"Tremé" & Plessy

Slate's blog on legal issues.
June 7 2008 6:05 AM

"Tremé" & Plessy

I know I am not an American citizen in the eyes of the powers that be.

With these words the story of a historic New Orleans neighborhood comes full circle.

It was in this neighborhood that even before the Civil War hommes de couleur libré —free people of color—led lives of style and culture. It was in this neighborhood that fiery journalists published periodicals calling for equal citizenship. Prompted by their ca lls, a man of African and European ancestry, Homère Patris Plessy , dared on this day in 1892 to defy a new segregation law by sitting in a "white" car. As posted here , his test case ended when the Supreme Court held 8-1 in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that the Constitution permitted state-mandated segregation as long as facilities were "'equal but separate." That decision held sway until Brown v. Board of Education (1954); Plessy's New Orleans home nonetheless continued to thrive as "the oldest black neighborhood in America, the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement in the South and the home of jazz."

Plessy's story is the story of this neighborhood, just as this neighborhood's story is Plessy's. Both are told beautifully in a just- released film that bears the neighborhood's name, Faubourg Tremé . I saw Tremé , subtitled The Untold Story of Black New Orleans at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it won a much-deserved Golden Gate Award for Best Bay Area Documentary. The film is screening in the same city again today and elsewhere in the United States in the next months and is available as well on DVD .

Producers Lucie Faulknor , Dawn Logsdon , and Lolis Eric Elie began Tremé well before August 29, 2005, the date when water surging in the wake of Hurricane Katrina broke levees and flooded much of New Orleans. The damage done to Tremé and its people thus forms an unsettling frame around the picture the producers initially set out to paint. In pre-Katrina footage neighbors are upbeat, proud of their home. After Katrina they are sapped of spirit. Some leave for good. The grief of those who stay is palpable. One is Louisiana Poet Laureate Brenda Marie Osbey . Another is Glen David Andrews , who speaks of how music saved him from a rough life on the street. He is jubilant as he plays his trombone for the neighborhood. But that is early on. An interview with Andrews soon after Katrina shows that the government's failure to protect him and those close to him left him utterly at a loss. It is he who says:

I know I am not an American citizen in the eyes of the powers that be.

In Andrews' words one hears an eerie echo of how Plessy must have felt on reading the Supreme Court's ruling 112 years ago.

( Cross-posted at IntLawGrrls blog, home today to a Presidential Puzzler )

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