Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Waking Up

Here I go being all naïve again. Time goes by and I feel like I should be learning more, growing more, understanding more, and I just keep getting blindsided with my own innocence. It’s frustrating and embarrassing but I guess that’s how life is, really.

Here’s the latest: in the past four or five days I’ve been seeing all these stickers, on stop signs and telephone poles and the concrete walls surrounding parking lots, that say “wake up, white people.” I’ve seen these stickers like six separate times in less than a week, uptown, downtown, in mid-city: all over. In places I go pretty frequently.

Wow, was my original reaction, because I thought it was saying something like, “look around, white folks, at all the racist horribleness that’s happening in this city; your life might be starting to achieve some semblance of intactness or it might not, but now more than ever we need to be working together to rebuild this city with justice for everyone; we need to prioritize the right of return for so many African American families who still haven’t made it back; we need to be thinking critically about all this Crime hysteria that’s been happening lately and engage on real levels about things like poverty and desperation, which influence crime rates and which exist in this city in record levels these days; we need to put our hearts and souls into fighting racism within ourselves and our communities if we ever want this city to get it together…” Lots to get out of one bumper sticker, but, you know, I guess I was being optimistic.

Well. Was I ever off-base.

I got curious yesterday when I saw one of these stickers, (on a telephone pole kind of by TwiRoPa on Tchoupitoulas, if anyone’s interested), right above another sticker in the exact same font that said “David Duke for mayor.”

For anyone who needs some schooling on why that’s important, you can check out this Wikipedia page that has some basic outlines of David Duke’s history as a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Currently he self-identifies as a “white nationalist” and is well known, among other things, for his attempts to civilize the image of the Klan (business suits instead of long white robes—I know that makes me respect the Klan a lot more), and his connections with Louisiana state politics, including a governor’s runoff race in 1991 which he lost to Edwin Edwards, a known crook, by a large margin. (Edwards’ win was significantly impacted by committed creative anti-racist organizing that crossed ideology and organizational lines and opened up vast spaces, especially in New Orleans, for crucial dialogue and action about race in many diverse corners of the city, which of course is another really important part of that history.)

So anyway, I started wondering if maybe these little stickers were telling people something other than to take a serious and critical look at racism in our community, and I googled “wake up white people” and found out (also on Wikipedia, by the way—where would we be without them?) that it’s actually a “memorable quote” of another noted Klan leader, Daniel Carver, who is evidently both an Imperial Wizard and a Grand Dragon in the Klan, and who makes a living doing “odd jobs” including selling racist knicknacks out of a post-office box in Oakwood, Georgia.


The Klan, right here, where we’re living and working and struggling, right under our very noses. I feel indignant. And I know, on so many levels, that that’s not the point, but there it is, my righteous outrage at the brazenness of it.

I don’t want to think I’m one of those people who’s shocked to find out that the Klan is alive and well and working hard in my neighborhood, but I guess, on some level, that I am. And I know that it’s not like the Klan just arrived here from out of nowhere, that actually the Klan has a long history continuing into the present era in south Louisiana and New Orleans too; for example that David Duke’s more “respectable” organization, the National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP, oh, yes they did) had a pretty big gathering here in 2004 on the 50th anniversary of the Brown V. Board of Education decision where, I recently learned (yes, also on Wikipedia), far-right groups signed a document called the New Orleans Protocols, which pledged to reduce infighting and factionalization between what are referred to as “racialist” groups.

And I know that you don’t need the Klan to have racism in your neighborhood, that pretty blatant racism, for example, is behind some of the scarier crime-fighting initiatives that have come up in recent months (like a Faubourg Marigny neighborhood association’s push to install cameras throughout the neighborhood and give out whistles for (mostly white) residents to use if they see a “suspicious” person walking by; or the recent memos circulated to (mostly white) French Quarter business owners by BlackHawk, a private security company, explaining that they would be more effective crime fighters than the NOPD since they didn’t have to worry about pesky anti-profiling laws). And I know that structural racism, insidious and hard to define as it may be, is a significant part of the reason why so many African-American New Orleans residents haven’t gotten home yet, and why so many Black and Latino people in this city have to move mountains to get healthcare, or an education for their children, and how that’s not only in this city but everywhere, but that here the stakes are so much higher; that the dissolution of the African-American community here in New Orleans means nothing less than that we’re losing our very backbone.

And I know that really, fighting racism doesn’t mean being like, “oh my Gosh, the Klan! Let’s get ‘em and then our problem will be solved,” and that in some cases focusing on groups like the Klan can actually take away from the more pervasive racism that’s all around us and make it seem like racism comes from different, crazy people who don’t do things normal or respectable people would do. And that really we need to be consciously building communities of justice and resistance that transform our hearts and souls and keep us connected to each other and committed to each other in a way that affirms each of our humanity.

I know. And still, the Klan is scary.

Scariest to me is that the Klan being out and visible means that vicious racialized hatred is suddenly legitimized as part of the discussion. It shifts public discourse so dramatically that coded conversations about “the criminal element” and “what goes on in public housing” become moderate and civilized by comparison. Which means that folks who are working from a justice-centered perspective have that much more ground to cover in order to meet folks even a little bit halfway. It means folks committed to social justice have to spend time and energy fighting these blatantly racist messages instead of doing all the other important work we’re already too under-resourced to do. It’s also scary that the visibility of these messages capitalizes on white fear and stress and anger at a time when we’re all feeling desperate and need an outlet or at least an explanation for those feelings. For anyone working for social justice, and specifically anti-racist white folks, this cuts into our organizing base in a way that is concrete and significant.

The hardest thing about the obvious blatant presence of folks like the Klan, though, is what we do about it. I still believe that putting all our eggs in one basket to go up against groups like the Klan won’t build justice or even solve the problem of racism, and that we need to continue prioritizing accountable, base-building, community-building, relationship building work at the grassroots level in a strategic push toward broad and diverse movements for racial justice that include large numbers of people. And yet, I think challenging direct racism, even when it takes away concrete energy and resources that we could be putting in other directions, is absolutely necessary, even if only to affirm that it’s unacceptable and has no place in our community. (That’s part of the reason why this post is so long! ☺ I think also, for me, it’s reminded me to recommit myself to take a longer and deeper look at history, to maintain my curiosity about things I don’t know about, and to remember the limitations of my own understanding and to look for complexities even when the world appears benign to me.

Finally, I want to remember that hate groups succeed only where there’s room for them to do so. And that for all of us who are committed to building justice-centered outlets for people’s rage and sadness and stress and desperation, that now’s the time to be even more creative, and inspiring, and loving and joyous and visible in that work. And to remember to give props to all the folks in our community and beyond who are building that culture day by day, like the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, the Ashe' Cultural Arts Center, the INCITE! Women's Health and Justice Initiative, the Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association, Safe Streets/Strong Communities, the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, European Dissent, and so many others in New Orleans alone.

And at least for me, that especially when things are sad and stressful and hard and hopeless, fighting for justice is the best protection against a hardened heart.


Friday, May 25, 2007


Today at the day laborers’ clinic I took care of a patient with multiple stab wounds; he had been discharged from University Hospital last Saturday with a prescription for antibiotics and the good wishes of his healthcare providers. The bandages packing his wounds had been there almost a week; no one at the hospital told him he needed to have them changed regularly or he would risk major infection. Much less, they didn’t tell him where he could have gone to get that kind of treatment, or how to do it himself if, under likely circumstances, he wasn’t able to be seen in one of the understaffed primary care clinics serving low-income people in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Hearing that story, I felt so naïve. Even though I experience the healthcare system here on a daily basis, and even though I take care of so many low-income uninsured patients who get discharged from hospitals without follow-up, I still couldn’t believe what this patient was telling me. The doctors at University Hospital know better than that, I kept telling myself. Many of those folks are friends and colleagues of mine, people who have put in so much heart and soul and dedication into providing high-quality care for people in a healthcare system whose infrastructure is completely shattered. Many more have worked just as diligently to patch together some beginnings of a free or affordable follow-up system so that patients like these have places to go when they get out of the hospital. Really? I thought. Them? What does that mean for the rest of the city?

Two of us ended up changing this patient’s packing as he sat on an upended milk crate under a tree in the middle of a neutral ground where he and many of his friends and compañeros waited for work. We did our best to keep things as clean as possible, while the wind blew graying dust and long-empty Pepsi cans around our feet. The whole time the other volunteer was gently holding our patient as he squirmed in pain; a visiting doctor from Michigan kept coming over to inspect our careful work while about nine other workers gaped from a few feet away, craning their necks from behind the tree. “Whoa! Look how deep they are! Come see!” they kept yelling while I repeated my requests for privacy, inserting clean gauze into these wide-open spaces in his chest, deeper than my fingers, wider than my knuckles, close enough to the heart that I expected to touch it, beating strongly against my hand.

It’s a miracle this man is alive, I kept thinking. He deserves more than this: this medical care he just happened upon on his walk to work, the tree, the pigeons, the milk crates we sat on, the burned-out buildings on the right and left of us, the audience, that swirling dust all around us. He thanked us so much at the end I almost cried, not out of sadness but anger. Even in this totally messed-up system, this didn’t need to happen.

“I bet if he spoke English they would’ve talked with him about going someplace for follow-up,” my roommate said when I told her the story.


But I don’t know that for sure, and I don’t know which is worse: that this person would have gotten better medical care if they were a native English speaker (which is a violation of the Civil Rights Act, by the way, which healthcare centers in the state of Louisiana, just like everywhere else in this country, get federal funding to enforce), or that maybe it just didn’t matter: that maybe things were so crazy at University that day that nobody had the time to make sure this patient got discharged properly without falling through the cracks.

I think the worst part of this situation was not that I felt let down by people I look up to and trust to be conscious about providing amazing healthcare even in insane circumstances, it was the realization—not new, not earth-shattering, but still hard and sad and frustrating-- that it actually had very little to do with them, that there are so many factors that make this patient’s situation happen anyway, despite the best efforts of so many committed individuals. That we can have all the good people we want doing all the amazing things we want in the world, and we still ultimately need infrastructure. We need a system that acts in people’s best interests. We need for our lives not to depend upon the whims or compassion of good people; we need a society that takes responsibility for its people in a much more concrete way.

All day I did my best not to feel cynical about this situation because I know that's not going to make anything better. But it was hard, I tell you, driving away after clinic was over, all the workers waving at us from the neutral ground, the gray sky hanging over us, heavy, like concrete that wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Graduation Day

If I hadn’t taken time off from medical school after Katrina, I would have become a doctor last Saturday. Wow. Somehow that seems even more enormous than if I actually did graduate. I’m still trying to wrap my head around all the things a day like this brings with it: all the growing up that’s been happening in our world these days, all the loss and transition and new beginnings and fear and awkwardness wrapped up in this bursting joy; how education is so much more than the hoops we jump through and how, at its best, it’s really about taking risks and challenging ourselves to become more honest and accountable than we ever thought we could be.

For the longest time, I’ve been so excited about this day: both that my friends were graduating and that I wasn’t. Right now, I’m happy for them to have the milestones, the big moment; more than anything lately, I’ve not felt ready. I’ve been so happy that I have a whole ‘nother year as a medical student: I’m glad I get more practice making decisions about patients while knowing that a real doctor’s watchful eye isn’t far away. I’m excited to spend one more year focusing on things I know I need to improve upon, or things I want to learn more about, just because I can. This is the last time in my life that I’ll be praised, rather than expected, to know and do the right thing; the last time I can make mistakes and not know stuff and have that be part of the process instead of a Really Big Deal; the last time I can spend 2 weeks in Hawaii learning dermatology if I want to (ok, I don’t really want to, but you know what I mean).

But on that day, watching my friends and classmates cross over into this world I’ll join them in much sooner than I’d probably like, I didn’t feel relief as much as I’d imagined. I felt awe. I witnessed in each of them something altogether different and much more powerful than anything I’d expected, and that was grace. Suddenly I had no doubts that each one of them, ready or not, was going to do just fine July 1 when they all start their work as interns for real. Everything they need to shine, they’ve already got it inside themselves.

I thought about how most of our major life events: becoming a parent, surviving catastrophe, taking awesome responsibility for the care of other people—are more than anything about rising to the occasion, how none of us is ever ready and we continue to push on anyway, how for generations as long as we’ve been here, we survive, we bring children into the world, we take care of each other with the best and strongest of our cracked imperfect selves.

And the world’s got nothing on these folks. These are people who’ve shone through death and heartbreak and childbirth and Hurricane Katrina, all while continuing to conquer medical school and dance and play and make each other laugh long and deep. After Katrina hit, these are folks who mopped shelter floors, drove across south Louisiana with cars full of donated underwear and antibiotics, and held long vigils, wherever they happened to be, with the dying and grieving people of our city. They set up clinics, started organizations, made arrangements for our classmates to get an education outside New Orleans when the future here was uncertain; on days off they sorted through the rubble of their burned and flooded houses; ultimately they learned medicine in strange cities and came home to sleep on strangers’ couches at the end of those long ghostly days. They kept going, in those times when the murky road ahead was barely even visible. Oh, the world’s got nothing on these folks, these special, special folks.

And graduation was awesome! Obviously, because I got to see all these people who I love and look up to and who’ve loved me and challenged me and inspired me and taught me and been my anchors for the past four years—I got to watch all these incredible folks become doctors. And also because there kept being these only-in-New-Orleans moments, like the brass band and the way all the new doctors all second-lined out of the place when it was over, and the people wearing Mardi Gras beads over their intense velvet graduation regalia, and the spicy Bloody Marys we all toasted each other with at noon before it started. And then the speaker, who is the new president of the Association of American Medical Colleges, which is not really famous for being a radical organization, kept talking about how we all need to step up and make universal healthcare a reality in this country. I know! Can you believe it?

But in the end, the awesome thing about graduation was how full that room was. All those babies running around in the aisles in pressed dresses and stiff morning hair; all the old people, guided gently to the better seats, knuckles leaning into canes and the backs of chairs, curling heads and necks for even a far-away glimpse of their people. All the miles everyone had covered just to be there.

At one point this one girl, one of the quietest girls in the class who I never really got to know very well, came up to receive her diploma and I think about 40 people stood up and cheered and just didn’t stop. They filled like 2 whole rows, they spilled over into the aisles--they were still jumping and clapping even when she got off the stage. I was amazed at the power of this family’s love for this person. It made me even prouder of her to see where she’d come from, to see such a wild band of people so fiercely there for this gentle person in their life. In the end none of us could take it. We all stood up with the rest of them, cheering so loudly for this one girl and everything else joyous in the room that day.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mother's Day

Mother’s Day started with fireflies, but this was only one of the reasons why it felt so magic. We went to Thibodaux, just my mom and I, to get away from the city for a second and have time to eat crawfish and listen to music and take walks and be absorbed by all the different kinds of green that take over south Louisiana this time of year. And my mom’s been captivated by fireflies ever since my dad told her he saw some out there a few weeks ago. The last time my mom saw fireflies was when she was younger than me and living in Italy.

So after dinner, when it had gotten so dark we could barely see our hands in front of us, my mom said, “Let’s go outside and look for fireflies!” You could tell she’d been thinking about it since we got there. And I was like, “Mom, there’s totally not gonna be any fireflies. It’s too late, it’s too dark, we’re not even looking in the right place…” and we stood outside under that tent of stars that’s so much brighter in the country and the whole time I was like, “See? There’s not any. I’m getting bitten by gnats; let’s go inside.” And then, as if for maybe no other reason than to remind me that I actually don’t know everything, the whole sky started blinking. It was like we were being visited by little spirits. They were everywhere! Better than the Northern lights; better than TV. We could barely take it. Remember this, little one, the world was telling me: your mother’s beliefs are stronger than your skepticism.

It was awesome.

This Mother’s Day felt like my day, too, because I kept realizing all the gifts I’ve gotten from my mom. It felt like I was opening my own presents all day, realizing again how connected I am to the people in my life who’ve made me who I am and who’ve put so much fierce labor into loving me. My mom and I both cry when we hear beautiful music, when we drive past glittering fields and red sunsets, when we tell stories about the people we love. The world grabs us both so hard sometimes, we can barely take it. She’s given me all the awe and wonder I feel at the world. Any scrap of tenacity and determination I have comes from my mom; any search for truth, both in myself and within the world around me; any commitment I have to continue to grow and learn every day I am here on this earth. And our hearts! Have you felt how much loves comes out of these hearts? I think the depth of how we love blows even us away.

I’m realizing as I grow older that one of the things I cherish most about myself is something deep I share with my mom, and that’s our rootedness. This all comes from her: my deep sense of place, the way the smell of sweet olive takes me back to being six years old and up past my bedtime; that thick danger and safety nighttime gave me as a child; the knowledge even then that I was being watched over by all these people I’ve come from, how living and dead they’re with me all the time. My mom planted a garden in the cemetery where our ancestors are buried, and she goes there regularly and waters the flowers there. She takes care of this place because it’s part of her. In dreams she has visits—really, visits!--with our ancestors. Like, they have conversations. I realize as an adult that I believe more in my mom’s dreams than in some scientific evidence, that the world has so many different ways of teaching us if we just pay attention.

Mother’s day is also a day for me to give tribute more generally to everyone who’s raised me: it’s a day for me to realize, with awe, what a collective process my history has been. For better or worse, I’m a product not only of my mom, but all my aunts, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, cousins, teachers, and all the other elders who’ve taken me under their wing. These people have made me who I am in ways great and small: it’s from my aunts that I’ve learned to bring Band-Aids and Excedrin and also mix CD’s and awesome books with me wherever I go; my grandmothers have taught me gentleness and diplomacy and unconditional love; my cousins are this hilarious dynamic posse who keep me grounded and remind me that no matter where I go or what I do, there’s 20 people who’ve got my back in a second. And there are so many wise teachers in my life who’ve pushed my learning and kept me committed to being humble and honest and working for social justice in a steady, long-term way.

No matter how old I get, most of the time I still feel like a kid amazed at the world. Last night, with all those fireflies blinking electric-green above us, we couldn’t stop jumping and exclaiming and pointing wildly at that cool black sky. “It’s a sign,” my mom kept saying.
A sign of what, I wondered.
“I don’t know,” my mom said. “Maybe it means we just get a little bit more time. Maybe they’re giving us something back from long ago. I don’t know. But it’s good.”

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

All Your Suffering Is About To Be Over!

This weekend Louisiana exploded with music. Friday I walked the three quick blocks to Jazzfest and wandered around on my own all day, bumping into people and taking in the music and the people and about four glasses of strawberry lemonade. I love going to Jazzfest alone mostly because I love watching everybody. Yeah, Lucinda Williams was pretty awesome, and so were the cochon de lait poboys, which I faithfully await for an entire year, but nothing can beat the luminous sign-language interpreter we saw at the last set on Friday, her eyes as loud as the music; or the multiracial crew of teenage girls stepping in unison on the highest bleachers--in the gospel tent, of all places!; or the pair of dancing 80-year-olds: the raspy knees, the perfect two-step, the bumpy lavender fingers they held each other with, tighter and longer than life.

We have a visiting doctor in from San Francisco for the week, and as we were tripping over each other in the medicine cabinet this morning, she said, “Your patients are so special.” They really are. I feel so lucky to be even a tiny part of their lives. Yesterday I saw this 84-year-old man who’s been his wife’s sole caretaker since she had a stroke about 8 months ago. He doesn’t really know how to cook, but he prepares all their food; his knees and elbows are wracked and creaky with rheumatism but still he lifts her up daily, bathes her, changes the sheets, combs her hair. He pushes her chair out on the porch on nice days and they watch the neighborhood go by. They used to be traveling people, the kind of people who’d climb in their tottering black pickup one morning and end up in St Louis for the next five months. Now they’re planted back home in Avondale and he’s starting to feel itchy and restless, but right now there’s no place he’d rather be than their bright yellow kitchen, spooning oatmeal into thick bowls for the two of them to share every morning.

Today one of my patients, an ardent 72-year-old Jehovah’s Witness who comes to visit us about twice a month for minor complaints and also because his rickety house gets lonely now that his wife’s gone, gave me a brightly colored pamphlet that said, “All Your Suffering Is About To Be Over!”

“Oh, this is so awesome!” I said. “I wish everybody’s suffering was about to be over.”

He laughed, this deep scratchy laugh you can hear all through the clinic. “Well, I don’t know,” he said. “But I walk around the whole neighborhood and give these out door to door. I sit on people’s porches and, you know. We’re all blessed. It makes me feel better.”