Where Are You From?

Published Dec 26, 2013

By Rayza Goldsmith

“Where are you from?”

rayzaThis question, simple on its face, is in fact layered with meaning that has perplexed me since I identified the particular nuance associated with my own upbringing in  Maryland just over the Washington, D.C. border.

When I moved to college in Ann Arbor, MI, my conception of where I was from was complicated by my strong feelings toward my new home and the way it grew me up.

Now, I’m living in New Orleans, LA: “The Big Easy”; “The City that Care Forgot”; “NOLA.” This city, steeped in history and experience so distinct from the rest of the country that it’s referred to by locals, both from “here” and “there”, as the northernmost Caribbean city. It has a relationship to locality that is characteristically distinct from the rest of the United States.

Though there isn’t just one definition for being “from” New Orleans, it is evident that self-proclaimed New Orleanians’ definition is not drenched in the same privilege that informed my feelings of being “from” the D.C. suburbs, especially after moving away to go earn my elite college degree. The nuance of my D.C. identity was informed by my strong identification with the city, even though my house was located in Maryland. Yet living in Montgomery County, Maryland was a privilege in the opportunities educational and otherwise that it afforded me.

In New Orleans, though, being “from” this place is tied not just to geographic location, but to whether or not one grew up here, is black or white, is Creole, Cajun or something else, and whether or not one has been part of the collective tragedy and collective celebration.

New Orleans, particularly in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but really long before the storm, has had a different sort of understanding of being “from here.” At least that’s what my new, non-New Orleanian self has observed in my short stint in The Crescent City.

In New Orleans, being from Louisiana never gives one the right to be a self-proclaimed New Orleanian. As Ben Mintz, editor of NOLA Defender, points out in a WTUL New Orleans series called “Deep Dialogues,” moving to New Orleans from a white middle-class suburb in Shreveport, Louisiana is not grounds for calling oneself a local New Orleanian. In fact, he says, being from anywhere in Louisiana outside of Orleans Parish makes it difficult to claim local status.

Really, according to Jennifer Turner of “Deep Dialogues”, who grew up in New Orleans, there are two New Orleanses: White New Orleans and Black New Orleans. One’s experience of the city — past, present, and future — is tied to which New Orleans you are living in.

Those who are both black and from here now have the challenge of remaining here in the face of not just the still-felt effects of the storm, but also gentrification and post-Katrina policies that benefit newcomers at the expense of locals.

Also in Deep Dialogues, Shana Griffin, an activist from New Orleans, describes the effect of these policies on locals. She says the concept of the “New New Orleanian,” excludes (poor, black) people who are from here, in favor of a newer, younger, whiter, gentrifying population.

I’ve heard many locals express astonishment that anyone would willingly move here. And given how difficult and dangerous it is to be poor and black in New Orleans, I can’t blame them. But as a newcomer who is benefiting from the abundance of cultural richness and tropical weather, I am largely isolated from the things about New Orleans that are the most difficult to live with.

Locals might bemoan the high murder rate, the pervasive poverty, and the dangers of lacking public transportation in a city prone to natural disasters.  Simultaneously, they refuse to let those things tarnish their commitment to Mardi Gras, drinking on Frenchman Street, or “Who Dat Nation” i.e. fervent fandom for the New Orleans Saints.  Existing with that duality seems critical to being a resident of this city, whether you are “from” here or elsewhere.

Richard Campanella, a Tulane geography scholar, recently explored what it means to be a New Orleanian. His piece truly epitomizes what sets the New Orleans locality debate apart from other American cities’: the fact that this question is posed so frequently and with such varying responses. Campanella’s short answer to what makes a New Orleanian is this: “Be a New Orleanian. Live here and just be yourself.” But his long answer better addresses the questions that vex the local populace:

“Is being a New Orleanian predicated purely on residency, or is it enhanced and strengthened by having been born here? Does someone with deep local roots have greater claim to “New Orleanian” than someone with shallow or transplanted roots? Is having attended high school here the nativity litmus test? Do pre-Katrina transplants speak with more authority than post-Katrina brain-gainers? And how do we handle the spatial and temporal gradations of both residency and nativity: does a transplanted resident of many years have more or less standing than a returned native who’s been away for many years? Distance-wise, what’s close enough (Kenner? Covington? Thibodaux?) or too far to count as “here”? Time-wise, what’s a sufficiently early point of arrival (1700s? 1850s? 1980s?), and what’s too recent?”

I think these questions will continue to be asked, at least as long as New Orleans stays New Orleans, and isn’t completely overtaken by the gentrifiers, the chain stores, mainstream pop music, and everything else that serves to homogenize cities across the country.

This reality also complicates my own experience in New Orleans as an AVODAH corps member and employee of the ACLU of Louisiana. Though I came to New Orleans with good intentions, does my presence contribute to the homogenization of the city? What does it mean for me to do just a year of service and then leave? Furthermore, I live in White New Orleans, but at the ACLU, more often than not, my job is to serve individuals from Black New Orleans. As I adjust to my role as a corps member in New Orleans, I too begin to struggle with the fraught history of this city and the layers of “fromness” it provides to its inhabitants.

Though I might be able to cheer on the Saints, and catch Zulu coconuts with all the gusto of a real New Orleans enthusiast, I didn’t go to high school here. I haven’t and likely won’t suffer from the collective trauma that exists in New Orleans’ more impoverished and murder-heavy neighborhoods. I wasn’t here for Katrina. My housemates have cars that can evacuate me in case of a storm. I didn’t grow up calling median strips the neutral ground. I have a concerning aversion to fried food. I am not from here. And even if I were to spend the rest of my life here, I don’t think I could ever be from here, but I suppose individuals can make that determination for themselves.

I say that not out of any desire to set myself apart in some way, but rather to recognize the unique qualities this city possesses that deserve recognition and ownership by those who truly are from here. I will continue to struggle with what it means to be “not from here” and to embrace the traditions that make New Orleans beautiful without co-opting them and calling them mine. I’ll keep you updated.

Rayza Goldsmith is from Chevy Chase, Maryland, attended the University of Michigan and is an Intake and Outreach Associate at the ACLU Foundation of Louisiana.

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