Terence Blanchard: Requiem for Katrina
TB: I don't mean to cut you off but let me tell you a story. I recently went to South Africa for the second time. The first was in Johannesburg and the second was in Cape Town. And while I was in Cape Town, I ran into a guy that I originally met in Johannesburg. His name is Benji and Benji is a big jazz fan. As he was walking with his wife, I said, "How are you doing Benji?" And he said, "Man, life is great! I flew on the plane to come to Cape Town. I'm here with my wife and I'm walking around going to the jazz festival and talking to all these jazz musicians."
And while he is talking to me, I'm noticing all his joy and happiness so I said to him, "Benji, with everything you guys have gone through how can you be this happy?" He then explained that when he was a little kid, he would run to a park but his father would grab him and tell him that he could not go to this park and that would make him cry. They would also smuggle in jazz magazines because they couldn't get the CDs and would read the reviews to try and imagine what the music sounded like. He would also look at the sky and watch the planes fly overhead and always wondered what it was like to fly and that's why he was so excited about flying on this plane. So I asked him where his joy came from, and do you know what he said to me? He said, "It comes from our leader, Mandela. He told the entire country that though what we went through was horrible and unthinkable, we must get over it because we have to move on."
That rings so hard because I am saying to myself: this is a great example of what leadership can do for a country. And that had nothing to do with signing a check, nothing to do with bureaucracy and it had nothing to do with getting something passed through Congress. It was a mere attitude that was displayed at the top and had a trickle affect all the way down.
AAJ: I want to read you this quote. "So many of the people here in the Astrodome, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them." That's from Barbara Bush. What went through your mind when you first heard that while knowing that the people in the Astrodome had not received food, water or medical attention for five days?
TB: Al Sharpton made a very astute comment and observation on that. This is the president's mother making those comments and that's the mindset that she still has even after her husband has left public life. This is not before he is in public office. This is years after and she still thinks and talks that way. And it's the type of arrogance that we are still dealing with in this country and that's why we had the situation we had after Katrina.
There wasn't any medical attention, water, or food, but during the fires in San Diego (October 2007), they were handing out suntan lotion. That contrast is stark and unforgiving. In my mind, forget about politics because the country knew it was a life-and-death issue but amazingly, not our United States leadership. And when I talk about leadership, I'm not only talking about the president. I'm also talking about the mayor, and the governor and everybody else down the line. And the political leaders who talk about "In God We Trust." They too will meet their maker one day.
AAJ: There are those that are unsympathetic toward the victims of Katrina because their perception is that people should have left when they were warned in advance. But they obviously don't realize the level of poverty in the south and this is in our own country. As an example, there are over 100,000 people in New Orleans that don't own their own vehicles. I just don't think that most people have any idea and the film "When the Levees Broke" helped bring this to life.
TB: Well that's the thing about Katrina that woke everybody up. It's like: OK, now our little secret is out in the open. When people visit New Orleans they visit the French Quarter, they go uptown and though we still have crime in those areas, for the most part it's like every other city in America. But in the film, the cameras were focused in many different portions of the city and you couldn't hide the poverty anymore.
AAJ: Most American citizens don't realize that because the people of New Orleans could not get help from our own federal government, community leaders such as Harry Belafonte tried to acquire help from the leaders of other countries, such as in South America. I'm not even sure that a person who is not African-American could possibly understand the pain and frustration that must be associated with that.