Art v. Politics (2): A Case Study
Yesterday, I wrote about my unwavering belief in the power of a serious engagement with the aesthetic to bring us closer to, as Sontag says, “a fuller humanity.” The comments on the post, especially regarding my claim that this is not a privileged position because all humans need beauty (in its most expansive, heart-changing sense), led me to think that I needed to back up the claim a little more.
Four years ago, brilliant anthropologist Laura Jones and I decided that we wanted to do something to contribute to the recovery of New Orleans, a city dear to both of us.
We secured funding from Rice University to launch the Katrina Writing Project. Then we partnered with a charter school whose students were doing summer internships related to Katrina relief. During the summer, we taught the students to write personal essays about their Katrina experiences, which we then collected, published, and distributed to educators worldwide. You can download the collection here for free.
From this experience originate my beliefs about the vitalness of art in a broken world.
Our students had endured unthinkable tragedy and cruelty.
Dudley Grady’s family was turned away from a hotel only to see a white family check in moments later.
Josef Pons and his family were put on a plane. He writes, “The thing was, we didn’t know we were going to Arizona until we were in the air.”
Donnanice Newman writes, “When I finally got up, I noticed that my family was praying that the rest of our family was safe. I saw a policeman, and I asked him about New Orleans East. The policeman was talking about something that I kinda didn’t understand. But he finally said, “Baby, there ain’t no East.”
The alienation and separation of evacuation caused Anitra Matlock and her girlfriend to break up. Meanwhile, as she writes, “After the storm, random people felt that they needed to tell me why Katrina happened. The most memorable of reasons was that God sent the storm to cleanse the city of its homosexuals and sinners. If ever I needed to cry, it would be when I heard this, and when I saw my home.”
The common thread in their stories was that the worst part was the way their peers in other parts of the country treated them. How nobody understood them or their city.
Our students would’ve come to our class as much as we held it, because they were bored of sitting in a cramped FEMA trailer for hours at a time. But they were still teenagers, and occasionally they goofed off, and at one point it seemed as if they might not finish their essays by the end of the summer.
They got going again when it really hit home that their peers in other parts of the country were going to read their stories. The same sort of people who had treated them badly in school hallways around the country. Ultimately, then, the real motivation for them to write was knowing that strangers would encounter their words. They didn’t have any particular agenda in that; as the refrain of Will Powell’s non-narrative rap-essay says, “I don’t want no tears or no confetti for me.”
Our students chose the title From the Second Line for their book. Laura and I had never heard of the term “Second Line.” It refers to a tradition in New Orleans jazz funerals. The first line is slow and mournful. The second is celebratory, where mourners and bystanders alike join in and dance and sing to the sound of the joyful trumpet. Our students felt that this represented the spirit of their city and the power of their writing project. Their response to pain was to make something beautiful and truthful for others to see.
Never again would I have the audacity to think that was inconsequential.