An American Awakening: Katrina

This is the second of three excerpts from An American Awakening: From Ground Zero to Katrina, the People We are Free to Be, published by Church Publishing.

By Courtney Cowart

Before the storm John Mac, as everyone calls the high school, was considered the lowest ranked public school in America. Louisiana ranked last in the nation. New Orleans parish ranked last in Louisiana. And John Mac was ranked last in New Orleans.

“It was bad then,” Principal Jackson tells us, “but it is worse now. We have eight hundred students attending, fifteen teachers, and twenty-six security guards. Forty percent of our students are back in the city without either parent. They are squatting in gutted houses, living with boyfriends, sleeping on different sofas night to night. And when they come to school we have no textbooks, not one book in our library, no doors on the bathroom stalls, frozen-solid meals are handed out at lunchtime.”

I talk to Shedrick White, a teacher at John Mac, about all of this because he is in the classroom with the kids every day. Shed puts it this way, “You see New Orleans is like an American refugee camp. This city, to be honest with you, is where you spend the least amount of money on the school system, and where you spend the most in the prison system.”

“That’s why I started the poetry to provide that outlet for the kids and even more to teach them about coping. I think they need to write. They need to write to get some of it out.”

The church begins to work with Shed on realizing his dream, which he was close to achieving at the time Katrina hit.

“What I’d love to see is a weekly venue with the kids expressin’ themselves.

We have a fearless, courageous generation of youth out there. They just need to be pointed in the right direction and be part of some kind of movement. They’ll join. People just waitin’. Just waitin’ for a call. In the community with the kids this poem is the signature piece. This is how it goes.”

Suddenly Shedrick White assumes his persona as the bard of the black youth of the city, and begins to tell their story in rhyme.

The black struggle is not over so for me it’s still crunch time,

Was the thought that ran through my mind as I passed the school

during lunchtime.

And it was ghetto-fab y’all.

Instead of jumpin’ rope, the girls were backin’ it up.

And instead of playin’ ball, the boys were on the hood of the car,

Because the truancy hackin’ ‘em up.

Now you woulda really thought they was grown if you’d a heard

these children conversin’.

I mean you woulds really thought they was grown if you

coulda heard

How these kids was cursin’.

On this particular day in my life, I really must make mention.

It was a conversation between two boys that really caught

My attention.

I know I shouldn’t be nosey –or maybe I should ‘cause

The topic of the conversation was how hard each other’s

hood was.

Now the first one had to be from the project or at least that’s

what I assumed,

Because he said, “To live in my court I either gotta pick up a

gun or pick out a tomb.”

Then he talked about how he hit the block and helped his uncle

Sell rock.

Or how they beat up people with G-Nikes because him and their

click only wear Reeboks.

Then he talked about how they be hittin’ hustles and pullin’ capers.

He said, “Man my hood’s so notorious they don’t even deliver

the mornin’ papers.

Said, ‘It’s rough like that when you’re livin’ in the ‘jects.

The only reason the mailman comes through is because he gotta

deliver them checks.

He said, ‘The weak ones we punk’em, the cowards we

scare ‘em.

They be so petrified they buy brand new Jordans and don’t even

wear ‘em.

He said, ‘I was thirteen years old when I drunk my first Forty.

And fourteen years old when I stayed out all night at my first party.

And fiftenn years old when I sold my first dime.

And sixteen years old when I snorted my first line.

We bought it like that in my hood and we ain’t never gonna

stop that.

I know my hood’s the hardest. Let me see you try to top that?

And the second boy replied by saying:

When I said my hood was hard I wasn’t talkin’ about thuggin’.

I was talkin’ hard from ahrd times, that come from hard core strugglin’.

You see its hard for us to eat at Houston’s and Copeland’s,

‘Cause all we can afford is Church’s.

And it’s hard for us to get a Visa or Mastercard because all we

have is the Louisiana Purchase

Hard is how my daddy works, but he ain’t make much cash.

The closest he came to pullin out a credit card is when he pulled

out his bus pass.

And it’s hard for us to live in peace, ‘cause people gossip and keep mess.

And it’s hard to get to the next grade ‘cause they done made it

hard to pass the Leap Test.

Uh-oh, look it. The bell ringin. Said bro’ I gotta go.

But we can talk after school if you want to discuss this some mo’.

But I’m gonna leave you with this, ‘cause I don’t think I’ve said


You see, I’m talkin’ about life bein’ hard

While you talkin’ about a hood bein’ rough.

After talkin’ with with my Pops I know this for a fact.

We wouldn’t be talkin’ about whose hood is the hardest

If we both wasn’t black.

And once we realize this we should study to be the smartest.

Because life for black people in any ghetto is always going to

be the hardest.

Courtney Cowart, author of An American Awakening is Director, Advocacy and Community Affairs, Episcopal Community Services, Diocese of Louisiana.

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