AUTHOR ANNE RICE ON LOSING NEW ORLEANS
A Reflection by Victor Lana
In yesterday’s New York Times I read Anne Rice’s piece: “Do You Know What It Means to Lose New Orleans?” The title alone swings and sways, never mind that it rhymes, and it sounds like it could have been a line from an old jazz song being played by some musician stuck in a cold northern city missing his beloved Big Easy. Instead, it is the title of a beautifully written op-ed piece by a person who is intimately connected to a city that has been ostensibly washed away.
My interest in Ms. Rice started during my days in the doctoral program at St. John’s University in New York. After reading Interview With the Vampire, I spoke with my mentor and decided to use Ms. Rice’s vampire books as the focus of my dissertation, which would eventually be entitled Gothic Feminism in Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles.
As I got started working on my research, I took a trip to Key West to attend a writing conference and met a friend of Ms. Rice who gave me her address in New Orleans. I wrote to Ms. Rice, in essence asking for her ideas about my project, but honestly thinking I would not get a response. I was wrong, for she sent me a three-page handwritten letter condoning my work and giving me a most amazing feeling of euphoria. To this day I keep Ms. Rice’s letter in a secure place as one of my special treasures. As I think of it now, the fact that she was born, raised, and lived in New Orleans was probably part of the reason why she responded to my letter, for its citizens are inherently inclined to be genteel and accommodating.
Anyone who has read her vampire books knows the importance of New Orleans in the storyline. It is the city where vampires Lestat and Louis come to escape their fellow vampires in Paris to start over. She captures the flavors of the colonial city, precariously positioned on the Mississippi River, the lifeblood of the continent stretching out in all its vastness to the north, where her vampires find lifeblood of their own in its spicy medley of human beings.
In the Times piece she writes of the history of New Orleans that it was not only a great white city but “a great black city” in which culture blended and churned and became something unique and lasting. She explains that “the first literary magazine published in Louisiana was the work of black men” and this was in the 1840s when New Orleans “had a prosperous class of free black artisans, sculptors, businessmen, property owners, skilled laborers in all fields.” These independent blacks lived alongside “thousands of slaves” who were sent to the city by their white owners to work and send home money. This was an intriguing time indeed considering the way slaves were treated throughout the rest of the South.
She tells of Dillard and Xavier Universities that became “two of the most outstanding black colleges in America” and how blacks generally became part of “a visible middle class that is absent in far too many Western and Northern American cities to this day.” Rice also mentions the indelible influence the black population of the city had on music and musicians, which eventually affected the whole country. She doesn’t say it, but I immediately thought that we would not have had an Elvis Presley without New Orleans. No Elvis means no Beatles, no Rolling Stones, no Michael Jackson, no Mariah Carey and most other musical personalities known today.
By painting such a beautiful portrait of her native city, Rice explains succinctly why people loved it so. When she says, “The living was good there” Ms. Rice means for people of all races. Thus, there was no exodus of the black populace to the north like from elsewhere in the South because blacks “didn’t want to leave a city where tolerance had always been able to outweigh prejudice.” This virtual paradise brimmed with diversity and from it sprung a fecundity of talent, prosperity, and tradition.
Of course, Ms. Rice’s purpose shifts halfway through the article, for she is ultimately addressing the horror that has befallen her city. She describes watching, like so many Americans have, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on television. She mentions the unbearable flooding, the looting, and infinite suffering of people waiting for help. More importantly, she responds to the reporters and others who have asked, “Why didn’t they leave?” Her answer is brilliant in its simplicity: “Thousands didn’t leave New Orleans because they couldn’t leave. They didn’t have the money. They didn’t have the vehicles. They didn’t have any place to go.”
I have been having this discussion with fellow bloggers, writers, and friends for the past week. Sometimes we interact calmly, but many times the conversation has descended into ugliness, and in that we find the blemish that hopefully does not permanently stain our country. There is still a great deal of bigotry and intolerance in America, and many of those who have condemned the people of New Orleans for staying behind are not colorblind. They have to see that it is predominantly black people who are in desperate need for assistance, and all they can do is complain about why they didn’t get out, as if being black caused them to be in this situation. I feel as incensed by these comments as Ms. Rice, for it seems overwhelmingly clear that too many people are watching and not enough of them have been doing something to rectify this atrocity happening in our own country.
Ms. Rice asks most pertinently, “Why did America ask a city cherished by millions and excoriated by some, but ignored by no one, to fight for its own life so long? That’s my question.” She is angry with every reason to be, as all the people waiting on rooftops or in the stagnant air of overheated attics or wading waist deep in fetid water have the right to be angry. As for the countless (and uncounted) dead, they have no voice, but in the weeks and months ahead their relatives and friends must cry out for some kind of accountability here.
Despite the horror of the situation, Ms. Rice stoically and optimistically believes her city will be rebuilt. I cautiously want to believe this too, but I have heard and read things to the contrary. Some pundits have said that “a new New Orleans” needs to be built, far smaller and more secure. Gee, as a New Yorker, that sounds an awful lot like what they have been saying about the World Trade Center and, I would imagine for anyone from New Orleans, it is just as unacceptable.
Copyright © Victor Lana 2005