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A Year of Reckoning
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Friday, 1 April 2005
Borderline 4.05: Cuba and New Orleans: Learning a New Rumba
Topic: Cuba and N.O.

Cuba and New Orleans: Learning a New Rumba



A dance of survival has begun between two faded jewels of the Caribbean. Can it last long enough to pay dividends to both sides?


By J.B. Borders


One of my favorite films of the past year is “The Motorcycle Diaries,” which won an Academy Award for best song but deserved even more acclaim and recognition than that. “The Motorcycle Diaries” has one of the most inspiring tag lines ever used to market a film: “Let the world change you…and you can change the world.”


The film is based on the true story of two twentysomething middle-class Argentines who take an eight-month journey through Latin America in 1952. One of the men is a young biochemist; the other is a medical student. They start their trek on an old motorcycle owned by the biochemist, Alberto Granado, whose goal is to make it from Argentina to Venezuela in time to celebrate his thirtieth birthday. The medical student just wants to make sure they carve out a few days for him to visit his girlfriend along the way.


As is often the case in such grand journeys, things don’t quite work out the way they initially planned them. What does happen, however, ends up having more significant impact on the young men than they ever could have imagined at the outset. The travelers not only experience for themselves the beauty and rich heritage of Latin America, they also learn a great deal about the suffering and injustice that exist in that part of the world.  More importantly, as a result of the trip, each of the men develops the resolve to devote his life to changing the conditions that afflict so many of their people.


The young medical student goes on to become one of the most important revolutionaries of the twentieth century, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who, though he was an Argentine by birth, is inextricably linked to Cuba and the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro.


Che and Fidel met in Mexico in 1954, where a small rag-tag band of Cuban exiles was plotting to overthrow Cuba’s U.S.-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Five years later, they would succeed. Moreover, their success would fundamentally alter the political and social order not just in Cuba but in all corners of the globe as well.


Let the world change you and you can change the world.


Che and Fidel insisted on building a socialist society in the new Cuba. They ran the American Mafia out of the country. They nationalized industries, seized large estates and began redistributing the wealth and assets of the nation.


These actions earned not only the ire of the Mafia but also the enmity of the United States government, which promptly imposed a trade embargo on Cuba and denounced it as a “Communist Menace” ninety miles from the American coast.


Since 1960, the United States government has tried virtually every trick in the book to force “regime change” in Cuba. They have funded military invasions, assassination attempts, negative publicity campaigns, internal discord and economic strangulation. None of it has produced the desired effect.


Even though Che Guevara was killed in battle in Bolivia during an unsuccessful revolutionary war in 1967, Fidel Castro has managed to maintain power in Cuba and to keep the nation on its socialist course of development.


Now, some of the forces in the United States have come up with a new strategy to beat the 79-year-old Castro – trade with him. To her credit, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and her economic development director, Michael Olivier, have capitalized on this opportunity and secured a $15 million trade agreement with Cuba.


For New Orleanians, that’s good news. The city’s cultural and trading ties to Cuba go back to the earliest days of the Crescent City. Havana, Cuba’s capital, was established in its current location in 1519. By the time New Orleans was founded two hundred years later, Havana was already the leading city in the New World and, according to some historians, remained the cultural capital of the Americas for at least a hundred years more.


In many respects, Havana was a big sister to New Orleans for generations and though the two are now poised to be back in stride again after all these many years apart, the presumption is that the relationship will eventually help socialist Cuba – and its eleven million, predominately-black population – change to become more like capitalist America.


But I hope that America, particularly Louisiana and especially New Orleans, will change to become more like Cuba in at least four important aspects.


First, I hope we follow Cuba’s example and make literacy a paramount community priority. The literacy rate in Cuba is 97 percent. In Orleans Parish, more than 30 percent of the population, 150,000 people, function at the lowest literacy level or worse. That is unacceptable even in the second worst state in the greatest nation on Earth.


So maybe Cuba can help us adapt their Yes I Can literacy program to our city. Nothing else seems to be doing the trick. Meanwhile, the Cuban approach is reported to be rapidly increasing literacy in several other nations including Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Mozambique, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Peru, and Venezuela.


Second, Cuba is renowned for providing free, high-quality medical care to over 98 percent of its citizens. Maybe they can show us how to fix our Charity Hospital system and neighborhood clinics in exchange for a few boatloads of rice and other commodities.


According to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), the Cuban government has already stepped up big time to help in the training of African American and Latino medical students. In 2000 Castro himself offered 500 full scholarships for U.S. citizens to study at the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana, provided the graduates pledge to practice in poor U.S. communities. This past academic year, there were “88 U.S. students enrolled at the school, 85 percent of them members of minority groups and 73 percent of them women,” the NEJM reported.

And lest the scholarships for U.S. students seem like an attempt to curry the favor of the Bush administration, the Latin American School of Medicine has long dedicated itself to training doctors to treat the poor of the Western hemisphere and Africa. Twenty-seven countries and 60 ethnic groups are represented among the school’s 8,000 students. And the Cuban government finances all this education probably for a lot less than Halliburton overcharges the U.S. Department of Defense in an average week. But that’s another story.


Sure, it’s going to be nice to have Cuba’s money circulating in our economy. But money isn’t everything. In fact, I would be willing to give Cuba some its money back if they could help us overcome racism in Louisiana.


Like Louisiana, Cuba was a notoriously racist place just 45 years ago. It had endured slavery and had become infested with exploitative Americans who used white supremacist theories and social policies as a tool to oppress Afro-Cubans.


Today, however, Cuba enjoys a reputation as a country that has all but eliminated racism in its social, economic and political systems. And though the hype has probably outpaced the reality, we could definitely use a good dose of that kind of publicity. Imagine how much hipper a post-racist New Orleans would be.



Let the world change you and you can change the world.


Finally, since Cubans are also known as incurable romantics, maybe they can teach us how to rumba – to dance as couples again, sensuous and attentive to our partners and not merely preoccupied with doing our own thing and being as nasty as we wanna.


I have a notion that if we change the way we dance with each other, we will change the way we talk to each other. And if we change the way we talk to each other, we can change the way we act with each other. And if we change the way we act with each other, we can change the way we feel about each other. And if we change the way we feel about each other, we can love each other more. And the more we love, the easier it is to be just. And whether we appreciate it or not, a more just world would do us all some good right along through here.


So if we can learn to rumba a little with Cuba, there might be more in it for us than just a fatter pocketbook. We just have to be willing to stay on the dance floor until we master a few new moves.


And there’s no telling what that might lead to.


Posted by jamesbborders4 at 3:40 PM CST
Updated: Tuesday, 18 March 2008 12:47 AM CDT
Tuesday, 1 March 2005
Borderline 3.05: The Big Razzoo
Topic: The Razzoo Killing

The Big Razzoo




A recent killing dredges up a long history of racial tensions in the French Quarter



By J.B. Borders


I can’t shake the feeling.


I thought I would be over it by now, but it still hasn’t passed.


Every time someone or something calls my attention to the New Year’s Eve homicide at Razzoo’s night club in the French Quarter, I feel this rush of emotions – anger, for sure, but also disappointment over the bungled political manipulation of the situation and a sense of frustration, I suppose, about not being able to reverse this tragic occurrence, this needlessly wasteful loss of a young brother’s life.


I know I should be inured to it by now – unfazed by the death of yet another black man on the streets of New Orleans. There are so many. They pop up so frequently. It’s not supposed to be a big deal. But for some strange reason, this one matters more than most – to me, at least – and I’ve been trying to understand why.


For starters, I have this eerie feeling that I’m connected to this killing in some way that’s not apparent to me yet. I didn’t know the young man, Levon Jones, the 25-year-old college student from Atlanta who was choked to death by three white bouncers at Razzoo after an altercation broke out when, for some reason, one of Jones’ buddies was denied entrance to the club. I didn’t know Jones but I have the sneaking suspicion that if I ask around enough, I’ll know someone who knows someone in his family. And if that turns out to be the case – if I actually know his parents or his grandparents or aunts and uncles – then I will only feel worse.


Like many New Orleanians, my out-of-town friends have this understanding with me: they know they can give my name and phone number to their children and friends and other “good people” who are coming to the city for visits. If anybody gets in a jam or needs some advice about what to do, see, hear or eat when they come to town, they can give me a call.


I make it a point, though, not to impose on the younger visitors, especially my friends’ sons and daughters. I realize that part of the magic of coming to New Orleans when you’re in your twenties is partying like it’s your last days on Earth, uninhibited by the ties and obligations to your world back at home. So I try and give these young adults the kind of latitude I appreciated when I was a young man on the road in a new town on a Saturday night trying to find some fun and excitement.


But with such a huge surge in recent years in the number of black tourists coming to town, maybe people like me need to make more of an effort to let visitors like Levon Jones know that New Orleans can be a treacherous place to party – that it is deadly in ways you won’t read about in the tour books and entertainment guides.


As the father of a man roughly the same age as Levon Jones, I’ve begun to feel an almost parental obligation to help give these young brothers a little advice when they come to town. I don’t want to dampen their fun; I just want them to know they can’t come here and naively wander around these streets and other public spaces unaware of the ancient, long-standing hatreds, fears and prejudices that color some people’s reaction to regular, stand-up black men. White kids can afford to be clueless but our children don’t really have that luxury yet.


Child’s Play

The word “razzoo” has fallen out of regular use these days, but when I was a kid, it was the catch phrase for all manner of good-natured pranks friends would play on each other. In general, though, to razzoo someone meant to snatch some property or possession right from under their noses after momentarily distracting them with a silly ruse of some sort or the other.


We used to pull these stunts a lot when we were playing marbles, especially if we were losing at the time. In the midst of the game, the prankster might point upward and ask his intended victim an earnest-sounding question: “What color does the sky look to you?” Normally, the unwary target would look up and mull the question over for a second or two. The answer, of course, would be “Blue.” Meanwhile, the prankster has snuck some of the victim’s marbles away from him and as soon as he hears the word “blue”, he responds with a cry of “Razzoo.” 


At other times, a mischievous kid would just walk up to someone and snatch a bag of potato chips or a candy bar right out of their hands and run off down the street laughing, “Razzoo! Razzoo!”


It’s amazing how often this foolishness worked and how much it tickled us every time someone succeeded in pulling off such a prank.


It’s ironic that something so tragic should have occurred at a place with such a playful-sounding name. It’s regrettable that the police and so many other people could have stood by that night and merely looked on as the life was choked out of a young man for twelve excruciating minutes. It’s a little too creepy and voyeuristic that it would all be captured on videotape, though I doubt that recording will ever make it to America’s Funniest Home Videos or to Cops, for that matter.


More critically, someone should have anticipated that something like this would happen someday and done something to prevent it. Instead of being so concerned always about protecting white folks from black folks, someone should have developed some sort of contingency plan for protecting black folks from white folks someday, even in the French Quarter. It’s that failure of imagination – that a black man could be a victim and not just a victimizer – that resulted in the death of Levon Jones.


Growing Pains

I know where Razzoo’s is but I’ve never set foot in the place. I didn’t have anything against it before the Jones killing; I just stopped spending time on Bourbon Street ages ago. I’ve outgrown its offerings. The thrill is definitely gone. And for a number of reasons, I’m a much better man for having moved on. But it’s slowly dawning on me that part of the reason this New Year’s Eve killing keeps gnawing at me is that I still have issues with the culture of Bourbon Street.


When I was a teenager in the mid-1960s, my buddies and I would venture down to the French Quarter from time to time. We were not welcome there. Even after we became legally old enough to enter some of the strip joints on the street, the barkers at the front doors of these clubs pointedly told us they didn’t want our business.


Once, five or six of us systematically walked down the street and stood in front of every club just to see how the doormen would react. I guess we had nothing better to do with our time. The doormen were all white and since several of them cursed us with racial epithets, it didn’t take much for us to figure out that they didn’t want us looking at the near-naked white women dancing behind those doors because we were black.  



At that age, however, we didn’t care that the women were white. All that mattered to us was that they were naked. Naked Women! They could have been purple and we still would have been gawking at their uncovered breasts. (In fact, that’s one of the reasons we spent so much time in the libraries back then. National Geographic always seemed to have these photo spreads featuring breast-baring women of Africa and the South Pacific. That we learned some geography or cultural anthropology in the process was purely accidental.)


Sometimes, we would play games and come up with devious means to see how much of a free peek we could get into the strip joints. We would break out of our group, for instance, and try to blend in singly with a group of white male tourists who would invariably assign one member of their delegation to ask the doorman questions while the others took as long a look as possible at the performance inside. Our mission was to get as much of a view ourselves before the doorman spotted us and had to decide how to block our angle of vision without losing this potential sale.


One night a doorman we were pestering opened up his jacket to reveal a pistol stuck in his waist. He threatened to do harm to one of the members of our group. The confrontation quickly escalated. Our buddy lost his cool and became almost uncontrollably incensed. There was some pushing, some cursing and some calls for the police. We pulled our friend away and hightailed it through the crowd and off to a side street before the cops could intervene on the bar’s behalf.


These battles and confrontations on Bourbon Street were part of a larger war that was taking place then in the public spaces of New Orleans – and my friends and I were smack dab in the middle of the mess. If it wasn’t Bourbon Street, it was Canal Street and its various stores and shops. Or it was City Park or the playgrounds on Napoleon Avenue. We were intent then on asserting our presence, our right to be in those places and we scuffled from time to time with those whites who sought to prevent us from doing so.


We always knew these skirmishes could turn deadly but, unlike today, we never started out thinking that we had to kill anybody or be killed to make our point. We just knew we weren’t going to take any crap from anybody. End of story.


Though race relations were slow to change in New Orleans in the 1960s and ‘70s, things did begin to improve considerably on Bourbon Street about 25 years ago. The racial tension was no longer visibly on the surface. More black folks started patronizing the clubs. Other black folks began working as doormen, dancers and musicians. In fact, black folks seem to be doing everything but owning something on Bourbon Street these days, though I can’t say that for certain because I am no authority on the place.



Nevertheless, despite the occasional negative racial vibes that surface during the Bayou Classic and the Essence Festival, I would have been willing to bet anything that the contest for the peaceful integration of African Americans on Bourbon Street was a closed issue. And then came this killing on New Year’s Eve.


Maybe I was wrong to imagine that we had secured anything on Bourbon Street. Maybe that’s the lesson of Levon Jones’s sacrifice. Maybe we still can’t let our guards down, even at play time. For the minute we relax, someone is likely to snatch something of value from us and run off laughing, “Razzoo! Razzoo!”


Posted by jamesbborders4 at 3:43 PM CST
Updated: Tuesday, 18 March 2008 12:50 AM CDT
Saturday, 1 January 2005
Borderline 1.05: The Damnable Deeds of 2004
Topic: Damnable Deeds 2004

The Damnable Deeds of 2004

A partial review of the year’s most despicable developments

By J.B. Borders

In Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the worst section of hell is reserved for betrayers, including those who are traitors to their kin. These sinners are very nearly the scummiest of all scum, the lowest of the low, the foulest of the foul.


In Dante’s vision of the underworld, traitors to their kin are more damnable than the lustful, the gluttonous, the avaricious, the wrathful and sullen, the heretical, the murderous, the lying, the hypocritical and the thieving. In fact, the only thing worse than betraying your kin, as Dante saw it, was being a traitor to your country or to those who are your guests or benefactors.


I disagree but only slightly. The worst sin has to be betraying your family, your blood. I won’t quibble with Dante, however, about his rankings. They have withstood the test of time. Besides, whether a soul is double-doomed or triple-doomed doesn’t make that much difference to me as long as all the damned get what they deserve.


For those who may have forgotten, the Inferno is one of the masterpieces of Western European literature. It’s a 14th century epic Italian poem whose narrator takes a 24-hour journey through hell.


Warned at the front gate to “Abandon hope all ye who enter here,” Dante and his guide, Virgil, the Roman poet who lived in the first century B.C., endure a hideous trek through a nightmarish environment filled with oppressive heat and cold, strong winds, fearful sights, terrifying sounds and rank odors as they descend into the depths of hell. Along the way, they also encounter scores of monsters and more than a hundred different sinners, including important historical figures.


Dante catches hell going through hell. It is an exhausting journey emotionally and physically. As literary critic Thomas Bergin has pointed out, the adventures trigger a range of emotions in the traveler: “compassion, pity, scorn, resentment, anger, vindictiveness, courage and even, once in a while, a touch of amusement. And all these emotions,” Bergin adds, “are superimposed on the constants of terror, wonder, and lively curiosity.”


Dante’s hell is overflowing with white people – as should be the case – but black folk are virtually nonexistent. In fact, the blackest person in his version of hell is Cleopatra and she’s obviously passing.


But if Dante were alive today and took a 24-hour tour of New Orleans’s underbelly, I wonder if he would find it significantly different than his own celebrated journey? The people would be overwhelmingly black, of course, and the weather might not be as bad.  But would the emotional voyage be any different?


What would Dante make, for instance, of all those adults who were recently indicted for stealing money from the New Orleans public school system? Surely he would recognize them as the worst kind of traitors to their kin – scoundrels who steal from their own children, who rob their most impoverished young of the chance for a decent life.


Could Dante find it within himself to be compassionate and hopeful in the midst of so much that would evoke anger, scorn and a desire for vengeance?


I hope so. Because I’m not sure I can. Not after all we’ve had to put up with this year – the continuing futile war in Iraq, the fraudulent-looking presidential election, the mushrooming federal deficit, the senseless murders and shoot-outs in our homes and on our streets, the worsening poverty in communities already over the edge of despair.


There is a long-festering rot in our society and in our city that began oozing out in all sorts of unexpected ways this year. Unfortunately, this rot has ensnared too many of the poor, the black and the oppressed in crimes against our own kind.


The only way to stop this rot is to eradicate poverty in our city and on our planet. Not simply hide it or disperse it or ignore it or absolve the government of responsibility for helping to end it. But stop it. By all just means necessary.


These are the moral imperatives of our time: to end poverty and to restore the black race to a position of dignity in the world. These are the linked cancers, the twin viruses, the two out-of-control diseases we must corral and cure. It’s that cut and dry. If we don’t wipe them out, they will do us in. And it will happen much sooner than even the most pessimistic of us once believed.


There is no escape from these obligations – not if you’re black, not if you’re human. The notion of race and black racial inferiority are too deeply inscribed in the world’s psyche to disappear without a radical change in the material conditions in which people of African descent live throughout the world.


The education and the enrichment of a small black elite is not enough to stem the devastation, the hell currently being endured by the vast majority of us in the United States and Canada, the Caribbean, Central and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.


Worse, with all that others from outside our race are doing to injure and oppress us, we cannot afford to continue injuring ourselves. We’re just not that strong or resilient.


Nor can we continue to pretend that we are not harming ourselves by refusing to acknowledge the misdeeds, publicly or privately. In fact, we have to take just the opposite approach. We have to draw attention to current abuses and we have to declare zero tolerance for blatantly harmful actions committed by black people against black people even as we continue to rail against the atrocities committed against us by non-blacks.


So in that spirit, here is my quick list of the most absurd transgressions of the Year of the Costume Malfunction, the Damnable Deeds of 2004.


The Eating Our Young Award: the New Orleans Public Schools employees who actually worked in some of the dilapidated facilities that our poorest children are forced to attend but stole much-needed money from the system anyway.


The Nice Work If You Can Get Away With It Award: the $504,000 buyout clause that was inserted into the contract of a Regional Transit Authority consultant as a means to dissuade the latest mayoral administration from replacing the firm.


The Dumbest Bribe Award: the lawyer who tried to make a habit of collecting money from convicted junkies and drug dealers in exchange for getting them off probation. Didn’t she know that junkies work for the police?


The Robbing Hood Tribute: the bank-robbing brothermen who have been waltzing away clean after a series of local heists.


The All-City Sexual Predator Award: the black attorney who manhandled another black attorney’s daughter and thought the victim wouldn’t do anything about it.


Crime Deserving Wider Condemnation: the violence against black women by their boyfriends and husbands.


The Better Luck Next Time Award: the crew of meter maids who sent phony auto repair bills to a major oil company after it admitted selling the public bad gasoline that could potentially damage the gauges in automobiles. Sure the oil companies made record profits again this year but they didn’t get rich by getting stiffed by consumers. The moral is: Don’t hustle a hustler.


The All-State Racial Sensitivity Award: the white Houma judge whose Halloween costume consisted on an orange prison jumpsuit, handcuffs, an afro wig and blackface makeup. If he didn’t see anything wrong with it, why should we?


The Who Wants to be a Thousandaire Award: City Hall employees and Orleans Parish School Board members.


The Please Don’t Endorse Me Award: David Vitter.


Happy New Year. Struggle on. We can make a better world in this lifetime.


Posted by jamesbborders4 at 3:47 PM CST
Updated: Tuesday, 18 March 2008 1:32 AM CDT

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