My People, Black & White
Gore Vidal famously said that he never missed a chance to have sex or appear on television. Me, I never miss a chance to eat in New Orleans. So when my literary agent proposed lunch there with the actor Wendell Pierce—best known for portraying Baltimore homicide detective Bunk Moreland in “The Wire” and trombonist Antoine Batiste in “Treme”—there was no way I was going to pass.
I was skeptical, however, of the lunch’s purpose. Wendell, a native New Orleanian, was planning to write a memoir of his family’s roots in south Louisiana and how the devastation of Hurricane Katrina renewed his love for the city. He also wanted to write about how African-Americans have always responded to hardship by making art.
He had read my 2013 memoir, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and saw potential for us to collaborate. Knowing Wendell’s formidable reputation as an actor, I was flattered that he had read my book—and humbled that he thought it good enough to consider hiring me to help him write his own. So why my skepticism?
Wendell and I come from the same state and are of the same generation, but we grew up in different worlds. He is a black liberal from the Crescent City; I am a white conservative from the rural hills of West Feliciana Parish. How could we possibly have enough in common to work together? I figured I would enjoy having a meal with the guy, but it wouldn’t go anywhere.
We met at Lüke, the Franco-German brasserie just outside the French Quarter. Following the hostess to our table took longer than usual because everybody in the joint seemed to know Wendell and reached out to say hello. A New Orleans friend had advised me that Wendell is beloved in the city because he is friendly, unpretentious, and genuinely cares about the place. And here it was, playing out in front of me before we even sat down.
We were soon tucking into two plates of trout meunière and talking about Louisiana. Both of us had left for the East Coast relatively young in life. Wendell took off for New York’s Juilliard School when he was 18; at 25, I moved to Washington, D.C., to work as a television critic for the
Though we had both been eager to leave home and test our vocations on bigger stages, we shared a powerful longing for what we left behind. Wendell, who is four years older than I am, studied in New York in the 1980s, when his hometown friends Wynton and Branford Marsalis were making their reputations there.
“They were my main connection to home back then,” Wendell told me. “They shared an apartment in the Village, and I hung out there a lot. One time I was over there when Branford came in off the road. ‘Come here, I want you to smell something’ he said to me.
“He was standing in front of the fridge, and I walked over to him. He handed me an old margarine container filled with something brown and icy. I scratched the surface and sniffed my fingernail. It was gumbo! Their mother had sent them gumbo up from New Orleans!”
Off we went, talking about the power of certain tastes and smells to evoke our home in south Louisiana and the sweet pleasure of being around Louisiana people when you are far away. I told Wendell a story about the time I was heating up a mess of leftover turnip greens for my lunch at the office, when a black coworker, a woman from Indiana, expressed shock that a white man was going to eat them. “Down South, we all like greens,” I told her. Wendell laughed in recognition.
We had been at the table for most of an hour, and not once had we talked about politics or anything divisive. We had spoken about a shared love of food and place. Without realizing what was happening, I forgot that I was talking to an African-American urban liberal and found that I was sharing stories with one of my countrymen who had gone through a similar experience of bittersweet exile from our homeland.
Eventually we had to talk about the book project. Wendell explained that the memoir he had in mind would explore the source of New Orleans’ resilience in its culture, specifically its black culture.
He wanted to tell the story of his family’s roots on Bayou Lafourche, upriver from the Crescent City, and how his ancestors raised themselves and their children out of poverty and crushing racist suppression through hard work, self-discipline, and education. Wendell, brought up in the city’s Pontchartrain Park neighborhood, intended to write about what his parents and tight-knit community gave him that allowed him to pursue his own vocation.
The centerpiece of the book would be the unparalleled devastation that Hurricane Katrina wreaked upon the city in 2005 and how that catastrophe galvanized him to help rebuild his hometown. Wendell starred in a nationally celebrated production of “Waiting for Godot,”staged in the ruins of the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly neighborhood. In his book, he wanted to write about the power of art to move and to heal a people.
All of that sounded great to me and was something I confidently thought I could help with. There was a part of it that made me feel extremely uncomfortable, however: racism.
I was born in 1967 and went to integrated public schools in my small Louisiana town. Nobody talked about what things were like under segregation. Looking back, it’s bizarre how we kids—we white kids, anyway—were raised with near-total ignorance of the world into which we were born, a world that was passing away even then. We knew that segregation had happened, of course, but we only heard about Jim Crow and civil rights on television, and it was easy to believe all that was a long time ago and far away.
My memory of my hometown did not include Klansmen, racial terror, or any of the things that were common throughout the Deep South. So you can imagine my shock when, shortly after I returned to my hometown in 2011, a white friend passed on to me an Ebony article from 1964 that described the scene outside of the West Feliciana Parish courthouse on October 17, 1963, when the Rev. Joseph Carter became the first black parish resident to register to vote in 61 years.
It was ugly, and that night ended with Klan terror. The sheriff and the registrar of voters quoted in the story speaking with racist gruffness to the old black preacher are now long dead, but they were men whose names I grew up respecting. The courthouse where a white mob cursed the blacks was on the other side of my backyard fence.
All this went down only four years before I was born, and I never knew it. I think it safe to say that virtually no whites of my generation know this history—and that is no accident. Ours is a small place, and there can be no doubt that whoever was under those white sheets would not be a stranger to me. These were—are—my people.
A decade ago, some sympathetic whites in my town undertook an oral history project of the civil rights movement in our parish. They met with only modest success. “It was so hard to get people to talk about it,” said one of the organizers, still puzzled after all these years.
At the restaurant, Wendell told me stories from his family’s history. There was the time his Catholic grandmother and the other black children stood in the nave of the Catholic church in rural Assumption Parish, receiving catechism lessons from the white priest—religious education was a separate but equal endeavor back then—and white boys standing in the choir loft urinated on their heads.
“The priest barely said a word to those kids,” Wendell told me. “My grandmother never forgot that.”
He spoke about his mother’s family, who lived in a country enclave on the bayou. During the Depression, a black family somehow scraped together enough money to buy a car. No one else there had an automobile, and the family promised to use it to help the neighbors.
Two nights later, the Klan rode up the lane on horses, carrying torches. They ordered all the black families to present themselves, then they torched the car. “Let this be a lesson to you niggers,” the Klan leader told them. All the Klansmen were masked, but the black people knew exactly who they were. This was a small town.
Wendell also had stories of his family’s joys and triumphs in the face of persecution. All of this, he told me, would need to go into the book.
By the time we paid our bill and walked into the sweltering New Orleans summer afternoon, over three hours had passed. It seemed like 15 minutes to me.
Driving home over the western edge of Lake Pontchartrain, I phoned my wife to tell her how it went. “It was just two middle-aged Louisiana guys, swapping stories about why we love it here, despite everything,” I said. “I didn’t expect that.”
I told her some of Wendell’s family stories and how nervous the thought of writing about them made me. “These stories are sacred,” I said. “I told Wendell that I would be honored if he chose me as his collaborator but that above all he should think about what would best serve these stories. I’m not at all sure that’s me.”
Why not? Because I am white. Because I come from a part of Louisiana in which, well within living memory, the Klan brutalized black people and the law was on the side of the lawless. Wendell had good reason not to trust me.
“If he does pick you,” said my wife, “I think you should do it. It would be good for you spiritually to work with him on this.”
He picked me. I agreed to do it. And so we began.
In most cases of literary collaboration involving a celebrity, the writer meets a few times with the author and fashions a narrative out of what he tells him. Wendell made it both easier and harder—easier because he is a natural storyteller who knows how to use words well, and harder because the book would be more profound than a standard Hollywood autobiography.
We started on a cold winter’s day with a car tour of the New Orleans neighborhood where Amos and Althea Pierce raised their three sons. (Wendell is the baby of the family.) Pontchartrain Park, a one square mile-sized neighborhood of modest midcentury brick houses, sits in the lowest part of a metropolis mostly below sea level. After the storm passed, more than 20 feet of water inundated these streets. Wendell likened coming back and seeing it with his elderly mother and father for the first time after Katrina to a tour of Hiroshima after the bomb.
Now it was 2014, and some rebuilding had taken place—including a new house Wendell bought so he would have a stake in the community he was working to bring back. Still, I thought, if it had taken nine years just to get Pontchartrain Park back to this bedraggled condition, its state when the waters receded must have been unimaginable.
But Wendell had seen it. He stood with his mother and father and brother Ron in the ruins of their family home and sorted the mud-caked fragments—all that remained of their 50 years there.
This was the first time I had seen any part of New Orleans that had been under water. To be honest, this was pretty much the first time I had seen any part of New Orleans that wasn’t the French Quarter, Uptown, or any of the tourist areas. My hometown is about two hours upriver from the Crescent City, but when we were growing up New Orleans might as well have been Baghdad. Many was the time I heard my father talk about being at a Carnival parade on St. Charles Avenue when he was a college man at LSU and watching a bystander have his back slashed from shoulder to waist by a thug in a gang initiation. That was New Orleans. “They’ll cut your throat down there,” country people said.
When New Orleanians fled Katrina, our town hosted many of them, with doctors and churches opening their doors to the refugees. Even so, there was some trepidation—in the end unjustified—among locals that those city people would bring violence and chaos to our rural town.
Back at Wendell’s house, we talked about where Pontchartrain Park came from. The City of New Orleans created it after World War II as an all-black subdivision to meet the housing demands of the city’s African-Americans. It was a last-ditch effort to preserve the “separate but equal” status quo. The city’s civil rights leadership didn’t like it—reasoning that the development would hinder efforts to achieve integration—but black folks who aspired to have their own piece of the American dream quickly snapped up the subdivision’s lots.
With the digital recorder running, Wendell reminisced at length about growing up in Pontchartrain Park in the 1960s. He talked about the sports leagues, the church fairs, the adventures he and his pals had on the golf course. “Every home had a mother and a father in it, and you knew that everybody’s mother and father was like your own,” he said.
It was a close-knit community that inculcated a culture of hard work and perseverance. Pontchartrain Park became an incubator of the rising black middle class in New Orleans. Ernest Morial, who in 1978 would become the city’s first black mayor, lived in the neighborhood and raised his kids there—including son Marc, who would also be a New Orleans mayor. Lisa Jackson, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama, grew up in Pontchartrain Park, as did jazz legend Terence Blanchard.
Pontchartrain Park may have been founded as a way for the white power structure to bleed off black restlessness, said Wendell, but it became a haven for African-Americans in a heartless Jim Crow world. Inside the neighborhood, black children found peace, order, and love, which fortified them to meet racial hostility and other obstacles with resilient determination. Wendell cited the judgment of Herman Plunkett, a longtime resident of Pontchartrain Park: “It came out of something ugly, but it turned out to be something beautiful.” And it was this beautiful community—the one that had nurtured him but had been wiped out by Katrina—that the actor was determined to restore.
On the long drive back to the hills, I thought about how I had never heard of Pontchartrain Park, indeed how none of us outside the city ever heard about its black middle class. When race is in the news, it’s almost always about poor black people and their problems. African-Americans who live middle-class lives are all but invisible to many in white America.
Just as many of us who came up outside of New Orleans had our opinions formed largely by media reports of its violence, the history of the city’s black middle class was hidden by its simple success. People who go to work day in and day out, coach softball in their neighborhoods, and raise their kids without drama never make the news.
But they were there. I had been in their neighborhood, or what was left of it. I was getting to know one of the sons of that community. That afternoon with Wendell in Pontchartrain Park began to shake up what I thought I knew about my own state.
Back home, I began to research the history of New Orleans. Jazz, I found out, began in Congo Square, when African slaves of the colonial period came on Sundays to have their own market, and to dance and play the drums. Curious Europeans brought brass instruments, and soon enough the slaves, and later descendants of slaves, blended European melodies with African rhythms. I knew this already, as a matter of historical fact, but had I really known it?
Immersing myself in the HBO dramatic series “Treme” opened my mind to the role music has always played in ameliorating life’s sorrows for New Orleanians. In the series, which aired from 2010 to 2013, Wendell played a trombone player trying to make it in a city knocked flat by Katrina. The show was contemporary fiction, but it was based on historical and cultural fact—and it made the emergence of jazz out of slavery make emotional sense to me for the first time.
By the time Wendell and I talked about his role in 2007’s celebrated “Godot” performances, we had discussed at length the effect that Albert Murray, the great African-American cultural critic and music historian, had on the way Wendell saw art and the black experience. Murray, who died in 2013 at the age of 97, was a mentor of Wynton Marsalis, and it was the elder Marsalis brother who took Wendell uptown to Murray’s Harlem apartment to meet the man. What an extraordinary figure Murray was, and I would never have known a thing about him had I not first known Wendell Pierce.
To be frank, I became the sort of person I normally snicker at: a cultural naïf who stumbles onto things that are perfectly obvious to others and thinks he’s discovered King Tut’s tomb. But Orwell was onto an elemental truth when he said you have to work hard to see what’s right in front of your nose.
Then there was the day I spent with Wendell’s uncle, Lloyd Edwards, at his place near Bayou Lafourche. Lloyd, the brother of Wendell’s late mother, is the last surviving member of his generation of Edwardses. As it turns out, Lloyd is the same age as my father. They both grew up in rural south Louisiana poverty during the Great Depression. One was white, the other was black. And that made an enormous difference.
Lloyd’s stories about the country childhood he and Wendell’s mother Althea had sounded quite familiar. I had heard things just like this from my own father’s mouth. “We were all brought up to love one another and share with one another,” Lloyd told me. “We always ate at the table, regardless of what was happening—always one meal together. That resounding with me when it came time to raise my own family. And you will see it throughout our family.”
Strong families, close communities, rock-solid religious faith, a powerful work ethic, and a conviction that educational achievement was the key to bettering oneself—these were what enabled the seven Edwards children, including Wendell’s mother, to thrive. These were also values that my own father learned in his childhood home. It tickled me to hear Lloyd put down layabouts in the same language favored by my dad, who also worked and studied his way out of poverty.
What my father never had to learn was how to make it in a world in which the color of your skin meant that you had to sit in the back of the church on Sundays. You had to succeed in a world that denied you the same education it gave to white kids. In that world, white businessmen could cheat you, white thugs could beat you senseless, even kill you, without having to fear the law—and there wasn’t a damn thing you could do about it.
At one point, I blurted across the dining table, “Lloyd, how on earth are you not angry all the time?”
No sooner had the words left my mouth than I thought: oh.
In that unguarded moment, a lot about our country’s life that had been obscured from my vision became clear. My default position as a journalist is one of critical abstraction. I focus on ideas and arguments and how they apply to issues and current events. Collaborating with Wendell on his memoir forced me to suspend critical judgment and see the world through his eyes. This was not empathy as a moral imperative but as a professional one—and that, it turned out, made a life-changing difference within me.
I did not become a liberal Democrat from this experience. In fact, conservatives who read the book—The Wind in the Reeds—may be astonished by how culturally conservative the Pierce and Edwards family ethic is. The well-ordered Pontchartrain Park world Wendell grew up in, and is trying today to re-create, is one that nearly every social conservative longs for. Few will read of the religious devotion and the fierce patriotism of the actor’s clan without shedding tears.
This happened to my father and me this past summer. Daddy is dying and spends most of his days in bed. When my advance reader’s copy of The Wind in the Reeds came in the mail in July, Daddy asked me to read it to him.
There’s a chapter about Wendell’s father, Amos, and his military service during World War II. Amos fought in the Battle of Saipan and was awarded six medals for his bravery. When he was discharged from the U.S. Army, his paperwork had not caught up with him. The white clerk processing him through refused to believe that a Negro was capable of such heroism and denied him his medals.
When the Defense Department caught up with Amos Pierce and offered to send him his medals, the proud veteran refused. Here’s the thing, though: he never told his sons what had been done to him, and he raised them to love America and believe their country would live up to its ideals. Years later, Amos was present as his son Ron graduated from West Point and received his Army commission.
In the book, Wendell tells of learning a few years ago what had been denied his father and working to right that wrong. It culminated in a moving 2009 ceremony at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. I knew the story, and had helped Wendell tell it on the page, but hearing it aloud and imagining the frail old warrior who never lost faith in America receiving his due after all these decades—well, I choked up, and could barely finish.
I lifted my eyes from the page, and I saw my elderly father sobbing too. I composed myself, finished the chapter, and said goodbye. When I came to visit the next day, my father said, “The one thing I want you to do is read me more of Wendell’s book.”
We ended up reading the whole thing and crying together again when Wendell’s mother, whom he calls Tee, dies in the home her son rebuilt from the ruins as a gift to the parents who had given him so much. When I finished the last paragraph and closed the book, my father said of Wendell, “That’s a good man.”
I did not dare ask my dying father how walking through Wendell’s family story affected his understanding of our shared history in Louisiana. After all, my father was 28 years old and working in our town when the Rev. Joseph Carter tried to register to vote, and brought a white mob down on his head. He almost certainly knew everyone involved. What had he done then?
The time for asking him such painful questions had passed. Mercy was what he needed from his son now. And mercy he received from Wendell Pierce, who recorded a video thanking my father for taking the Pierce family’s history into his heart and assuring my dad that we were “people of spirit” walking side by side, sharing our journey. That simple gesture of kindness meant the world to my father, and to me.
In fact, it exemplifies one of the deepest messages of The Wind in the Reeds: that our common humanity is more real and enduring than our inhumanity toward each other. Entering into Wendell’s family history, and into the history of my own state and its people—not just its white people—taught me this lesson in a way I could never have learned otherwise.
It has made a difference. When I watch the news and see racial conflict reported, I am much less likely to fall back on familiar ideological framing to explain what happened. In instances of police violence against African-Americans, I used to side reflexively with the police. Not anymore. Wendell’s story about how a Louisiana state trooper once humiliated him on his way to his uncle’s funeral, in front of his nieces, weighs heavily on my mind, as does the long and ugly history of the law mistreating blacks. In my research, I discovered that in my parish, well within the memory of people alive today, a judge simultaneously served as head of the local Klan.
I have never had an interest in defending the display of the Confederate flag, but I have always explained to puzzled non-Southerners that the emblem is more emotionally complicated than they may think. It’s not uniquely about race hatred. But when the issue came up again after the Charleston massacre, there was no question to me that the flag had to go. I intuited what that flag must mean to men like the war hero Amos Pierce, and I decided to stand with them.
It will not be much longer before the last Americans with any real memory of segregation pass away. I once asked Lloyd Edwards if he had any idea why the older black men and women of my parish would not talk publicly about the civil rights struggle there. “Fear,” he said. His tone of voice that indicated surprise that I even asked.
Given that the oldest members of our community can recall an era when many of its most respected white men were night riders, that’s understandable. I hope, though, that white people will give them the confidence to open up without fear. We need to enter into each other’s stories. I was paid to enter into Wendell Pierce’s but quickly became passionate about it. And this journey of mine was only possible because Wendell first read my memoir of family and place and saw in its pages my own humanity. He could easily have dismissed me as a right-wing white guy from the hills. But he saw deeper than that, and he invited me to see more deeply into his story in return.
It was his courage, taking a chance on a writer like me, that made this life-changing collaboration possible. What we found, Wendell and I, was a brotherhood most would have considered unlikely. In the two-minute video message to my suffering father, sent from the set of his new movie, Wendell said that if he weren’t filming, “I would be right there with you, in Starhill.” I knew he would have been, too; a man who loves and reveres family as much as my countryman Wendell Pierce does could not have done otherwise.
But then, through his words on the page and the stories my father took into his failing heart, Wendell was already with us, and he always will be.
Rod Dreher is a senior editor for The American Conservative. The Wind in the Reeds, by Wendell Pierce, with Rod Dreher, will be published by Riverhead Books on September 8.