When Martin Luther King Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he said that its mission was “to save the soul of America.”
Anyone who is still interested in that mission had better get involved with saving the city of New Orleans—not just the buildings, but the human community—because much of the soul America has left resided, until recently, in that poor, beautiful, and suffering city.
Suffering is nothing new to New Orleans. For 300 years it has been a city of almost constant sorrow. There have been fires, fevers, floods, and other natural horrors. And always there has been the unnatural horror of African slavery which, as the world recently saw, is not entirely in the past.
It is, in fact, the suffering of New Orleans that has made it great. People who don’t know the city associate it with the wild debauchery of the French Quarter during Mardi Gras (almost entirely perpetrated by out-of-towners). New Orleans is a city that parties; that much is true. But it is also a city that prays. It’s a city that has depended on sins of the flesh for its economic lifeblood (the bars, the casinos, the strip joints), but it is also a city that confesses its sins. At midnight on Mardi Gras, the party is over. The police clear the streets, and the public observance of Lent begins.
If you spent much time in New Orleans, you learned that, beyond the French Quarter, it was a city of families, neighborhoods, and churches. It is a city where, for three centuries, people of deep faith suffered terribly and offered those sufferings to God.
We who are Christian claim to believe that suffering freely offered is the way God works in the world. If that is true, then New Orleans is America’s Holy City. It has been crucified for us. And now it is happening again.
New Orleans’ embrace of suffering also makes it the most un-American of American cities. America despises suffering. New Orleans has always celebrated it. What else is the blues and jazz mixture that flows from the city but an eloquent and ecstatic celebration of suffering?
NEW ORLEANS is widely noted for its tolerance of behavior that elsewhere would be considered eccentric or immoral. To many that is proof of the city’s decadence. It is, in fact, proof of a mercy—an unconditional acceptance—that is a glorious by-product of the city’s suffering.
When I was 16 years old, my Mississippi high school football team had a game in New Orleans. One afternoon we were let loose to roam the French Quarter. I remember two things about that day. As I wandered down Bourbon Street, I saw a man dressed as a woman. And I have to admit that scared me. But I also remember that on that same block there was posted a large sign that read, “In the Quarter, you have a right to be different.” I can still see it 35 years later. It was a sign of mercy to the people in that neighborhood. And it was a sign of mercy to me.
New Orleans matters. Even its irrational sub-sea-level geography matters, because that city on that sinking land is a living link to the deepest, truest things about America—its horror and its possibility. The French Market that the tourists stroll sits on the shore of the Mississippi where the coastal Indian tribes did their trading. After the Europeans came, that trading ground became a slave market—the biggest one in America, the one that horrified Lincoln and Whitman on their youthful voyages to the Crescent City. White Americans need that place to remember that we have sinned.
Louis Armstrong Park, in front of the Municipal Auditorium, on the northern border of the French Quarter, sits on the location of Congo Square. That’s where, on Sundays, the enslaved Africans of New Orleans were permitted to gather and play the drums. That’s where the art and spirituality and traditions of West Africa were kept dimly alive in a strange new world. They grew from that place to conquer all of global pop culture.
Americans of all colors need to stand again on Congo Square and hear the drums, and remember that there is judgment, and there is salvation. We can remember that there is a God who makes a way out of no way. And we can recall that, even now, there is something American that is worth saving.
Danny Duncan Collum teaches English and journalism at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky. He lived in New Orleans from 1991 to 1993.