Monday, October 20, 2008

Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans

Steve and I went to the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival with friends on Saturday, and saw an outstanding film that continues to haunt me. As the subtitle of “Faubourg Tremé” indicates, it’s an exploration of the untold story of black New Orleans (

I’m trying to think through what so captivated me at a visceral level in this documentary. Part of it is that we once lived in Tremé. We bought a house there in 1986 and lived in it until our move to North Carolina in 1991. The house was an 1884 shotgun that had been partially renovated by its previous owners. We (as in Steve) completed the renovation process, turning it into a single dwelling that a colleague at Xavier once characterized as an paramount example of “simple elegance.”

But there’s more to why “Faubourg Tremé” so powerfully grabbed me. We have not been back to New Orleans since Katrina. I have not wanted to go back. We know from Steve’s cousin that our house is now “gone.” The shell of it stands, but it appears to be unrecoverable after the flooding.

In fact, it had already been cannibalized before the flood, we’d been told: the beautiful finials on the wrought-iron fence forged for the 1884 world’s fair were stolen, the shutters on the house (many of which we’d replaced, buying them from vendors of antique architectural details) were also carted off. Apparently the people to whom we sold the house defaulted on loans and lost it to the bank, and it was empty and boarded up even before the hurricane.

Both the sadness of that house, which for generations sheltered prosperous middle-class black Créole families, and the destruction caused by Katrina, have deterred me from returning. My bond with the city runs deep, so deep that I had a series of dreams about the flooding of New Orleans prior to Katrina. Pictures I saw on the news when the city flooded were familiar to me: they replicate what I had seen saw in those prescient montages of a horror that baffled me, as I saw it dreamt about it in several memorable dreams prior to the hurricane.

Indeed, the few vivid future-foreseeing dreams I have ever had in my life have almost always centered on New Orleans and its environs. My soul is linked to that magical, mystical place near the mouth of the Mississippi.

I went to college there, after all. My parents honeymooned in New Orleans, and we spent many vacations in the city as I grew up. I can remember my parents taking us to the booth of a cartoon artist outside St. Louis Cathedral on one vacation. I must have been about twelve at the time.

They did not like how the artist fussed over me. He told them that I was not, well, I can’t avoid saying it, though it sounds immodest (I want to write truth on this blog): he told them I wasn’t ordinary.

They didn’t like hearing that. I can remember my mother doing that Southern-lady freeze-out thing, drawing herself up stiffly and looking down her nose at the artist as if he were not quite her sort of people. My father grumbled, something about paying the artist to do sketches of his children and not prophesy.

At some level, I knew even at that early age that what caused the reaction was, in part, their parental fear that a gay man might recognize something in me and take advantage of it. But it was more than that: he told them—he instructed them—to pay attention to my needs for intellectual and emotional nourishment.

They did not like that. They did not intend to comply. Children should not be made to feel special, should not be fussed over—especially not a boy who refused to embrace “the” male role.

The artist drew little symbolic tokens in each of our ears. For my brother Simpson, there were dollar signs. And the prophecy turned out to be accurate. As alcoholism took his life, my mother spent a fortune trying to keep him alive, most everything she had saved for her old age. What she didn’t spend, he carted off when she was away from the house and sold to buy liquor.

Philip had a tic-tac-toe game in his ear. I’m not sure if even he knows why the artist chose to mark him with that token. Perhaps it was a recognition that, as the youngest of three rambunctious boys, Philip had to learn early on to evade, hide, outsmart, in order to survive.

In my ear, the artist put crosses.

New Orleans is the lodestone of my spiritual life. Not only was I educated there, it was in New Orleans that I met Steve. He had dropped out of St. John University in Minnesota to hitchhike south, with a vague plan to make his way to a mission in Mexico where a Benedictine relative of his was pastor.

We met at a prayer meeting sponsored by Loyola campus ministry. We soon moved in together, and have been together ever since. I persuaded Steve to return to school and complete his degree in philosophy. He did so at Loyola.

So it was in New Orleans that we began to come to terms with being gay, a long, drawn-out process that took many years and was not complete until we lived in the Tremé house. It was in New Orleans that I went to confession and had a priest hiss at me so loudly other penitents could hear, as he told me I had committed the sin that draws God’s wrath down on the world.

It was at the Jesuit church on Baronne St. in New Orleans that a priest who had taught me math at Loyola tried to spot me through the confessional grate, as he warned me that if I didn’t repent, a bus could run me down when I was not in a state of grace and send me directly to hell.

It was also in New Orleans that a Jesuit chaplain told me that God does not bully or lust to damn us, and that sexuality is a gift of God to bring us into communion with God and others. It was there that the pastor of our parish church told me in confession that he had just spent some time hearing confessions in the Rio Grande valley of Texas, and heard many German farmers tell him of sleeping with Mexican women whom they coerced into relationships. They did not feel guilty for a sin that broke their marriage vows (or for the coercion), the priest said. Why was I so weighed down by guilt at my transgressions?

New Orleans kept drawing me back. As I’ve noted previously on this blog, when I was finishing my dissertation, I was offered a good job at a prestigious “white” university, and a much more modestly paid (and demanding) position at Xavier University, an historically black university.

The choice was obvious to me: my life journey, my struggle to understand and address the racism inculcated in me from the time I was tiny, my commitment as a theologian to give voice to those on the margins, my history as a white Southerner whose ancestors owned slaves: all of these pointed me to Xavier. Xavier was a calling, an opportunity to serve. It was a place to learn, to continue learning even as I taught.

This vocational decision—this blessing of being called to serve—was confirmed when, the following year, Steve was offered a job at the Catholic seminary in New Orleans. That was what led to our buying the house in Tremé in 1986. I was 36 at the time, Steve 35. We had never been homeowners.

In fact, we didn’t have the resources to buy a house, after years of graduate studies and work in a “poor ministry” sponsored by Loyola’s chaplain’s office, which paid us only our living expenses. Steve’s aunts, Benedictine sisters, had inherited some money from their parents’ estate, which their community generously allowed them to lend to family members. They loaned us the down-payment for the house.

At the time we moved there, Tremé was well over 90% African American. Historically, it had always, from its beginnings at the end of the 18th century, been a majority black neighborhood, dominated by Créole free people of color, many of them descended from white men and their mixed-blood mistresses in the New Orleans system of plaçage, which encouraged young French and Spanish men to choose a mistress of color prior to marriage.

By the time we moved into Tremé, the Créole population had largely dispersed to suburbs on the east side of New Orleans. The neighborhood was in deep trouble by the 1980s, full of crime and drugs. In the years we lived there, we came home twice to find our house ransacked. In the second robbery, the vandals broke a hole through the floorboards and entered the house that way.

We had a beer bottle thrown through our window at night, our car windows smashed. I was once writing at my desk facing the street and looked out to see an elderly neighbor being held up at gunpoint. A teen was shot and killed half a block from our house; the teens who shot him wanted his tennis shoes. Our neighbors, a Créole Catholic family, lost their son first to drugs and then to a gunshot wound in a drug deal.

The house across from us was a crack house. It was owned by a white gay man who lived outside the neighborhood. When almost every house in the block was robbed after the occupants of that house moved in, the police told us that everywhere the group settled, this happened. We, all of us in the block, contacted the owner. He laughed. As long as he was paid his rent, what did he care?

Our neighbors on one side were also a gay couple, equally disdainful. They lived as though in a fortress, interacting with no one, walking each Sunday to Mass at the parish church a few blocks away. They were the meanest, stingiest human beings I have ever had the misfortune to live beside.

Even with all the struggles, we suffered when we finally decided to leave that house of simple elegance. What tipped the scales was my brother’s death in 1991. I could see as though it were a fortune written in capital letters on a wall that I would soon end up needing to provide care for my mother. I knew that doing this in a troubled marginal neighborhood would be doubly difficult.

When a Catholic college in North Carolina announced two jobs in its theology department, and when, even more miraculously, the college told Steve and me that our applications were far and away the best they had gotten from some hundred applicants and they wanted to hire us, we left. The community there was more like the one in which my mother had grown up. I knew she’d find it easier to live there than in Tremé as her mind slipped away.

Homophobia definitely played a role in all of this—a big one. Part of that journey to self-acceptance—the spiritual journey on which New Orleans placed us—was learning how vicious and how entrenched homophobia was in the academy.

When I went to New Orleans to apply for the job at Xavier, a priest in the seminary who had taught me when I took classes there prior to heading to Toronto to do the Ph.D. did all he could to out me to the Xavier hiring committee, in the nastiest way possible. This was a priest who, whenever a gay rights ordinance came before the city council, would beg the archbishop to be permitted to go and speak against it. He touted himself as the archbishop’s personal theologian.

When the seminary rector unilaterally denied Steve tenure (ignoring the recommendation of faculty and students), homophobia played a key role, we knew and were told. Later, when a permanent position opened at Xavier and one of my colleagues blocked Steve’s hire, I came face to face with homophobia all over again. This was a former nun married to a former priest. They had both had their educations paid for by the church, while Steve and I struggled extremely hard as lay students to scrape together funds to get through graduate school. When she left the convent and he the priesthood, doors opened immediately for both to get jobs at Catholic universities.

Despite this, my colleague was fond of saying the church persecuted married people like her and her husband while it protected and defended gays. When Steve was ditched by the seminary and applied for an opening at Xavier, she made certain he would not get the job—precipitating our need to move if we could find jobs outside New Orleans.

“Faubourg Tremé” provided me with a context in which to understand these spiritual struggles. The documentary does an outstanding job of uncovering the rich black history of the neighborhood—its association with Plessy v. Ferguson, its importance as one of the largest and first free black communities in the nation, its seminal role in the development of jazz. The film shows how the citizens of Tremé have repeatedly worked against the odds to build lives (and a marvelous culture) full of dignity, self-respect, intelligence, and creativity.

In the final analysis, watching “Faubourg Tremé” moved me because the film encapsulated key aspects of my own spiritual journey: the struggle against the odds for dignity; the call to give voice to those on the margins and to learn from marginal communities. The decisive and painful homophobic experiences through which Steve and I lived in New Orleans did not go away as we left New Orleans for first North Carolina, then Little Rock, then Florida.

In fact, we encountered them in a particularly brutal way all over again in an African-American churched community in Florida, and the film opened unhealed wounds we both have after those experiences. We certainly never expected the journey to be easy, both when we came out of the closet and also when we committed ourselves to work in marginal communities.

We also did not expect the cruelty practiced against us by an African-American Christian leader at a university in Florida. We did not expect to be repaid for years of gifts and sacrificial work at HBCUs, as well as loyalty to and sacrifice for that leader, with the deceptive byzantine maneuvers this African-American leader, who had previously called us friends and who knew how to hurt in the deepest way possible, used against us—the way in which she assaulted our dignity at the soul-shattering level only a former friend can touch, if she or he chooses to assault you.

Curiously enough, though, even when the film opened wounds I still bear from those experiences, watching “Faubourg Tremé” restores my faith in the African-American community that has called me to itself throughout my spiritual journey. Even when some tender part of me now wants to repudiate an entire community after the cruel treatment we experienced in Florida, I refuse to do so, and the film helps me to understand why.

After our experiences in Florida, I struggle as I struggled when our house was broken into in New Orleans by African-American neighbors, and after African-American teens broke our car windows and threw a beer bottle through our window. It would be so easy to give up, to pass judgment on an entire group of people on the basis of the shoddy behavior of a few—just as it would be easy for someone observing the behavior of our gay neighbors in Tremé or the gay man who owned the crack house across the street to conclude that all gay people are debased.

But observing the dignity, the creativity, the humanity of the citizens of Tremé—through monumental historic struggles that have gone on for centuries—reaffirms my belief in the rightness of keeping on keeping on. If a people who have been beaten, lynched, lied to and lied about, deprived of basic rights, can continue to struggle for dignity, who am I to give up? Even when members of a group that contains such magnificent representatives of humanity happen to be the ones oppressing me and assaulting my dignity, I refuse to allow those experiences to deter me from seeking solidarity with that group as it continues to struggle for freedom.

What African Americans have learned as they have sojourned in this land and sought to craft decent lives under the most inhumane conditions imaginable has the potential to teach all of us about the amazing resilience of the human spirit. This is what makes "Faubourg Tremé" such an important documentary to watch, such a valuable contribution to the study of our nation's history.