This anniversary is a crossroads, a time to decide what to run toward and what to cast aside for a lighter burden. Ten years ago, I was a “refugee” from an American city. The consequence of that label has been a chaos of circumstances and quick decisions. The first 10 years, all a scramble to reconstruct oneself. The truth is, I am one of the lucky ones. One of the luckiest. I am home. I am sane. I am alive to speak for myself. I mourn for those lost and struggle with the gratitude and guilt of being spared. Survival is an animal instinct that moves us all toward good and bad, and I am doing my best with its weight. In these 10 years, I’ve learned to use this realization to heat and cool my anxiety, to forgive myself and propel my body into motion. There is so much about the last 10 years that I would rather forget, experiences I would remake. But it is not possible to go backward. There is only what is, and right now the stakes are high. New Orleans changes for good, a little bit at a time, every day. Houses in my neighborhood flip at sometimes three times their pre-Katrina “worth.” For white families in the new New Orleans, the median income has grown at triple the rate of black families’ income. It’s no wonder many are insistent that New Orleans is back and better than ever. There are roughly 100,000 fewer black people in the metro area. Old people out; new people in. It is critical not to cede the story at its crossroads.
Raised black in New Orleans and having made it to this side of these 10 years, I remember that with living comes the sacred responsibility of recalling. New Orleans has always been a place of many peoples. The Chata (Choctaw) named the city Bulbancha, “Many Languages Spoken There,” and the Ishak call it Nun Ush, “The Big Village.” Many of the places and locations known to tourists and travelers worldwide, such as the Port of New Orleans, the French Market, and Congo Square, served as thoroughfares for trade and culture long before the arrival of whites. Born and raised black in New Orleans, I speak an English marked by its African and Native vocabularies and patterns of speech. I like my short adjectives repeated two and three times each. The food is good-good and the picture might be pretty-pretty-pretty. I grew up with a distinct awareness of our longstanding ties to this land and the people who originally inhabited it. New Orleans is our place, a place with a syncretic and independent culture and a multilayered relationship to the diaspora—a relationship not of theory, but of practice.
Super Sunday is one tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans. A gathering of nations, it is an homage to and a reiteration of the political, spiritual, and blood bonds between indigenous peoples. Occasions like this, along with St. Joseph’s Night, are the times apart from Mardi Gras when certain citizens of New Orleans mask and transform themselves. Raised black in New Orleans, I learned to see the full expanse of our culture, the total expression of what it means to be transcendent, to be free, to resist. Growing up, I celebrated Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, with my schoolmates every year. Occasionally, I would attend Mass or bring flowers to the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. Other times, I had to argue for respect in neighborhood businesses that were almost never black-owned but always black-supported. I struggled to understand where we had all come from, the histories that landed us in this place together.
My life in New Orleans has been an intersectional black experience, one that continues to teach me about the globe and the journeys of peoples across it. For me, Katrina and the 10 years that have followed are as much a story of movement as anything else. Many of us raised black in this city have had to wander elsewhere in the years since; others of us have adjusted our eyes to home’s jarring new landscape. I know that there is power in an identity of group and individual survival. I call upon it daily in order to understand my body in this new place. Raised black in New Orleans, we are all looking to make a way, through memory, to the life stretching out in front of us.