Monday, May 7, 2007

BEING "WITH" SUFFERING - 9TH WARD AND THE "KATRINA TOURS"

An Observation based on Personal Experiences...

I was out in the Lower 9th Ward photographing yesterday when a Louisiana Tours http://www.viator.com/tours/New-Orleans/Post-Hurricane-Katrina-City-Tour/d1010-2292CITY bus drove towards where I was standing. I hailed the bus and after a few moments of standing in front of the bus door without it opening, the driver must have decided it would be "safe" to open the hermetically sealed doors and let me engage with him and the people on the "tour" of the neighborhood.


"How ya'all doin?" I asked. (I have easily picked up a southern accent and manner of speaking since being here).


The driver gave me his 'best smile'. But did not engage with me - at all during the 3-5 minutes I was there - he never spoke to me.

"When you are all touring, " I asked them, "do you ever get out of the the bus and speak with the families who are here?"

"No." A few passengers responded.

"I would really encourage you to do so." I said. "My experience is that the people here are so kind and it really seems to mean a lot to them when the strangers who come through their neighborhood to see the damage, take the time to greet them and say hello. I have found that it helps the locals when there are people who are willing to listen to them - it is important in the healing that they share about what they have been through and are continuing to go through. It seems me that it helps them so much to talk about their experiences."

As I spoke, I could feel the driver/tour guide stiffen, although there continued to be a 'best smile' on his lips, I saw anger in his eyes. A few people in the front of the tour bus asked me questions and commented on how sad it was to see the devastation, and then I felt this perceptible shift and I could tell that they had had enough and everyone wanted to get back to being a few degrees separated from the 'reality" of the suffering that they were experiencing on the travel tour through the Lower 9th Ward.


The people I saw on the bus tour were a group of seemingly nice, Caucasian, middle to upper class folks, who cared enough to pay $53 a person, to even be on this tour. Hey, they could of been doing the grand ole mansions tour, the French Quarter tour or the garden district tour. I was acutely aware that at some level within them, they did care and they wanted to see what happened, they actually took the time and spent the money to be on this tour.


One of the problems as I see it, with the "tours" is that I don't believe any of the "profits" of the tour go to the Lower or Upper 9th Wards - or even to the people in Gentilly or Chalmette. And then there is the experience of "us" and "them" that seems to be created when you have a group of well intentioned American white folks, securely separated in a hermetically sealed environment from the American black folks - as if they are on display - who have suffered this horrible experience. The same "us" and "them"experience can also be created with those on the tour that "have" and those who they are touring/viewing that so visibly "have not" no matter their race.


It feels to my heart as if there is something demeaning, humiliating, and even dare I say it, something racist when a group of white Americans to travel through on a "tour" in a sealed shiny new white bus and explore the suffering and devastation of a primarily black American community. And the community is aware that the only people profiting off of their "being on display" is the owners and creators of the tour.

Again, what felt so difficult for me in seeing these buses full of tourists come through the neighborhood is the experience I have of their being hermetically sealed away and the consciousness of "us" and "them" that is inadvertently created. Again, I am aware that those folks who are on the tour are so because they care - New Orleans offers plenty of beautiful diversions from the reality of the ongoing suffering still being endured by those who lived through Katrina - yet they choose to view the suffering.


My heart feels deeply troubled by the fact that the people who are suffering are not benefiting in any way from the "touring" of their suffering and that those people who are on the tours, do not get out and walk around the neighborhoods and speak with the locals. A community of caring and kindness could be created if this could happen.



You know, when I saw this graffiti on this house yesterday - I knew it was a plea - a cry out to those on the tours - viewing the suffering from the safety of their buses - to dare to reach beyond the comfort and security of their air conditioned tour buses and the voyeuristic nature of the tour.

What I witnessed instead was the tour guide/driver, well aware of the graffiti, avert driving by it and choosing to take another street. For that tour at least, the message was lost.

In Peace.



A post script: I wondered why I kept being drawn to use the word 'hermetically' so I looked it up and this definition spoke to what I was perceiving. (American Heritage Dictionary)




Hermetic -Impervious to outside interference or influence.



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