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In the context of the barbarian machine, he is a mere factotum. He can vent his and our deepest

frustrations in black-flavored language, but he can not prevent the process and progress of bleaching the city.



Books by Jerry W. Ward  Jr.

Trouble the Water (1997) / Black Southern Voices (1992) / The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008)  / The Katrina Papers

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"What’s with Mayor Nagin?"

Epistle to Dr. Rambsy

By Jerry Ward, Jr.

TKP: Saturday, January 21, 2006


Dear Howard,

Being Roman Catholic, I find it necessary to abandon the confessional of the Church and its suspect orthodoxy and to enter the estranging emptiness. No, I am not disowning belief in a Supreme Being. Quite the contrary. Indeed, the mystery of a Trinity that lacks a female component --- I have always conceptualized God the Father and God the Son as male and the Holy Ghost as presence devoid of gender ---continues to inspire belief. I am moved to believe we pray to a strange god who has as little respect for ying and yang as Hurricane Katrina had for the sanctity of human life. 

The belief, however, shifts and slips like a house in a hurricane. And there is no adequate theory to account for where either house or belief shall come to rest. From the vantage of New Orleans in this post-Katrina moment, it is possible and reasonable to entertain the idea that anything is everything. Ashe.

You have asked for my opinion by way of the question “What’s with Mayor Nagin?,” a question raised by his Martin Luther King, Jr. Day address at City Hall. I do have strong opinions about Mayor Nagin. To avoid the accusation that I am a threat to national security, I shall write my opinions slantwise.

It is doubtful that his speech will rank in memory on a par with famous speeches by Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Winston Churchill, Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Nevertheless, it should not be forgot that in the performance of the speech, the jeremiad, Mayor Ray Nagin was in direct contact with God through Dr. King’s serving as God’s linguist. Please note, Howard, that such communication is not governed by American rhetorical conventions but by elaborate Akan protocols. The Word is replaced by Nommo. When Nommo trumps Word print representation fails us.

Did not some ancient authority once propose that those whom the gods would bless, they first make mad? Was the ancient authority uttering a lie from the foundation stones of Western Civilization? I will not claim that our mayor is mad in the clinical sense. I do suggest that the pressure of being in a questionable position of leadership in the dark, empty horrors of post-Katrina New Orleans has driven Nagin to speak in the churchy cadences of an Old Testament prophet. Who am I, marked in my baptism by Jeremiah and St. Jerome, to cast stones at a prophet? Should I cast any stones, it shall be at the words, the language, wherein the prophet fabricated a message. 

Let us go to the source, a transcript of Nagin’s speech as printed in The Times-Picayune of Tuesday, January 17, 2006 on page A-7. The newspaper’s source was WWL Radio. The punctuation of the transcript betrays the discrepancy between what Mayor Nagin vocalized and what the transcriber heard.


 Transcript of Nagin’s Speech

I greet you all in the spirit of peace this morning. I greet you all in the spirit of love this morning, and more importantly, I greet you all in the spirit of unity. Because if we’re unified, there’s nothing we cannot do.

Now, I’m supposed to give some remarks this morning and talk about the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. You know when I woke up early this morning, and I was reflecting upon what I could say that could be meaningful for this grand occasion. And then I decided to talk directly to Dr. King.

Now you might think that’s one Katrina post-stress disorder. But I was talking to him and I just wanted to know what would he think if he looked down today at this celebration. What would he think about Katrina? What would he think about all the people who were stuck in the Superdome and Convention Center and we couldn’t get the state and the federal government to come do something about it? And he said, “I wouldn’t like that.”

And then I went on to ask him, I said, “Mr. King, when they were marching across the Mississippi River bridge, some of the folks that were stuck in the Convention Center, that were tired of waiting for food and tired of waiting on buses to come rescue them, what would he say as they marched across that bridge? And they were met at the parish line with attack dogs and machine guns firing shots over their heads?” He said, “I wouldn’t like that either.”

Then I asked him to analyze the state of black America and black New Orleans today and to give me a critique of black leadership today. And I asked him what does he think about black leaders always or most of the time tearing each other down publicly for the delight of many? And he said, “I really don’t like that either.”

And then finally, I said, “Dr. King, everybody in New Orleans is dispersed. Over 44 different states. We’re debating whether we should open this or close that. We’re debating whether property rights should trump everything or not. We’re debating how we should rebuild one of the greatest cultural cities the world has ever seen. And yet still yesterday we have a second-line and everybody comes together from around this and that and they have a good time for the most part, and then knuckleheads pull out some guns and start firing into the crowd and they injure three people.” He said, “I definitely wouldn’t like that.”

And then I asked him, I said, “What is it going to take for us to move and live your dream and make it a reality?” He said, “ I don’t think we need to pay attention anymore as much about the other folk and racists on the other side.” He said the thing we need to focus on as a community, black folks I’m talking to, is ourselves.

What are we doing? Why is black-on-black crime such an issue? Why do our young men hate each other so much that they look their brother in the face and they will take a gun and kill him in cold blood? He said we as a people need to fix ourselves first. He said the lack of love is killing us. And it’s time, ladies and gentlemen.

Dr. King, if he was here today, he would be talking to us about this problem, about the problem we have among ourselves. And as we think about rebuilding New Orleans, surely God is mad at America, he’s sending hurricane after hurricane after hurricane and it’s destroying and putting stress on this country. Surely he’s not approving of us being in Iraq under false pretense. But surely he’s upset at black America, also. We’re not taking care of ourselves. We’re not taking care of our women. And we’re not taking care of our children when you have a community where 70 percent of its children are being born to one parent.

We ask black people: it’s time. It’s time for us to come together. It’s time for us to rebuild a New Orleans, the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans. And I don’t care what people are saying Uptown or wherever they are. This city will be chocolate at the end of the day.

This city will be a majority African-American city. It’s the way God wants it to be. You can’t have New Orleans no other way; it wouldn’t be New Orleans. So before I get into too much more trouble, I’m just going to tell you in my closing conversation with Dr. King, he said, “I never worried about the good people -- or the bad people I should say --- who were doing all the violence during civil rights time.” He said, “ I worried about the good folks that didn’t say anything or didn’t do anything when they knew what they had to do.”

It’s time for all of us good folk to stand up and say, “We’re tired of the violence. We’re tired of black folks killing each other. And when we come together for a second-line, we’re not going to tolerate any violence.” Martin Luther King would’ve wanted it that way, and we should. God bless all.

Comments on the transcript and other opinions

Howard, given the expertise you have developed in dealing with visuals, print, and sound in your “cool black consciousness” project, you will no doubt see and hear what the transcript leaves as a faint trace. The rhetorical structures of the speech eventually fall apart. They implode from the absent horror of what needed to be said about New Orleans on January 16, 2006. All that will be left in your hands or mine after a rigorous analysis will be historicized cultural dust tracks and smoke. The jazz you will find in the transcript is not Louis Armstrong or Buddy Bolden or Papa Celestine. It is Sun Ra on a cosmic acid trip.

The speech does not give me access to Mayor Nagin’s consciousness, but it does permit me hear alarms, the sounds of sustained stress which live in the minds and vocal chords of all of us who have been intimately affected by natural disasters. We are displaced physically and mentally. We meander in whatever version of silva rhetoricae we find familiar. Some of us have become preachers, invoking the Church to help us with matters that are material and very secular and very remotely related to any proof that we are sinners in the hand of an angry god/God. 

We seek salvation in the tenets of a popularized, faith-based African American history that makes a quantum leap over the fact of enslaving Puritanism (then and now) and shelters itself amidst the Hebrews in pyramid-building Egypt. Time-damned by our vernacular tradition, Nagin commits political suicide in the guise of leading the children out of bondage by the means he deemed necessary into the funk-fantasy of Chocolate City. The Uptown Other (the business barons and their Republican cousins who have all the plans for insuring that “urban removal” and “genocide” shall prevail) is thoroughly delighted with Nagin’s performance on January 16.

There is a name in French psychoanalytic philosophy for what the Uptown Other champions: barbarian socius. Read carefully the chapter on “The Barbarian Despotic Machine” in Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. In New Orleans, we are not in the hands of an angry god. We are in the paws of the despotic barbarian formation for which President Bush serves gleefully as Commander-in-Chief. 

It is impossible to understand the psychological crimes that are committed daily in post-Katrina New Orleans without understanding how our country’s elected leaders, either blindly or with full knowledge, support the growth of fascist imperialism in the context of international globalization. Please urge your students, Howard, to see through the smoke of sentimentality and platitudes manufactured by state-controlled mass media. Please encourage them to think critically about what a political and psychological swamp is or has the probability of being. Nagin’s speech was fox fire.

What much disturbs Mayor Nagin, I suspect, is his impotence. He cannot fight FEMA, Governor Blanco, the military and the hired merchants of death who may have murdered approximately 1,500 African American males during the early weeks of our post-Katrina aftermath. If you want to know where their bodies are, ask the American Congress to investigate why there is a sealed morgue in Gonzales, Louisiana. The bodies that have bullet holes in their skulls want to speak, to tell the stories of what we thought would never happen in the United States. 

In the context of the barbarian machine, he is a mere factotum. He can vent his and our [black New Orleanians’] deepest frustrations in black-flavored language, but he can not prevent the process and progress of bleaching the city. Cleansing is the priority. Toxic waste has to be removed from the city. Vermin must be exterminated. Hilter’s children are having a holiday in New Orleans and the holiday in not Mardi Gras. 

The Uptown Others and their cousins will pretend conservative political correctness as they criticize Mayor Nagin for being racist, crazy, and unfit. Many of them helped to put Nagin in power. Now they will take anything like real power away from him and other elected African Americans as New Orleans suffers like a woman in the hands of a sexist god. 

After all, in their perverted Christian minds, New Orleans is a whore in need of behavior modification. Gliberals of all complexions will contend that Nagin’s speech was a blatant violation of the fine spirit of Dr. King’s dream of democratic transracial cooperation, for they would like very much to have Dr. King be the mirror reflection of their secret god Booker T. Washington. I hasten to say they understand Washington as much as I understand the Holy Trinity.

At some point very soon, Howard, black people who do want to return to New Orleans and to participate in its physical and cultural reconstruction must stop hiding behind dreams, their own and those of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The stone I cast with alacrity is not at Mayor Nagin the man, the human being , who is as frustrated about reality as I am. 

I cast the stone at language that would have me believe that dreams are more effective than razing fire. I cast the stone at language that gives me no reason to believe large numbers of African Americans will ever be free of self-hatred or other Americans will cease to hate and seek to injure us or that the United States will ever rescind its variously inscribed racial contract. 

I have a real quarrel with St. Paul, but I think he used language accurately when he or somebody wrote “It is better to burn….”

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I can only say that this is the most cogent, insightful, and powerful analysis of Nagin and his wordsboth their "substance" and their rhetorical flourishes--that I have read.  You sound like an Old Testament prophet, and, Lord knows, we need that kind of prescient wisdom in these troubling times.  Miriam

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Audio: My Story, My Song (Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)


The Katrina Papers is not your average memoir. It is a fusion of many kinds of writing, including intellectual autobiography, personal narrative, political/cultural analysis, spiritual journal, literary history, and poetry. Though it is the record of one man's experience of Hurricane Katrina, it is a record that is fully a part of his life and work as a scholar, political activist, and professor.  The Katrina Papers  provides space not only for the traumatic events but also for ruminations on authors such as Richard Wright and theorists like Deleuze and Guattarri. The result is a complex though thoroughly accessible book. The struggle with formthe search for a medium proper to the complex social, personal, and political ramifications of an event unprecedented in this scholar's life and in American social historylies at the very heart of The Katrina Papers . It depicts an enigmatic and multi-stranded world view which takes the local as its nexus for understanding the global.  It resists the temptation to simplify or clarify when simplification and clarification are not possible. Ward's narrative is, at times, very direct, but he always refuses to simplify the complex emotional and spiritual volatility of the process and the historical moment that he is witnessing. The end result is an honesty that is both pedagogical and inspiring.Hank Lazer

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posted 21 January 2006




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