The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

May 14, 2016

Rebuilding the American Imagination in New Orleans

It’s the end of the school term at the University of Mississippi, and on his way out of town, I ran into one of my former students, a young man determined to become a movie star one day.  I asked him now that he had graduated whether he intended to take off for New York or Los Angeles to kick-start his career.

new orleans construction

It’s not just a shotgun house on the East Bank that’s getting restored here; it’s the life of the mind.

“No,” He told me, “New York and LA are not where it’s all happening in film. If you want to break into movies, the place to do it right now is New Orleans.”

He expects to run into me at spoken word readings, maybe in the Treme, maybe at independent bookstores on the East Bank, maybe on Magazine Street while he’s filming something for HBO or a small-company film headed for Sundance.

New Orleans has always been a town of piratical thinkers, of renegades, moral reprobates, and drama queens. Writers like Truman Capote and Anne Rice have parked themselves in town to invent themselves and expand the American imagination in words.  In music, the greatest genius of the art form for at least a hundred years, Louis Armstrong, might not have single-handedly invented jazz out of whole cloth, but he took the antecedent rhythms out of Congo Square that came to this continent in shackles but rattled chains into a liberatory syncopation and paired them with European instruments and am American sense of whimsy and delight to make arguably the best thing America has ever invented.  Yes, the light bulb was an astonishment.  True, the Gattling gun presaged our imperialism, yes, I am very, very fond of the iPad and the moon landing, but I can’t dance to either of them without somebody cranking up the volume and giving me a beat and a yowling horn to curl my spine.  That came out of New Orleans, that and some awfully good food that mixes African and French sensibilities, a kind of architecture, with a vernacular as unashamed as a Bourbon Street sex worker leaning over a wrought-iron balcony in something lacy, a cultural patois of sin and penitence gumbo-mixed together into a bitter and intoxicating stew.  All that predates the current surge in American culture.

After Katrina cleared away the poorest people of the town, already decaying under the weight of perpetual corruption prior to global warming events, many questioned if the City of New Orleans would become a sort of a tourist park version of its former self, as New York’s bohemian and dangerous identity got gentrified into the Atlantic Ocean and washed up the Hudson, a trend that predated Hurricane Sandy but certainly culminated in that storm’s washing away of much of Coney Island and the Lower East Side.  Some even wondered, as the first episode of the cable drama Treme does, whether New Orleans, poised as it is on land below sea level, was worth saving at all. John Goodman’s character in Treme declared that New Orleans was a city that had captured the world’s imagination and threw the fictitious British journalist and his camera into the Mississippi River like so much British tea in Boston on the eve of another American revolution of ideas.

Instead of becoming a place that operates like a Disney version of its former self, a beacon to apple-cheeked, conservative Midwesterners who want the same kind of fun they get in Branson, Missouri, only maybe a little bit more Tabasco-flavored, New Orleans retained its personality.  As it turns out, creative thinkers of all the art forms recently gentrified out of neighborhoods in California and New York began to seek welcoming ports, and no town could offer so many rent-to-own residences than a town half washed-away by a category-five deluge.

Indeed, there is something about wreckage and urban decay that permits the expansion of avant-garde thought. After the wall was built, West Berlin became a place for David Bowie to reinvent his next musical self, for Wim Wenders to reimagine the divine comedy in black trench coat and male ponytail.  After the Bronx burnt, hip-hop started in neighborhoods too dangerous to walk in broad daylight in New York and punk rock found, if not its birthplace, then its homecoming court in the East Village. Now, in New Orleans, where writers have typed and horn-players have blown, there is a new explosion, a green growth fertilized by the ashes of the past, sprouting branches because the space to grow exists.

And no — we are not about to stop experimenting because the rent for our cultural laboratories went up in New York and San Francisco so very high that not even the superstars of our art forms could afford them. The best crops grow in muck.  Now that the black mold has been Hazmatted away, we find gutted shot guns and reclaimed gothic ornaments to embellish our new ideas.  That beat from Congo Square is still tom-tomming, still tom-tom, tom-tom, blood and tom-tom like a patient on whom the paddles worked.  We have sinus rhythm.  The avant garde has left Soho to the bankers. Haight-Ashbury belongs to Google executives now.  Want to be a star?  Have something to say? The American cultural experiment is beginning a new series of  tests on streets named for dead French royalists. It’s like that invitation the Sufi mystical poet Rumi extended to all of us about a thousand years ago:

Out beyond right-doing and wrong-doing

There is a field. I’ll meet you there.

That’s where the artists go to imagine new things, the mystics seek the face of God beyond human agency and Pharisee-like self-righteousness. That field, this year and for at least a few more, is possibly near Elysian Fields Avenue .  Like Tennessee Williams told us, you take the streetcar over there.  After that, don’t put a paper lantern on the lamps like Williams’ Blanche DuBois did to hide the ugly truth.  The creative possibilities are often in the ugliness.  Take the ashes and make your beauty.  Meet Rumi there.  Meet America there.  Meet New Orleans, the city of the world’s imagination, there.

 

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August 16, 2015

From Homecoming Court Member to ISIS Member — How One Young Woman Responded to Mississippi

How does a teenager in Vicksburg, Mississippi, not raised Muslim, a woman, decide to join ISIS? Jaelyn Deshaun Young recently graduated from Warren County High School on the edge of Vicksburg.  She was in the homecoming court, meaning that she was no loner; people at school liked her and thought she was pretty, which she is. She got good grades, went to Mississippi State with an eye toward becoming a doctor.  Her father was  police officer in the Vicksburg police department; he had served in Afghanistan prior to that, where he fought Al Qaeda.  He took his family to church on Sundays.  How does a young woman raised in that atmosphere decide her destiny is to join a terrorist, Christian-persecuting, woman-raping organization that beheads other Muslims and destroys precious works of ancient art?

How Could this smart young woman do something so self-destructive?

How Could this smart young woman do something so self-destructive?

It would be easy to blame her young husband, Muhammad Dakhlalla.  His father was a leader at a local mosque in Starkville, Mississippi, near the university campus.  He must have radicalized her. Except this is not what the FBI says happened. They say that it was Jaelyn who led the charge toward ISIS, according to their investigation.  Muhammad, known to most as “Mo,” was not a radical. His father’s Islam manifested itself publicly in feeding the poor.  He ran a restaurant in Starkville until he had to close it down; he was giving away more food than he was selling. This kind of religious practice is not likely to lead to beheadings. Jaelyn certainly converted to Islam while she was getting to know Mo, but he wasn’t pushing the couple into a life of terrorism.  Mo told the FBI agents posing as ISIS recruiters that he was willing to fight and die for the Islamic state, but their most impassioned correspondent, itching to get to Syria to fight, was Jaelyn.

So how does a pretty, smart, charismatic girl who grew up in Mississippi in a Christian home decide not just to convert to an Islam guided by acts of charity but to an Islam guided by acts of terror?

She must have first grown disenchanted.  Teenagers are champions of disenchantment. I know I was. When I was in high school, I wrote an angry chapbook of poetry, which I dedicated to “high school students and other inmates of society.”  I had spiky, red hair for a time.  I sneaked out to parties with lots of people wearing brightly-striped Mohawks in places like abandoned warehouses, parties with punk bands that got shut down by the cops, parties where I had to run out the back door because of a raid. I thought high school was a cruel farce. Instead of going to senior prom, I sneaked out to meet a neon abstract sculptor whom I was dating (after meeting him in a cutting-edge art gallery where he was exhibiting his work) for a night of transgression. I refused to attend graduation. Jaelyn must have felt something like this – only there are no Mohawk-punk-band-warehouse-parties in Vicksburg. She would have had to channel her feelings of discontent elsewhere.

I imagine her father, a police officer and a veteran, must be a fairly conservative, pro-establishment kind of a man. He must have told his daughter that education was the path to success.  She certainly did well in school. She surely made more friends than I did at my high school; new wave art girls do not tend to get elected to homecoming court. The social establishment was not, it seemed, particularly rejecting of her. Her revolt could not have been because of a prom scene like the one out of Carrie.

That said, Jaelyn is a woman of color, and Vicksburg is a town where there are racists.  I know because I lived there.   They talked to me about people of color in disparaging ways sometimes. Though her father is a police officer, it would be hard to watch the national pattern of police brutality against people like Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, the tanks and tear gas thrown at peaceful protesters in Ferguson, and not get disgusted, to feel as if America were terrorizing black folks.  It is a reasonable conclusion to draw. Black lives matter, and it does not seem that police forces across the country acknowledge this. How could this problem NOT strike home for a young woman of color whose father was on the police force?

But rage and disenchantment are not enough to explain the embracing of a radical form of Islam that rapes, beheads, and destroys. How could a smart young woman conclude that these were her allies? She, like so many who choose to join ISIS, must have been ignorant of what real Islamic Caliphates looked like a thousand years ago.  There, women had more freedom than they did in the Christian nations.  Medicine, science, and the arts flourished.  Religions of every stripe were tolerated. While it was dangerous to cross a caliph, the caliphs were not known for kidnapping, torturing, and brutalizing people under their power.  Nothing about ISIS suggests they are trying to build such a caliphate.  They destroy art.  They oppress and enslave women.  They kill Christians, crucifying them, killing their babies before their eyes, even desecrating ancient Christian cemeteries.  They used mustard gas on a town last week – a chemical weapon so brutal and horrid that it was banned after World War I by the Geneva Convention, that thought it ought not be used against enemy soldiers.  ISIS used it on children a few days ago.  This is not an Islamic caliphate of old.  This is a demonic holocaust.  How does a daughter of a man who fought Al Qaeda decide to join such a group?

I look into the face of this pretty girl, taken from her high school yearbook, and like her parents, I don’t understand.  The FBI agents claim that when that Islamic gunman shot a bunch of Marines recently at a recruiting office, she rejoiced that the numbers of people who agreed with her were growing. I see the pretty, demure smile on the face of this young lady, and I am baffled.  I want to ask her what could have ever made her so angry at the sleepy town of Vicksburg that she would want not just Islam instead of Christianity but this brutal form of it.  I want to ask her who hurt her so badly she thinks she needs to join a group of monsters for protection from them. I would take her to the NAACP Jackson headquarter to sign up to register voters, something I did when I lived in Vicksburg.  I want to take her to a party of free thinkers, rare as they may be in a place like Vicksburg.

I want to give her a book of Rumi’s peaceful poetry. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, he is perhaps the greatest poet from Islam who ever lived.  He lived in an Islamic caliphate that encouraged his work.

He wrote:

“’Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing

there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

Jaelyn, I would meet you there.  Let me urge you, with an Islamic mystical poet, not to throw away your life to become cannon fodder for a pack of fascists, or now, where you are in America, a jail bird.  There are so many other ways to reject Mississippi culture, if you feel you need to.  Meet me there, and you, Rumi, and I will talk.

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