by J.B. Borders
The day before he was indicted by the federal government on 16 counts of racketeering, fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice, Congressman William Jefferson participated in a celebration of Father Jerome LeDoux’s 50th anniversary as a priest. During the ceremony, held at St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church, Jefferson saluted LeDoux by reciting Robert Hayden’s poem “Frederick Douglass.”
“When it is finally ours,” Hayden begins, “this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful and terrible thing, needful to man as air…; when it belongs at last to all … when it is more than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians: this man…this Negro beaten to his knees…visioning a world where none is lonely, none hunted…this man, superb in logic and love, this man shall be remembered…”
Hayden adds that Douglass will be enshrined not just with the usual honorifics but more importantly, “with the lives grown out of his life, the lives fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.”
When I heard Jefferson’s recitation that Sunday morning in St. Augustine’s, I mainly thought how perfectly the phrase “this man, superb in logic and love” described Father LeDoux’s central ambition. And I was impressed that Jefferson would have some Hayden stashed in his public-speaking arsenal. It’s a cut above the usual drivel political and civic leaders work into their presentations.
But at the end of the week, when Jefferson reacted to the federal indictment by declaring his innocence of all the charges and vowing to fight to the last penny to restore his family’s good name and to stay out of jail, I thought again of Hayden’s description of freedom — “this beautiful and terrible thing, needful to man as air.”
I don’t know whether the congressman will keep his word or cop a plea to spare his family further legal troubles and embarrassment. After all, he is reported to have told a government informant that his efforts to acquire stakes in lucrative African enterprises were intended primarily to secure the future for his children, “the lives grown out of his life.” Maybe love and logic dictate that he get beaten to his knees and deprived of his freedom in order for his offspring to enjoy theirs.
It’s the stuff of literature — the twists and turns of a family’s struggles on the long journey to salvation and security. It’s also the stuff of routine crime dramas.
Of course, the truth is often much more poetic than make-believe. In a novel it would seem corny and trite for a former policeman named Barré to plead guilty to crimes that would land him a lengthy term behind bars. The symbolism would be too obvious to be credible, wouldn’t it? And who thinks it believable for a character named DeCay to turn out to be a rotten civil servant? Or that he would pour his ill-gotten gains into an almost egregiously lavish lifestyle? Did he think no one would notice? Did he think no one would care?
Same thing goes for the Orleans Parish School Board, the rest of City Hall, the courts, the Regional Transit Authority, the Sewerage & Water Board and other public entities. What Kool-Aid have these people been imbibing?
Somehow, many of us have lost our way, our minds, our moral compass — even in places of worship. It’s stunning to think about the numbers of “respectable” people who have been and will be convicted of felonies before the year ends.
The elderly, the middle-aged and the barely pubescent among us have all been severely afflicted with this urge to cheat, steal, swindle, embezzle, and even kill to acquire trinkets, chump change and other miniscule scraps from the global economic stockpile.
Forty years ago, Martin Luther King and many others decried the triple evils of materialism, militarism and racism. Humankind’s lust for Things had driven us slightly insane, they suggested. We had increasingly relied on military might to take what belonged to others and we had used racism and other excuses to justify the thefts and killings.
King called for America to undergo a “radical revolution of values” that would lead to a redistribution of wealth. Many people scoffed at the notion. They said it was the obsession with materialism, militarism and white supremacy that had made America great and they weren’t about to abandon any parts of the formula. They said it was the only way to keep the world safe from communism.
Oodles of black folk agreed with this line of reasoning. They said King’s admonitions about materialism, in particular, were misguided. They said they were poor and lacking in material goods. They needed to get more things to have a good life — more to eat and drink, more to wear, more to drive, more to live in. They were the downtrodden have-nots of the world. Some cast themselves as freedom fighters, liberators, servants of the people. There was no way they would ever allow themselves to be corrupted.
Now it’s clear King was absolutely on target. His warnings about the dangers of materialism, militarism and racism are more relevant today than ever before. We just have to muster up the courage to admit it to ourselves. As George Orwell explained, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
Novelist Ralph Ellison once described the blues as “an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”
I mention Ellison’s observation because New Orleans has been chest-deep in the blues since Katrina. But we are only now finding the lyricism to squeeze from our situation. One of those bits of lyricism is an end to the blatant corruption that has stymied our city’s economic and spiritual development.
Any good doctor will tell you that the best way to cure a wound is to open it up and disinfect it. That’s what’s happening in our city now. We’re using the truth as a disinfectant. Sure, it stings every time we pour a little on. But doing so speeds the healing process.
As we’re healing, though, we can go back to engaging “this beautiful, needful thing” called freedom. It demands constant protection if it is to be more than the “gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians” and the politically connected.
There is plenty of lyricism yet to be wrung from these new New Orleans blues. I can’t wait to hear them being sung.
J.B. Borders is a cultural commentator and consultant specializing in capacity-building strategies for nonprofit organizations.