Saturday, October 27, 2007

No More Water, The Fire Next Time

Sadly but predictably, many are claiming that San Diego handled their disastor better than New Orleans because our mayor and governor are democrats. There were balloon animals, yoga, and stilts at San Diego's Qualcomm stadium, and all of that could have been ours at the Superdome had we voted for Jindal (R) 4 years earlier according to these jerks. Even President Bush stated "It makes a significant difference when you have somebody in the statehouse willing to take the lead," to which Louisians Governor Blanco (D) replied ""I was the only game in town, leading for nearly a week without the president's help."

Steve Lopez counters these proposterous comparisons between the CA fires and our flood with this excellent opinion piece in yesterday's LA Times, entitled "Katrina comparisons are a different class of wrong." Amen Mr. Lopez.

Later note: Jeff Duncan with the Times-Picayune wrote this article that appeared on today's front page: No Comparison.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Battle for the Soul of America

Today in class I told my students that the battle for the soul of America was being waged in the streets of post-Katrina New Orleans. It seems meladramatic. But I honestly believe it. My students believe it. I spoke to some colleagues and friends in New Orleans, who all seem to believe it. So overextended or not, we need to keep pushing.

I recently attended a forum at Xavier entitled "New Media and Community Activism in Post-Katrina New Orleans." The panel consisted of some pretty famous local activists who blog: Brian Denzer, Karen Gadbois (who couldn't make it), Clifton Harris, Mark Moseley, and Maitri Venkat-Ramani. It was moderated by Bart Everson. During the discussion Maitri commented on the fact that it's great that the bloggers and activists are so organized, but where do we go from here? We continue to be kept out of the political and financial battles that shape the city, and the country.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Earlier tonight, as usual, and as seems to be the norm in post-Katrina New Orleans, I was at a meeting. This one was put on by the Neighborhoods Partnership Network, and it focused on community and parental involvement in public education. I was on the panel, representing the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, talking about our attempts to have great schools in our community. I was burnt out before the meeting started.

I'm busy. Of course, I have my job teaching Theology at Xavier, and that is time consuming, as are the many committees that go along with being a faculty member at a university. I have a big role also in the many professional organizations to which I belong, including the American Schools of Oriental Research, where I am co-VP of Program (along with Morag) and the regional secretary. I'm also working with Bobby Duke to implement a Service Learning section to the national meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. Plus I have many publication deadlines on the horizon and overdue. I could also be a better teacher at Xavier if I had more time.

Most of today, as usual, was spent on issues of rebuilding our house. My contractor and insurance agent are feuding, and our new foundation is almost ready to be poured. We are taking out a construction to mortgage loan, and we close on Monday, and that has taken an incredible amount of work. There were big questions that needed answers about termites, plastic, concrete, and footings.

But in doing all of this other stuff to save the world and fix our house, I've neglected my family. My son Gilgamesh has been ill with bronchitis, something that I suffered with every time this year growing up. And Kalypso's grades have been slipping. There was a conference tonight that Therese attended while I was at the meeting. Therese is very busy as a teacher, and usually she gets home at 6:30 PM and is in bed by 8. This is the time that I spend at meetings, and though I wish she would stay up a bit later so we could chat, this doesn't seem too likely. So I feel like I'm spending more time with people interested in education in New Orleans than I do with my family, and that probably isn't a healthy thing.

Tonight I heard several of the pro-charter school lobby on the board talk about how charter schools are better than "traditional" schools in New Orleans. This bothered me on many levels, because there are no traditional schools left. Traditional schools to me means neighborhood schools, where teachers have been there for years, and the same students are enrolled where their older brothers and sisters attended. After Katrina, the New Orleans School Board fired all of the teachers, and no public school in New Orleans has even remotely the same student body as before the storm. Also I don't understand why students at public charters get anywhere from $1000 to $1500 more tax dollars per student than non-charter public schools. Well actually I do understand, as the powers that be want to make charters succeed to get government out of public education, but it's not fair. I'm not anti-charter schools, at least in my opinion, but when I hear so much about how charters are the answer to all of our educational problems, I feel the need to give a voice to the other side. I would honestly bring up the positive aspects of charters if I was surrounded by those adamantly against them. But it was the way that so many charters were forced upon New Orleans without community and parental consultation to which I object. I feel like I'm spinning my wheels, and I could make more of a contribution to the world by going back to what I'm an expert at, biblical studies, instead of trying to fix public education in New Orleans. With all my efforts over the past two years addressing public education in New Orleans, there really hasn't been any tangible improvements that you could say were directly due to my work. With Bobby Jindal as governor, and with the sentiment I sensed at this and other meetings, for-profit charters and school vouchers are in the cards for New Orleans for a very long time. I hope someone pays attention to the students who don't attend charters, that's all.

At times like right now, I miss my pre-Katrina life, in which I spent more time with my family, and I spent the rest in my office writing books and articles about ancient Israel and the ancient Near East.

I am overextended. I am doing many many things, but I am not doing any of them well at the moment.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Losing Homes

The thoughts and prayers of many in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are with the thousands of people in California who have lost their homes in the recent fires. Whether it be from flood, wind, or fire, rebuilding your life after losing your home is a very difficult thing.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Ashurbanipal's Haircut Makes Him Look Like a Mohenjo-Daren

We've been having quite a bit of fun watching this video by They Might Be Giants about the Mesopotamians, a cool band having a hard time adjusting to modern technology. They also sell these awesome shirts for the extra geeky ancient Near East fans like me and my son Gilgamesh. But my son Gilgamesh thinks that Hammurabi looks cooler than Gilgamesh on the video. I don't agree.

Biking on Flooded Streets

There was 100% chance of rain forecast for today in New Orleans. It really hasn't quit raining all day. Even with my rain poncho and biking fast, I was drenched by the time I arrived in my office at 7:30AM. Xavier cancelled all afternoon classes at around 11, and at 1 they shut down the university. The water is waist deep on some streets. That made getting home with my bike challenging, plus you can't see potholes when you're plowing through the water. I've been told that New Orleans with its pumps and levees can handle an inch of rain the first hour and 1/2 an inch after that. Any more rain than that and we flood. I'm sure tonight's episode of K-Ville will clear things up.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Fodder for Racists

Mr. Double Helix Genome Nobel Prize Winner James Watson recently announced that white people are genetically smarter than people from Africa. He's made many controversial remarks in the past 20 years, but this? I can't wait to talk to my students about this one.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Bringing Down the House to History

My family's lives for the past two years have taken ups and downs, and while the topic of this current post would have upset me quite a bit two years ago, now I sort of find it amusing. The question about our house's future literally involves ups and downs.

We tried hard, but did not qualify for $30,000 Increased Cost of Compliance (ICC) funds to raise our house because our house was a few inches above the Base Flood Elevation. The Base Flood Elevation is set to change in New Orleans, but by the old model we were slightly above it. Too bad, we thought. We would repair our home and not elevate it.

Then we were so happy from the $30,000 we received from the Road Home to elevate our house. We could have raised it anywhere from 1 inch to 10 feet and not violate zoning laws. We thought long and hard about how high to raise it, and decided it was simple. Our house flooded 3 feet, so why not raise it 3 feet? We would save all sorts of money with flood insurance, and if Katrina happened again, our house would be safe. Plus when the new Base Flood Elevation maps are released, we would probably be just above the suggested level. So Abry Brothers raised our house 4 feet, and when they were finished with the new foundation they would lower it a foot. Here is what our house looks like now, raised 4 feet:
It is obviously higher than our neighbor's houses, but still just as historic, and perhaps even more inclined to be historic in the future as it is less inclined to flood.

Then we received word that we received a $45,000 grant from our Historic Grant application. However, they looked at our house and decided that we raised it too high to be eligible for the grant, because they said we are too high to be historic. Because we have not yet laid the new foundation, and could lower the house, I asked them at what height could our house still be considered historic. If we raised it 2 feet, and so if Katrina happened again, it would flood one foot, but could we still qualify for the $45,000 grant? It would have been a smart financial decision for us to demolish the house and rebuild new. But we felt that we owed it to New Orleans, our neighborhood, and our house, to do what we could to preserve it. It's nearly 100 years old and has so much history and character. So for now we've appealed their decision. But in typical post-Katrina New Orleans, we would have been rewarded if we didn't elevate our house to avoid future flooding.

This is where I shake my head, sigh, and go fill up my wine glass, and wonder at exactly what height is historic, and at what height is it non-historic? Nobody seems to know.

Update (Nov 3, 2007): we can get the grant if we raise the house two feet, and not three. So we'll flood one foot if we get the same type of flood as Katrina again, but we will gladly lower the house to get the grant.

Monday, October 15, 2007

What I've Got Against Bobby Jindal

There are many reasons why I can't support Bobby Jindal's candidacy for governor of Louisiana, though it seems very likely he'll win outright on October 20th and consider it a mandate. But here are my main three reasons:

In the mid-90s Bobby Jindal was a senior consultant for the McKinsey Company, an advising firm that helped Allstate raise their profits from $82 million to over $2 billion. They did this by simply telling Allstate to stop paying so many claims. This turned out to be great news for the profits of share holders, but for people like my family who thought we were really insured, it was a pretty immoral strategy. We're still about 10 months to a year from getting back into our home.

The second reason has to do with good-ol-boy racism. When asked about racial conflict in Louisiana on the day that thousands were marching for justice in Jena Louisiana, among them many of my Xavier students, Jindal commented in public: "We don't need anybody to divide us. We certainly don't need outside agitators to cause problems." When I first read rumors about Jindal calling the marchers "Outside agitators" I was admittedly skeptical as to the rumor's validity, as were many. But now we've heard from several sources in Shreveport that it's true. Now I'm even more amazed that the Times-Picayune and other media outlets are giving Jindal a free pass on that one. Isn't the "outside agitators" comment sort of a "Chocolate City" in reverse? I've learned there is a secret coded language of racists in Louisiana. The term "outside agitators" is something that might not sound so bad in South Dakota, but here, it carries much baggage. My African-American students say they know exactly what he meant by that.

Third, Jindal supports school vouchers. If this turns out helping all of the public school students of New Orleans, then I'll even campaign for Jindal in 4 years. But I think it is going to widen the achievement gap.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

People Who Have Lived At 215 S. Alexander Street, New Orleans, LA 70119

We're still many months away from moving back into our house, but we still get our mail sent there. We're terrified because of all the mail problems we have had since Katrina, so we haven't dared change it. But sometimes I get letters addressed to people who used to live there, and so I thought I would start a list of people who once lived there. Maybe someone will google their names and be able to tell me what happened to them. They might be happy to know that we didn't bulldoze the house, but we're rebuilding.

The house is at 215 South Alexander Street, New Orleans, LA 70119. Here are the people who have lived here before:

Cathy A. McGrath
Kazuo Fujishiro
Quanda Gibson
Mitch Hudson
S. Lewis Cocke (gets Millsaps College birthday cards in early May)
Trish Wilson and Rick Tippie apparently lived upstairs when it was a double. So did Erma Wright. The upstairs address was 213 S. Alexander. Vera Johnson lived there as well, and I think this might be the same Vera Evans who gets an occasional letter from Delta. Also we get mail from "Missing and Exploited Children" for Michelle Abram.

We bought the house in 2002 from Merlin Gele. He never lived there, but rented it out as a split level double. One person who rented was Denice Hudson. She rented the downstairs. I think Paul Ebanks rented upstairs. His son was named Arzoo I seem to remember. I can't remember his girlfriend's name, but I remember she painted beautiful paintings on windows. Skip Bolen apparently lived at 213 S. Alexander as well.

UPDATE: The 1940 census shows that the house was divided into a double already back then. At 215 were Mercedes Tricon (age 29), a secretary for a wholesale refrigeration company. She was apparently divorced and lived here with her aunt Olivia Stafford (age 45). They had been living here at least 5 years. At 215 1/2 were living Land and Ariene Evans. They were a young married couple who moved here from Mobile, and Alan was a tire and rubber salesman.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Education Without Representation

Voters in New Orleans have little voice in how our public schools are run, and it is about to get even worse.

In 2004 we elected seven officials to serve on the Orleans Parish School board. The parish is divided into seven districts, so I voted for one of the seven members that oversaw 117 schools, the largest school district in the state. While I did not vote for her, Una Anderson represents me on that board. In November of 2005, the governor and the Louisiana legislature turned over control of 102 of these schools to the Recovery School District, run by appointed persons, none of whom are elected. Now the Orleans Parish School Board governs five schools, and oversees 12 charters.

On the state level, schools are governed by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). There are 11 members of BESE, 8 of whom are elected by district, and 3 of whom are appointed. All of New Orleans is represented by one representative from the state's district 2. So New Orleans has one vote on an 11 member panel for matters pertaining to most of our schools. Our representative is currently Louella Givens, who is up for reelection October 20th. She often is the one voice of opposition on the board. The vice-president of BESE is Leslie Jacobs, one of the strongest advocates of charter schools, and the primary advocate of the state takeover of New Orleans schools. Jacobs is supporting Ernest Marcelle, Givens' only opponent, because Givens has often voted against the charter school movement. Marcelle, like Jacobs, is in favor of school vouchers. For them, charter schools are the next best thing in this "education as business" model. Like me, Givens is against chartering schools without community support. If my entire Mid-City neighborhood was against chartering schools, or if every person in New Orleans was against charters, we would have a voting voice only for the few schools run by the Orleans Parish School Board.

But now my school board representative Una Anderson is running for a seat on the Louisiana House of Representatives (95th district). Anderson advocates charter schools, even though she is on the Orleans Parish School Board. Her primary platform is to "raise the statewide cap on charter schools and establish a new local governance structure for Orleans Parish schools." I've heard from many people, including the appointed State Superintendant of Public Schools, Paul Pastorek, that the Orleans Parish School Board as it now exists will be short lived. There is talk of a system with an appointed school board rather than an elected one. And our soon to be next governor, Bobby Jindal, also advocates for vouchers and charter schools.

So it might be a good time to invest in for-profit education companies, because New Orleans is open for business.

Monday, October 08, 2007

What's Wrong With Me?

After the Saints' fourth loss in a row to start the 2007 season, the radio color analyst asked and answered: "What's wrong with the Saints? -- Everything." Following a 10 minute drive in the third quarter, Mare kicked a 20 yard field goal about 6 feet off the ground, right into the helmets of the defensive line. In four games, Drew Brees has 9 interceptions and 1 touchdown pass. Our defensive secondary is terrible, Deuce is out for the season. It's ugly all around, on offense, defensive, special teams, and coaching. The biggest problem with all this is that I care so much. So more than the Saints players letting me down, I've let myself down for caring about this stupid game played by spoiled rich athletes. Will I watch the Saints fall apart next Sunday night in Seattle, and go to 0-5? Every single minute of it.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Raising the Homan House in New Orleans

After our New Orleans house flooded because the levees broke in 2005, we decided to raise it three feet (that is raise our house, not the levees unfortunately). Thank God for the incredible strength of Gilgamesh and Kalypso. And for the record, Mosey has lost much weight, but sadly, like me, she is still a fatty.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


A student of mine was working at a restaurant last night, and in walked several Caucasian high school girls in blackface. My student was shocked, and she asked them about it, and they said they were "dressed up for a game." Turns out they go to school at Dominican, a Catholic all-girls school in town. Another student of mine, who went to Dominican, said that their school colors are black and white, and that on "blackout day" before games many students paint their faces black. I'm amazed by all of this. How could one live in New Orleans and not know about the history of minstrel shows? One of my favorite Mardi Gras parades, Zulu, has the riders also wear blackface. But that is done to lampoon blackface, whereas the Dominican girls seem to be just culturally ignorant.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Harry's Bridge

Harry Lee, the controversial yet politically popular sheriff of Jefferson Parish, just passed away. He had been sheriff for nearly 30 years. I wonder if racist police angels are firing guns to prevent his soul's passage on the bridge to eternal peace? Me, I wasn't a fan. But then I teach at a Historically Black college, and I am a big fan of political correctness, inclusiveness, and listening. Harry wasn't a fan of these things, and that's what made him popular I suppose. He spoke his mind, and in a state famous for colorful politicians, Lee was one-of-a-kind.

This message board is revealing of the divisions that plague the relationship between Orleans and Jefferson Parish. However, it's most interesting in real time, as editors seem to be removing the anti-Harry Lee comments, as well as some of the most inflammatory "Jefferson is better than New Orleans thugville" material. Much of it I find overtly racist.