Sunday, October 02, 2005

Katrina Diaries: The View from the Front Porch

Another multi-analgesic day: gutting the interior of Alfred Jackson’s house. Mr. Jackson, an 82-year-old African-American man, has lived his entire life in the house we stripped to studs today. Katrina was the first storm to flood his house, and she left it under eight feet of brackish water.

The work is brutal in the 90-degree heat, and it doesn’t leave much time for conversation so I don’t know much about Mr. Jackson’s eight decades in Mississippi. I do know he had built a nice home with beautiful paneling on many of the walls, and shelves filled with books and the mementos of a long life.

Katrina’s winds and water swept away the books and many of the mementos. They ripped the veneer right off the walls. They also ripped the veneer that has glossed over racial politics in America. But they left behind a Bible, a bit worse for the beating it suffered, but still carrying the promise that someday justice will roll down like mighty water and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

An octogenarian in Mississippi has probably seen a lot of water roll by. He could be forgiven for a certain sadness in the wake of these angry waters, yet as he sat in the shade of a tree in his front lawn watching us carry out the stuff of a lifetime, Mr. Jackson’s eyes were still bright, hopeful and focused on the future as he told us – eyes twinkling – that he’d been thinking about redecorating anyway.

Yesterday we drove along the beach front road where Sen. Trent Lott’s house was destroyed. President Bush joked about sitting on the front porch again when it is rebuilt. I don’t suppose the president will ever sit out under the tree in Alfred Jackson’s front yard.

He should. Familiarity does not breed contempt; it cultivates concern and compassion. Many political observers have noted President Bush’s apparent discomfort with poor folks in general and poor African-Americans in particular. The First Lady may be honest in her insistence that Mr. Bush cares for all Americans; nevertheless, her heated defense of her husband does not change the fact that folks like Alfred Jackson will never be among Mr. Bush’s circle of familiarity and concern.

As for me, in better – and cooler – times, I am pretty darn sure that I’d rather spend an afternoon sitting in Mr. Jackson’s front yard than on Trent Lott’s front porch. The view of the Gulf of Mexico may be much better from Sen. Lott’s porch, but the view of America is better from Mr. Jackson’s.

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