Demonstrators


Other Fourth World Essays

African America A Fourth World  (Waldron H. Giles)

Dark Child of the Fourth World Reaches Out   (Dennis Leroy Moore)

Fourth World Introduction (M.P. Parameswaran)

 Fourth World: Marxist, Gandhian, Environmentalist  (M.P. Parameswaran)

The Fourth World Multiculturalism (Rose Ure Mezu)

Fourth World Programme M.P. Parameswaran)

Neo-Liberalism Dictatorship of the Market  M.P. Parameswaran)

The Rise and Fall of the Socialist World  M.P. Parameswaran)

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The Last Holiday: A Memoir

By Gil Scott Heron

Shortly after we republished The Vulture and The Nigger Factory, Gil started to tell me about The Last Holiday, an account he was writing of a multi-city tour that he ended up doing with Stevie Wonder in late 1980 and early 1981. Originally Bob Marley was meant to be playing the tour that Stevie Wonder had conceived as a way of trying to force legislation to make Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday. At the time, Marley was dying of cancer, so Gil was asked to do the first six dates. He ended up doing all 41. And Dr King's birthday ended up becoming a national holiday ("The Last Holiday because America can't afford to have another national holiday"), but Gil always felt that Stevie never got the recognition he deserved and that his story needed to be told. The first chapters of this book were given to me in New York when Gil was living in the Chelsea Hotel. Among the pages was a chapter called Deadline that recounts the night they played Oakland, California, 8 December; it was also the night that John Lennon was murdered. Gil uses Lennon's violent end as a brilliant parallel to Dr King's assassination and as a biting commentary on the constraints that sometimes lead to newspapers getting things wrong. —Jamie Byng, Guardian / Gil_reads_"Deadline" (audio)  / Gil Scott-Heron & His Music  Gil Scott Heron Blue Collar  Remember Gil Scott- Heron

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The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michele Alexander

Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama's political success and Oprah Winfrey's financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today... than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don't know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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Faces At The Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism

By Derrick Bell

In nine grim metaphorical sketches, Bell, the black former Harvard law professor who made headlines recently for his one-man protest against the school's hiring policies, hammers home his controversial theme that white racism is a permanent, indestructible component of our society. Bell's fantasies are often dire and apocalyptic: a new Atlantis rises from the ocean depths, sparking a mass emigration of blacks; white resistance to affirmative action softens following an explosion that kills Harvard's president and all of the school's black professors; intergalactic space invaders promise the U.S. President that they will clean up the environment and deliver tons of gold, but in exchange, the bartering aliens take all African Americans back to their planet. Other pieces deal with black-white romance, a taxi ride through Harlem and job discrimination. Civil rights lawyer Geneva Crenshaw, the heroine of Bell's And We Are Not Saved (1987), is back in some of these ominous allegories, which speak from the depths of anger and despair. Bell now teaches at New York University Law School.Publishers Weekly /  Derrick Bell Law Rights Advocate  Dies at 80

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

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Home  Jonathan Scott Table   Amin Sharif Table  Conversations with Kind Friends   Katrina New Orleans Flood Index

Related files:  The Fourth World and the Marxists  Paris Is Burning  Lessons from France   Letters from Young Activists  The Venezuelan Revolution  Responses to Jean Baudrillard   

The Fourth World: In the Belly of the Beast    Big Easy Blues    New Orleans: The American Nightmare   Black Middle Class and a Party for the Poor  The Day the Devil Has Won  Election Day Returns