Friday, September 02, 2005

There is one persistent and not very pretty theory as to why the poorer residents of New Orleans were left exposed to the catastrophic results of the hurricane, and why there was not more urgency in rescuing them. It is, the theory goes, because they are poor, and largely African-American.

In Star Trek lore, the choice of New Orleans as the home of Star Trek’s first African-American captain was probably not accidental. New Orleans is one of the greatest sources of African-American culture, and as the place where the great gumbo of jazz music was cooked up and sent to northern cities, it is a major source of American culture, as it has grown here and as it is known around the world.

The blues of New Orleans also were a major source for rock music, which itself has combined with other forms in other cultures. This connection was made more poignant when Fats Domino, one of the pioneers of rock and roll from New Orleans, was found among survivors in New Orleans several days after the hurricane.

The Mississippi River ends there, and the music of all the rivers that flow into it came to New Orleans, like Appalachian mountain music with some of its origins in the British isles. It is an ocean port, once held by the French, and a place where French Canadians from Nova Scotia came as exiles, and brought their music. Perhaps the most underrated musical influence is American Indian (the in-“jun” in Cajun) but it is clearly present in the blues as well as New Orleans jazz. And of course, the music of Africa that came with the slaves to this slave ship port.

As Michelle Erica Green points out in her column on Star Trek and New Orleans here, the ethnic mix of New Orleans includes English, Spanish and Caribbean Islanders, and there have been new immigrants in the area from various parts of Asia and the Middle East.

This was diversity that combined to make meaning and beauty for all the world. But it is also heir to a century of slavery and several centuries of racial prejudice. It wasn’t over when Louis Armstrong couldn’t play with white musicians. It wasn’t over when Nichelle Nichols, touring as a singer, was refused hotel lodgings.

All that is apparently gone in the 24th century. But even though it takes less obvious forms, it is not gone in the 21st.. Applied to the issue of New Orleans now, it is worth considering it as a component. The only way to combat unconscious racism is to raise the question, and make the possibility conscious.

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