Reprinted from today's Times-Picayune
Monday, March 31, 2008
I arrived in New Orleans in mid-December and was overwhelmed with the beautiful food, the holiday spice and the hospitality of my new neighbors, workmates and friends. Amid all the handshakes, smiles and welcomes, I kept hearing one question, "Why are you here?" It was a subject that usually emerged between discussing my previous six years in England and well-wishes for my upcoming post at Tulane University.
"Why are you here?" seems innocuous enough, but it was bracketed with a nervous smile and a suddenly studious gaze. At first I offered what seemed the most obvious reply, "As an academic, a good job is not easy to obtain. I was offered an attractive position at a top university; I would be crazy not to take it."
But this was not the information people wanted. People in New Orleans, two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina, want to know what brings you here. I began to listen more closely. "Why are you here?" they inquired.
In part, this was the insecurity of a people who cast their lot in a recovering city but held normal doubts about whether they and their city could make it. Living in New Orleans is not easy, and all who are here have evaluated and reevaluated their decision to stay.
Many did not entirely make a choice; the city had claimed them long ago, and leaving would mean losing a part of their identity. They could not go, and they asked for reassurance that their decision was correct. To these questioners, I replied with confidence, hoping to bolster theirs, "I appreciate how much this city means to my friends who live here, and I'm hoping that I too can settle, and gain a sense of place, of attachment, of meaning."
Many of my new acquaintances, worried about the decline in the city's population, were sincerely interested in my answer. Thanks for coming, and bring more, they beckoned. It was not that they had forgotten the charms of the place; it was just that they recognized the risks facing a devastated city enmeshed in a sometimes precarious recovery.
"I am here because I could be nowhere else," I tell them. I shed tears when I saw the pictures of Katrina; I saw the lines on my friends' faces as they were displaced from their homes; I drove through the Lower 9th Ward and recoiled at the neglect served up to our fellow citizens. It would be hypocritical for me to be anywhere else. As a middle-class, educated professional, I have privileges, but those come with responsibilities, and there is no other place where I would more wish to repay my debts than right here.
Ultimately, this is why New Orleans will recover. A great wrong was done to this city and its people. With noble anger and purpose, they have responded. And presence has become a statement.
The city has been transformed into the symbolic and actual ground zero in the struggle against injustice, a struggle that must be won.
I am proud to lend my weight.
Plus, I like the food.
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Aaron Schneider is assistant professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at Tulane University. He can be reached at email@example.com.