New Orleans

Looking Down the Barrel of History

In 1965, when I was nineteen, Louisiana was at war with itself, as some of its citizens marched for the right to just be, while others struggled with their consciences in a messy reaction to the civil rights movement. Ultimately, I’m proud to say, Louisiana’s citizens, black and white, chose the right side of history.

In the middle of that summer, I sat with three friends and guitars, a banjo, and harmonica on Doctor Loupe’s front porch in the town of New Roads in Pointe Coupee Parish. We were buoyed by changing times, adolescent optimism, and our home-made music.

Our songs were anthems to better days ahead. Our talk was of recent confrontations that had roiled the town. We were singing an old Lead Belly tune when a raggedy pickup truck turned onto the street, slowed, and stopped at the curb, twenty feet from where we sat. Two men, the driver, a local loud-mouth, and his passenger and partner in poor choices, peered at us.

The passenger eased the long barrel of an ancient double barreled shotgun through the truck’s side window, resting it there, pointed in our direction.

“Y’all wouldn’t be none of those northern agitators, would ya?”

There was a long silence. No one moved. Then Joe stood up, still grasping the neck of his guitar, and walked to the edge of the porch. “What the hell you boys talkin’ about? Any fool can see we’re just sittin’ here by the river, tryin’ to catch us a catfish dinner.” Of course there was no river and no catfish!

I don’t know if the men were completely confused by Joe’s words, or just embarrassed, but the driver hit the gas, the tires squealed, the truck fishtailed down the street and disappeared around the corner.

I knew some Louisianans who mourned the passing of officially approved racism. Some are alive today. To a person they have embraced a new champion, one who shouts euphemisms about making America great again. But it’s the same old hate, same old fear.

Last year as the good people of the United States contemplated a racist running for the highest office, I sat with three friends in a cafe in Santa Barbara, reputedly one of the land’s more enlightened enclaves. We sipped coffee and talked, trying to ease our shared election trauma. The talk was consoling, not bitter nor angry, just sad.

At the next table, a red-faced man with a voice loud enough to ensure that everyone at surrounding tables could hear, growled, “Damned pseudo-intellectual liberals… worthless, just living off the fat of the land.”

Everyone laughed.

The only things missing were the truck and the shotgun.

Sometimes hatred falls by its own ridiculous weight.

(This essay was previously published on La Bloga)