When my feeble life is o’er, Time for me will be no more; Guide me gently, safely o’er To Thy kingdom shore, to Thy shore. –“Just a Closer Walk with Thee”
We gathered at Cleveland and Clark streets, in New Orleans’ flood-torn Mid City neighborhood, to say goodbye to Helen Hill. Helen was a woman with scores of friends all of whom were still heartbroken in late February, a month and a half after she was murdered in her home after returning to the city she loved with her physician husband, Paul Gailiunas, and their baby, Francis. Many of us had been to the staid family funeral in Columbia, South Carolina, but this was an altogether different affair. As is always true of jazz funerals, it began with a dirge.
No one missed the significance that these opening chords were struck by an ensemble that included members of the Hot Eight, a band that had lost its snare drummer to a bullet about a week before Helen’s murder. And as the music began, tears streamed down the faces of a woman dressed as a chicken, a man dressed as a clown with a “Be more like Helen” patch on his jacket. My friend Kittee, who had called me one morning to tell me that “someone broke into Paul and Helen’s house–Helen was shot and is dead–Paul was shot three times but will live–Baby Francis is okay,” was now dressed as a sad banana with “Helen Hill Gone But Not Forgotten” written in glitter on the hem of her dress. A peaceful gathering of misfits in a city that embraces difference, brought together by a bullet from a small-caliber handgun that slashed the arteries in Helen’s neck as she demanded that her attacker not hurt her child.
At that point in early January, Helen was the city’s sixth murder victim of the year. The year before had seen 162 murders, achieving a per capita rate twice that of Detroit or Baltimore, America’s second and third most deadly cities, and thirteen times the rate in New York City. 2007 appears to offer little in the way of improvement with another thirty-one people felled by violence since Helen’s death, putting us on our way to hitting 200 murders this year, one for every thousand city residents. Though Helen’s murder became a point of national outcry over violence in the city, with multiple segments on network television covering her murder and “New Orleans’ Growing Crime Wave,” the sad reality is that but for Helen’s white skin, her Harvard education, her artistic and dreamy manner, and her vocation as an award-winning animator, the basic reality of a life cut short by violence in this city is far from exceptional. Perhaps the worst part of finding out that a friend had been murdered here was that though it was shocking, it wasn’t that surprising.
Long before Hurricane Katrina, I would sip my morning tea with a copy of the Times-Picayune and, after leafing through pages describing failing schools, decaying public housing, and anemic health care system, I would scan the faces of the obituaries in the middle of the Metro section for the faces of young black men whose photographs very often sat above descriptions of short lives and violent ends. To even the most casual reader of the paper, the causal relationship between the societal decay depicted on the paper’s front page and the tragedies thumbnailed in these obituaries was inescapable.