Talkin’ ’bout Nawlins

After 20 years of living in Northfield, on Friday I finally made it to my first Carleton Convocation. I had previously made plans to attend the presentations on various topics, but something always came up. When my Board President, Dan Bergeson, told me it was about New Orleans, I got it together and was sitting (next to Bardwell and Charlotte Smith) in Skinner Chapel at 10:50 am.

The speaker was Charles H. Long, Professor emeritus of history of religions and former director of the Research Center for Black Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara. The specific subject was “New Orleans as an American City: Origins, Exchanges, Materialities, and Religion.” According to Carleton, “Charles H. Long has a unique perspective from which to speak of the general meaning of religion in history and culture, and specifically about African religions in Africa and in the Atlantic world”. That was an understatement.

In a presentation that ranged from Thomas Jefferson’s alleged abuse of presidential power in making the Louisiana Purchase from France without consulting anyone, much less Congress, to Fernand Braudel’s analysis of the relationship between human development and environmental forces in his “The Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II”, while touching upon the French desire to import slaves with rice-growing skills and it’s impact on the development of music in the Ninth Ward, Professor Long’s perspective was indeed unique.

Long’s thesis may be that New Orleans has unique experience in, and thus unique potential for teaching about, multi-culturalism. As the proverbial American Gumbo, the City has a particularly spicy mix of Aboriginal, European and African peoples. He amusingly but accurately described New Orleans as a French Canadian Outpost. It’s development saw powerful and, perhaps, ironic forces shape its economic structure. The Europeans claimed sovereignty over the land, the Aboriginals were the only ones who understood how to live off the land and the Africans ended up doing most of the work on the land. It is from this series of relationships that Long moved from rice cultivation to The Meters, trust me.

A major concern for Long resulting from the destruction of Katrina is the threat to the physical manifestation of multi-culturalism. The neighborhoods that were the most damaged are also the deepest reservoirs of the cultural history of the city. Unfortunately, Long believes, the political leadership at the local, state and national level lack the insightfulness to recognize the potential significance of this loss. A particularly rich source of ideas for achieving maximum leverage of our nation’s multi-culturalism will be lost along with these historic neighborhoods.

Like Joni Mitchell said in “Big Yellow Taxi”, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”…