Class and Culture Clashes

New Orleans      Ok, let’s be clear, everything about the pandemic sucks, alright?  For the most part we don’t hate our homes, but we definitely don’t like being told we have to stay at home.  Attach the word, “order,” to it and it brings out the deep vein of anarchism that is normally masked as individualism in America.

Saying all that, one thing I personally just love is the huge fault-line around class and culture that has been exposed so vividly during this crisis.  This is part of why Trump, born to the tower, had to be slapped around by the polls and public health experts, so he would finally get the fact that the little people at the bottom really don’t want to die for the sake of the stock market and the big donors’ businesses.

How can you not enjoy the contradictions that are revealed in all the stories about the rich and their wannabes finding resistance from their stay-at-home neighbors as they decamp from the big cities to their summer and second-home haunts?  Some of these small town, rich enclaves are finding that the doggone mayors, elected by the permanent residents, are trying to tell them go back where you belong and don’t bring the virus around here.  Even if it’s a little bit of biting the hand that feeds them, there’s a lesson being taught here about privilege.

I loved a piece by Amanda Hess in the New York Times that just kicked the celebrity culture crush in the butt and called one after another out for their cluelessness about the working class and the public at large.  The headline was, “You’re a Celebrity, Who Cares?” Amen!

I’ll admit that a longstanding personal grievance I have with the Times has always been the daily Arts section.  In the tunnel vision from New York, we’re supposed to care more for random people and personalities in the arts, theater, films, and so forth than people in any other field of endeavor, often with our lives and futures in their hands.  I’m not saying none of that is important or of value, but I find the lack of balance and its special treatment so elitist and classist that it just galls me.  To finally hear one of their own who speaks through the Critics Notebook column call them out is not just refreshing, but exhilarating.  Of course, she’s also somewhat “one of them” who appreciates the molding in Robert DeNiro’s house, the Craftsman beams elsewhere and the equine wallpaper next to Zo Kravitz’s fireplace, which, frankly, most of us wouldn’t have noticed, but, nonetheless, we all get the point.

She says we are watching the “swift dismantling of the cult of celebrity,” so we say, hip-hip-hooray!  She adds that, “The #guillotine2020 hashtag is jumping.  As grocery aisles turn bare, some have suggested that perhaps they ought to eat the rich.”  Whoa, you, go sister!  She busts on Pharrell Williams, Ellen DeGeneres, Gal Godot, J-Lo and Alex Rodriguez, and, then devastates Madonna.  This Jenny from the hood shtick is dead and gone.

And, let’s hear it for Louisiana home girl, Brittney Spears.  Yes, you heard me, hit it again, Brittney Spears.  I’ll let comrade Hess take it home,

Give me Brittney Spears, who has emerged from the crisis as the rare celebrity to tap into the need for radical social change.  Spears recently posted a bright yellow manifesto on Instagram from the internet artist Mimi Zhu.  “We will feed each other, re-distribute wealth, strike,” it reads.  “Communion moves beyond walls.”  Spears added three red roses to the caption, an ambiguous symbol reflecting either her support for the Democratic Socialists of America or perhaps simply her affinity for floral emoji.  Spears is an unexpected figure to lead us through quarantine, but a fitting one:  She has been under a conservatorship for 12 years, her movements and finances controlled by her father and overseen by the courts.  When she posts about finding community in social captivity, she knows what’s she’s talking about.”

Right on!


A Funeral Processional

New Orleans       I didn’t know Rev. William Barnwell or his family well, but I knew them for a long time and in many different capacities.

I first met Barnwell and some of his family when we were organizing the Household Workers Organizing Committee, a union of domestic workers in New Orleans in 1978-79.  The organization, which was in many ways the precursor of our efforts in the 1980s to organize and unionize home care workers, began as an effort to organize domestic workers to take advantage of finally being covered under the federal minimum wage at that time.  Among our ideas was to try and operate a hiring hall of sorts and to sign labor contracts with employers for domestic workers.  Searching for allies during that period we somehow found Barnwell who was connected to Tulane at the time as an Episcopal minister.  Over a period of several meetings and back and forth, we negotiated a labor contract for his maid, which became the first and only such agreement we had.

Barnwell was in and out of New Orleans, but I started running into him again over the last dozen years in the city.  His daughter lived in the neighborhood and was a sometime customer at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, and she reconnected us.  Barnwell wrote a book, and we had him talk about the book at one of our Fair Grinds Dialogues.  He would delight in telling me the story of how his maid had come to them a year or so later to talk about some work or wage-related issue and said, they could handle it “without bringing in the union man.”

He had become a prisoner rights advocate and showed up regularly as an activist on issues of racial, social, and economic justice.  He was a regular at meetings of the Justice and Beyond coalition where mi companero and other old ACORNers were in constant contact with him.

Word had been filtering into the house while we were working during this stay-at-home period that Rev. Barnwell was in the hospital.  One day doing well, and another doing poorly.  He had been having health issues, the kind of underlying issues for a man of eighty-one, that are the hallmark of coronavirus victims.  Some reports list him as having the virus, others say he tested positive.  It hardly matters in the end.  It’s a footnote at best to a life lived on principle and for purpose.

The family had a small funeral, but how in corona-time do others celebrate his life and speak of the loss to his family?  Justice and Beyond organized a mobile processional that convened on a usually busy street bisecting the deserted Tulane University campus.  We were car number six of perhaps thirty, not counting several bicyclists that pulled out at 6 PM with flashing lights to slowly drive through the neighborhood to his home.  Rev. Gregory Manning, one of the J&B conveners, stood on the curb with a cross.  Neighbors, dressed casually or in athletic gear with children and dogs, lined the street offering waves and thumbs up.  We slowed down as we passed so mi companera could hand a small vase with flowers from our yard to a neighbor so she could bear it to the widow, then we turned at the next street and made our way back home.

Somehow this makeshift processional in honor of Rev. Barnwell’s life was both fitting and oddly appropriate.  It wasn’t a second line, because it couldn’t be.  It was unique.  It was somber.  It was silent.  It felt right and gave comfort to his community and family perhaps in an even more powerful and collective way than the traditional course might have offered.