New Orleans was built on moving bodies—bodies that brought others here by force, bodies of water that destroy and that even change shape and direction when confronted with the forces of nature.
Our bodies have never been our own here, and we have responded to this lack of freedom by embracing the liberties we do have. We mock the forces of nature and the absurdity of our politics with carnival costumes and dancing in the street.
We embrace the body’s capacity for excess and lust to be free, and we have become so famous for this quality that others come here seeking this freedom without realizing its cost. Ultimately, we are the ones that are constantly reminded that our liberty is both futile and costly, and we will be relegated to stasis again and again.
I stood silent and cold in my South Carolina kitchen the day in August 2005 when my mother told me she was leaving town ahead of Hurricane Katrina. We had never evacuated in my childhood, and even this decision to do so was a quick turn of events, a choice made in fear and desperation that I could hear in her voice.
Later, like many New Orleanians not experiencing Katrina first-hand, friends and colleagues constantly asked me why people didn’t leave, how was the city doing. Unaware then of how these questions were so much bigger than I realized, bigger than my family’s own relatively unscathed experience, I stared silently and uttered platitudes as a means of avoiding these questions myself.
Deciding to move back home, I have been forced to ask these questions come August year after year. The storms of today are stronger and more destructive than those of my childhood, and I am now a mother myself. I have evacuated three times since Katrina, once with a medically fragile parent and once with an infant, once leaving behind a rented house filled with items not covered by insurance, once leaving behind a house I owned but whose homeowner’s policy I didn’t trust.
Every time, the question of “staying” and “going” presents itself with new complications and new intricacies.
Every time, I, and many like me, return to the question of what it means to “stay” in New Orleans in general.
There is the kind of New Orleanian who will never leave, the kind that can’t imagine living anywhere else because “somewhere else” does not exist in their imagination or, economically and logistically, there is nowhere else to go.
At the same time, there are others that can’t stay even if they wanted to. For a city called the “Big Easy,” we are a small town where everyone knows everyone and where we lack basic infrastructure and economic diversity. It is anything but easy to live here.
I don’t know what kind of New Orleanian I am. I am a first-generation American that grew up on the West Bank, moved away, came back to live in the Irish Channel during its first wave of gentrification.
People are always trying to place me in the right category of this city’s complicated racial and economic makeup, which, incidentally, is why when you are “from here,” you are asked the ever-present question of where you went to high school. There simply isn’t a place in their narrative to pigeonhole or understand a poor white girl who grew up in a French-speaking home, attended a majority black high school, went to LSU on TOPS, and ended up with a Ph.D. and teaching at Tulane.
Our bodies are not our own but markers of neighborhood and status, which serve to give us a place in this city instead of allowing us to make our way here ourselves.
As I write this, 600 miles away from New Orleans after feeling my house move itself and my body on its foundation during Hurricane Ida, the only thing I know is that I will always be haunted by this decision to stay or leave even as I know that my movement or my stasis are not entirely in my control.
Living in New Orleans, staying in New Orleans, for me, has meant embracing that fact perhaps more than most. Some will call it resilience when it perhaps is more like resignation. For me, it’s reality. For me too, I guess, it’s home—at least for now.
A native New Orleanian, Brittany Kennedy came to Tulane in 2007 and was named Senior Professor of Practice in 2016. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of South Carolina, and her research in Modernist Spanish and European culture focuses most specifically on fascism, particularly in a transatlantic context. Her book, Between Distant Modernities: Performing Exceptionality in Francoist Spain and the Jim Crow South, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2015. Meanwhile, her most recent research focuses on Basque culture and nationalism as an expression of modernism. She teaches a wide variety of courses in the department, including language, Introduction to Spanish culture, as well as courses on Hispanic literature and film. She is also a Residential Faculty Mentor on campus and a member of the TIDES 2020 faculty.