Because the study tour was pre-planned, it was inevitable that these very different cities would thread together in predictable ways: “Fall and Recovery.” However, as I and the other writers on the tour discovered, there were other themes that arose, all related to issues that extended beyond specific regions of the United States. Here, I identify the three most predominant.
In all the cities we visited, there seemed to be a strong tension between moving on and keeping things as they were, with change often cast as the enemy. To recover also means to regain that which was lost, and this often takes the forms of memorialization—as in the giant cemeteries that are Gettysburg and Washington, DC—and restoration or preservation.
The battlefields at Gettysburg are being gradually restored to the way they appeared in 1863, to the extent of chopping down trees and eliminating fresh growth in the landscape. Certain sectors of Baltimore, MD society are outraged by and object to the razing of old buildings to make room for new development, and to the introduction of more modern architectural styles to the Victorian aesthetic that prevails in certain parts of the city. In Louisiana, Cajun communities lament the loss of their rough-and-ready lifestyle to the demands of modernization.
On the other hand, not all preservation is intentional, or desired. A clutch of city blocks in Birmingham, AL seem stuck in the early 1960s, futuristic Art Deco trimmings and all, less because of the need to honor the memory of the African-American community that thrived there in the days of segregation, than because most people are reluctant to revisit the unpleasant memories associated with that time and place and have moved elsewhere.
Preservation is equated with respect, and with honoring the memory of that which has passed on. However, it can also devolve into kitsch, as in the design of any number of memorial monuments, or in the aggressively “olde” atmosphere maintained in Gettysburg, PA, where history lies in wait for the unsuspecting visitor. As a citizen of a country where history is all too easily forgotten, I can attest to the importance of memory in the growth of a nation. But there remains the fraught question of whether preservation is a step backward or a step forward.
Additionally, there is the equally fraught question of what to remember—which version of history is to be set in stone for posterity. In an age where pluralism is a virtue, can all the stories be given equal hearing? The Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham received considerable opposition from the local African-American community because of worries about whose story was going to be told in the multimedia exhibit that is the institute’s main attraction. In Gettysburg, the nature and placement of each marker and monument is vetted by a committee that is subject to intense lobbying and squabbling. Even with an event as distant as the Civil War, Americans still cannot agree on a single version; even the reasons why the war was fought continue to be subjects of debate.
Because of the tour itinerary, it was clear that race was going to be one of the focal points of our trip—thanks to our attention to the Civil War at Gettysburg and to the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham. What we did not expect was how this issue would permeate every other type of crisis that we examined, whether natural (New Orleans and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina), ecological (the BP oil spill in Louisiana), or economic (the deindustrialization of Baltimore). Race apparently remains an issue that has never been adequately addressed or resolved in the United States.
What was particularly chilling was how the city—urban planning, zoning, and development—could be used to create or reinforce divisions among races and classes in America. In March, a ranked list of the most segregated cities in the United States was released, based on the 2010 census data, and I noted how many of the cities we were visiting were on the list. I didn’t expect to see the segregation concretized so literally. There was the obvious segregation of neighborhoods in Birmingham, certainly, but there were also less apparent, and therefore more sinister, instances of geographical division. Streets, highways, and railroads do connect one place to another, but they also divide the spaces that they pass through.
In Baltimore, rows of grand old houses were razed in the 1960s to create broad avenues which cut through the urban center, not only dividing the area along racial lines, but making it difficult or undesirable to cross from one part of the city to another. The avenues became throughways that discouraged businesses from opening along their lengths, and kept residents on their sides of the divisions. The abandoned blocks of houses in West Baltimore ironically attest to the upward mobility of the African-American community that originally lived there—as soon as families could afford to, they fled to the suburbs.
In New Orleans, Rue Esplanade, another broad avenue, marks the northeastern boundary of the French Quarter, beyond which are the predominantly black Marigny and Fauborg-Marigny neighborhoods. Canal Street, to the southwest, marks the division between the Quarter and the areas where “les Americains” (non-native New Orleanians) settled, and became “common ground” where two communities could meet. It seems odd for such rigorous divisions to occur in a country that boasts of so much space. But it’s also a country founded on individuals staking out territories and protecting them from encroachers.
There are a multitude of races now co-existing in the American “melting pot.” Our tour group must have seemed like a very odd collection of skin tones, facial features, and accents to anyone who encountered us. And it wouldn’t take much to guess that we were all “foreign,” which is itself yet another division that encompasses all the other racial and cultural divisions: American as opposed to non-American.
It seemed clear, even from such a brief period of observation, that the post-racial America heralded by the election of Barack Obama might not be here yet. People still dance around the issue of race, or are unaware of it, but racism continues to plague the nation founded on principles of equality and human rights.
What was especially fascinating to me, probably because I was raised Roman Catholic, was the importance of religion in the lives of the communities we visited. Because the image of America to the rest of the world is shaped largely by what is projected in the mass media, it is easy to forget the Christian foundations of the United States. Christianity and its philosophies continue to pervade every sphere of American life, and find their way into national attitudes and stances, even if only implicitly. Even more fascinating was how Christian rhetoric could be mobilized to consolidate very different communities in very different ways.
At the oil rig museum in Morgan City, LA, I spotted two Bibles on a coffee table in the recreation room—one a standard edition of the Gideon variety, the other something that had been renamed God’s Word for the Oil Patch: Fuel for the Soul. It was a regular Bible in an American translation, but repackaged and enhanced by the Oilfield Christian Fellowship of Houston for its constituency of oil rig workers. Scripture was being presented exclusively for the mostly male community formed around the hard, dangerous labor of seeking out and extracting oil from the depths of the earth.
In nearby Lafayette, LA, a city that works for “the oil,” the pastor of a local church inspires his mostly-white congregation, hard-hit by the recent oil spill and increased scrutiny and regulation of the industry, with passages from the Old Testament. God’s Chosen People are reincarnated in his flock, in the whole of America, even, and the emphasis is on Yahweh’s promise to His people. The mood is tribal, and the stance aggressive. The Yahweh of the Old Testament is a fierce, warlike god who rallies his people to victory against enemies who worshipped the false gods. The message is one of entitlement, of human mastery over creation, and one sees this manifested in the processes of the oil industry, in which iron behemoths extend human power a thousandfold and nature is bent to human will and made to deliver up its bounty.
The mood at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham is decidedly different. In this predominantly black congregation (“The most segregated day in America is Sunday,” our guide tells us), there is also a correspondence with God’s Chosen People, but the Promised Land is still out of reach. In the meantime, His people wait patiently for the fulfillment of his promise, drawing for inspiration on the New Testament gospel of love and forgiveness. The Rev. Martin Luther King might have been a thundering orator with the bombast and grandeur of an old-school prophet, but his people are likelier to turn the other cheek than to demand an eye for an eye.
The centerpiece of this historic church is the Wales Window, in which a dark-skinned, Christlike figure strikes a cruciform pose, but with one hand outstretched defensively, the other reaching out for mercy. While churches were flash points for the civil rights demonstrations of the 1950s and 60s, the anger of the community is tempered by peace and humility. It is also God’s word, but reshaped by the rhetoric of persecution.
One imagines similar transformations of the Good News in other churches and temples throughout the country, but in all instances, religion brings people together into a tangible community, and rallies them towards a common cause. Although the myth of America includes a strong strain of individualism, tribal dynamics continue to animate the society.
At the risk of dating this blog entry: As I write this, the American euphoria over the death of Osama bin Laden is subsiding. I’ve spent the last day or so skimming through various reactions to and opinions on this historical event, increasingly aware that the task I accepted in agreeing to participate in the “Fall and Recovery” tour has just become even more difficult.
Like any other country, America is a tangle of contradictions. However, more than any other, it is also a country that has articulated, in no uncertain terms, what it supposedly represents and upholds. At the outset I predicted that the tour would be a further drawing back of the bunting that embellishes the myth, the idea of America. The sheer amount of information presented by the tour has certainly been overwhelming. Now the more difficult task begins, of deciding what it means, and what it means to me.