Being back home is weird. New Orleans and Baltimore are remarkably similar for cities with very different histories and on very different coasts. Just looking at data from the census, New Orleans has a little more half the population of Baltimore but is over twice the size and is generally much less dense than Baltimore. As of 2010, New Orleans and Baltimore have about the same racial composition, and though New Orleans is a little poorer and (surprisingly) a little better educated, the two cities really have more in common demographically than one would guess while walking through them.
This is also the first time I have shown people who have never been to New Orleans around New Orleans. I feel a vague pressure to show them every facet of a notoriously complicated city. New Orleans is deeply religious but also rebellious, full of southern lore and Caribbean mythology, laced with both potholes and Mardi Gras beads year round. It is a city that is in some ways incredibly segregated but also strongly communal, and we still deal with racism on a daily basis. I was privileged enough to grow up in a very specific New Orleans, one in which poverty was mostly encountered during volunteer work and racism was something my friends told me about but I never experienced. Classism, frankly, was invisible to me until I went to college.
How do you explain this dark side to visitors to a city that is (largely) built on the back of a tourism industry? Tourism industries obviously usually try to hide poverty and corruption, but in New Orleans, this has become a part of the industry itself—Katrina tours are still popular (disaster tourism), voluntourism brings high school and college students from all around the country to my city, and just look at the Yelp of the Presbytère (the French Quarter Katrina museum) if you want to read surreal reviews of a disaster.
I have grappled with this question in my own writing as well—how do I write about a city that I have been so blessed to live in, but yet simultaneously perpetuates violence and racism against so many of its locals. Many of the guests to class have given great suggestions for how to address these contradictions in our work and how to discuss privilege without silencing marginalized communities. When the Breakbeat Poets visited our class about a month ago, Tony Medina (I believe quoting another poet, who I unfortunately neglected to write down), said that you shouldn’t just “write what you know” (as is almost always mentioned in creative writing classes) but you should “write what you want to know,” which to me is great way of approaching issues that I didn’t experience in New Orleans but that I care deeply about. In our last class before break, poet and activist Christopher Soto (also known as Loma) came to class and offered a writing prompt that I think also allows access to these issues. They asked us to write a poem by coupling a word that we hate with a word that lightens the first word. This prompt came from Eduardo C Corral’s use of “illegal” and “lilac” in “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes.” Although we were applying this to personal experiences and people, I believe this use of contrast could be appropriate in discussing cities and places.
In a blog post for The Best American Poetry, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo writes "To some people, the trees are still trees despite who has been hung from them. To think, how many trees in the US alone are still living where once hung the body of a black or brown man, woman, or child... I am skeptical of the 'nature poem' that insists on its singularity, on its continued refusal (through omission) of the terror...". This struck me particularly because of my love for the live oak trees that line the streets of New Orleans. In continuing this class and my own writing, I hope to explore meaningful contrast, to deny the singularity that Castillo describes, and to use my position as a writer to expose and contemplate the injustice that lives within my home.