Who we are

t_parade-17.jpg“Our country has changed,” Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote three years ago in a majority opinion that found the landmark Voting Rights Act was being used unfairly against several states with histories of intimidation and violence toward black voters. Black voter registration has equaled white registration in many of those places and more have minorities in office, Roberts said, concluding the set of states covered by the act is based on outdated information.

The victorious lawyer for the Alabama county protesting the voting law took a more sweeping stance: “There is an old disease, and that disease is cured.”

There are plenty of things I could point to in order to show how wrong-headed this statement was, but this past week has been especially gut-punching. Following the presidential election, racial and religious assault and street harassment seem to have spiked. (Hate crimes last year jumped, too.) Black freshmen at Pennsylvania State University were unwillingly added to an online chat group about lynching. Groups of students across the country, including here in Arkansas, have led chants of phrases like “white power,” an American Nazi slogan. Speaking of Nazis: swastikas and other anti-Jewish nonsense are all over the place.

It’s all pretty nauseating and alarming and scary.

So I’m going to show a snapshot of the America I know a little better, the one that’s home to people who are black, Christian, urban, female, civilian, old, liberal, Jewish, transgender, straight, Buddhist, rural, military, gay, male, Native American, Muslim, conservative, white, atheistic, young, Asian, native- and foreign-born. I’ve seen them farming, dancing, building, worshiping, marching, laughing, crying, leaping, relaxing, serving and celebrating, among all of the other things we Americans do.

This is a tiny piece of who we are.

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_C1_6759.JPGStill, the truth is none of this is new. We’re the country that elected Barack Obama, and we’re the country that had several slaveholders among its founders. We’re the country that sings the praises of Martin Luther King Jr., and we’re the country that elected a successor to Obama who, despite his denunciation, is endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan and its ilk. We’re a country that holds up the immigrant or refugee seeking a new life as an idyllic symbol, and we’re the country that began by attacking the indigenous people and consistently treated each new wave of immigrants with suspicion or outright hatred.

All of this is who we are. We have countless things to do if we want to change it, but I think we can start with two: seeing and meeting and learning about each other a little more, and never saying or thinking that racism and other prejudices are “cured.” I know I’ll do what I can on those two things, at least.

These are just my thoughts, incomplete or flawed as they might be. Thanks for looking, and I wish you well.

The Big Easy

IMG_9894By the time the ambulance arrived, the French Quarter intersection was completely clogged with revelers drinking and goofily dancing to the earsplitting jazz band playing on one corner. The police SUV with flashing lights got there first, but the officers were calm, hardly seeming to notice the party around them. Then the bus arrived, covered in black paint and inexplicably filled on a Saturday night with school kids who thumped the windows with the music.

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IMG_9954The ambulance medics wound through the crowd and brought back a man who had his eyes closed, but they too seemed weirdly relaxed about being there. A small flock of cameraman with neon-green, “TV DOCUMENTARY”-emblazoned vests tailed them. Normal traffic was forgotten at this point, hopelessly stuck outside of this bizarre tangle. Still the tuba and trombones and trumpets blasted their energetic tunes from the corner, drowning out everything but a shout, and the people danced and drank.

I hope the guy on the ambulance ended up OK, but I couldn’t help but laugh at this crazy place. Only in New Orleans.

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IMG_9961New Orleans is a city built and fed by music, story and water. The French founded it three centuries ago to be a port for a continent, overlooking a river that drains half of the present-day U.S. The city’s grid of streets warps and turns with the Mississippi’s curves. Wetlands of cypress cloaked in Spanish moss surround the city, and, of course, the Gulf of Mexico looms to the south, bringing a bounty of seafood and a long history with hurricanes.

Hurricane Katrina barreled through here 10 years ago, flooding most of the city, fixing a blazing spotlight on its poverty and inflicting a wound that still hasn’t fully healed. I often wonder whether people should really live here. Much of the metro area sits below sea level, and rising seas and more hurricanes are on the way. Still, though my mom’s family is originally from this place, I’m an outsider, and it isn’t up to me. And like the Southern live oaks whose strong, undulating arms reach over much of the city, New Orleans’ roots go deep.

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IMG_9992The entire city began with a small grid of streets and short buildings about five blocks wide and 10 blocks long: the French Quarter. The city is old, and here at the city’s heart, it stays old: It’s easy to imagine horses and carriages going down the narrow streets and soldiers from the War of 1812 drinking on the balconies of ornately curled wrought iron. The Quarter is home to Bourbon Street, the French Market and other well-known spots, and it was the first stop for my mom, Ryan (whom you might remember from the Great Sand Dunes) and me.

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IMG_0163The weather was fantastic, in the 70s with low humidity, so we wandered down to the river and the nearby Audobon Aquarium of the Americas. It’s a pretty part of town. Near downtown and the tourist-heavy Quarter, it’s hard to tell Katrina ever came.

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IMG_0088The aquarium shares its namesake with Audobon Park, a grove of those huge Southern oaks upriver. It was evening when we got there; I was on the hunt for a particularly massive oak I saw the first time I came here, but the light faded too fast this evening. We would have to come back the next morning to find the prize.

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IMG_0236Here it is:

IMG_0302This lopsided giant is called the Etienne de Boré tree, after the first New Orleans mayor, who worked in that post before Louisiana was part of the U.S. and whose land included the present-day park. People also call it the Tree of Life, which is a little goofy. A little sign next to the tree says it sprouted sometime around 1740, making it almost as old as the city itself, and it’s huge, with knotted roots roiling the ground in a 50-foot span and branches so large and heavy they run along the lawn’s surface.

IMG_0271I say this about a lot of trees, but I love these oaks, and this one is just incredibly beautiful. The main limbs support growths of other plants such as the resurrection fern, named for its ability to come back to life after the harshest droughts. The neighborhoods near the park are also historic and worth exploring.

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IMG_0326(For any “American Horror Story” fans, this is the house featured in the show’s third season.)

The next day started with some wandering around downtown before heading over to Louis Armstrong Park.

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IMG_0359These interlocking bricks in the park mark the location of Congo Square, where enslaved and free black people on Sundays in the 1700s and 1800s would dance, play music, sell goods and generally keep alive traditions from their homelands. Those traditions eventually fed into jazz and hip-hop, and the area is still culturally significant to the nearby neighborhoods.

Another tradition tied to west Africa (and heavily promoted in New Orleans) is voodoo, a wildly misunderstood and caricatured system of beliefs and folklore that tells of spirits of the natural world and a single Creator god. I’m no voodoo expert, but I’ve read enough about it to know the popular image of it isn’t right. I bring voodoo up because it’s a big part of the allure of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the city’s oldest city of the dead, where they say Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of 19th-century New Orleans, is entombed. We headed there next.

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Family members are often ensconced one on top of another in this walled maze of tombs and markers. The primarily Catholic cemetery has such a history of vandalism and surprise mugging that you can get in now only with a registered tour guide or a relative interred inside. Security cameras keep constant watch, and marking the graves isn’t tolerated.

A tomb near the front has a little bronze plaque claiming it’s the “reputed” resting place of Marie Laveau. She could be there, but our guide, a fellow named Nate Scott, said he knew better. The plaque is a ruse, a diversion to keep people who want the Queen’s blessing off her trail, he said. He instead led us to what he claimed is the real one, an unlabeled, crumbling monolith covered with trios of X’s scrawled in pencil and ink – visitors’ pleas for the deceased’s help. I’m sorry I don’t have a picture of the tomb to share; it doesn’t make much sense, but given its condition, I just wanted to give the thing a rest.

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IMG_0380St. Louis No. 1 is an emblem of the city’s fog of myth and mystery. It holds several notable people, including Homer Plessy of the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that upheld “separate but equal,” as well as the mayor whose name is attached to that mighty oak in Audobon Park. But many of the graves have lost their markers, meaning their occupants’ identities might be lost forever.

Marie Laveau, meanwhile, could be in two different tombs, or in neither, for all I know – it seems best to be skeptical even of a registered guide’s word. She could have been a famous voodoo practitioner, but even then, her power or influence, like voodoo itself, probably was nothing like many people imagine. Our guide said Marie Laveau was mainly a healer and hairdresser whose reputation grew and grew into myth. It seems fairly plausible – every Marie Laveau biography I find is different, and the unknowns are fertile ground for legend.

Even the practice of entombing people above ground is clouded by untruths. Most people would tell you it’s because of the city’s high water table, but it actually has its roots in Catholic and European tradition. I’ll just say this: Bring lots of grains of salt if you visit this city.

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To wrap up the day, we took the streetcars to City Park, which includes the city’s art museum and a pretty impressive sculpture garden. It was the last stop in our tourist-ing.

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IMG_0444(“Una Battaglia” [“A Battle”] by Arnaldo Pomodoro)

IMG_0450(“Karma” by Do Ho Suh)

IMG_0457The next morning, we set off on the 10-hour drive back to Fayetteville. We went straight through the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta area. Flat fields of cotton, soybean and corn stretched to the horizon, criss-crossed by abrupt slivers of swamp. It’s not really a delta, but it has its beauty, especially with gems like the tiny town of Transylvania, Louisiana, and a creepily abandoned elementary school. Farmers were out tilling and burning in the fields throughout the day, making the sky hazy as dust devils twirled across empty stretches of farmland.

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IMG_0469It was a good trip. Thanks for looking and reading! This was a long one, and I hope it was worth your while.

Dan

No Union More Profound

_C1_8850Fayetteville’s Pride Parade couldn’t have had better timing.

A storm-carrying cold front yesterday left behind absolutely flawless weather for today. And you might have heard yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that states’ same-sex marriage bans cannot stand under the 14th Amendment’s command of equal treatment by the law.

“No longer may this liberty be denied,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority decision. “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.”

I’d say the parade itself was two or three times as big this year as last, with happy people of every age and rainbow flags in every direction; organizers say more than 2,000 people attended, a record.

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_C1_8901Friday’s ruling means two non-related adults of any gender can legally commit themselves to each other and enjoy such rights and responsibilities as jointly filed taxes, shared child custody and unquestioned hospital visitation, medical and familial rights. As Kennedy said, it also means something a bit more intangible, right? The joy at the decision was immediate here in Arkansas and across the country, and photographing that happiness today — along with some quieter onlookers — was a joy on its own.

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_C1_8985Concern, anger, even fear quickly followed as well. The four dissenting Supreme Court justices gave grave warnings the ruling would be used to “vilify” the opposition, and other writers and public figures took up the alarm.

Their words and feelings are very serious, but here’s a few things to keep in mind. For much of U.S. history, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and otherwise non-straight people have been bashed, killed, rooted out of government and private-sector jobs and kicked out of families, if they dared reveal themselves at all. These problems are less common, but they remain in some form, despite credible research that finds LGBT people are telling the truth when they say they’ve chosen only to accept their orientation, not the orientation itself.

That conservative Christians (many Christians support the decision) have lost some of their sway over policies like civil marriage is probably undeniable, but in this instance it’s largely because more and more people personally know someone who isn’t straight and hear about that person’s experiences. The Supreme Court decision essentially says religious objections alone aren’t enough to justify public government’s marriage policies.

The U.S. is still mostly Christian, and discrimination based on religion in business or government is explicitly illegal except in limited circumstances. That’s not true in most states for LGBT people, including in Arkansas.

Anyway, I didn’t see anybody unhappy at the parade, so on with the photos!

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_C1_9141I hope it was a happy and love-filled day for you, wherever you stand. Thanks for looking!

Dan