PART ONE: Setting the scene
I was a gregarious and funny little kid. I loved doing goofs, and I was something like a class clown, but also a kid with deep fears and insecurities. One of the things that I was most insecure about was my academic ability. It took me a little longer to learn how to read, and I never learned math. I assumed that, as a fourth grader, my place was as a GOOFMAN, not a nerd. I wasn’t ever going to crush ass at school, my 10-year old brain decided, but I could always crush ass on the playground.
BUT THEN, my fourth grade teacher, the cigarette puffing, antique-collecting, old school New Yorker, Mrs. Landon, assigned everyone in my class the greatest project ever: the STATE PROJECT. It was pretty simple, you would research, write a paper, make a “state food,” and present your findings to the class on a big presentation day. Parents would be invited to partake in the fun. It was going to be fucking sick. I was stoked.
We selected our states with a lottery system. The kids who went first got the obvious choices: Connecticut, obvi. California, without a doubt, was a hot commodity. Terry Petano got Florida. New York was a premium pick. Of course the New England states got selected–Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, which were the states that I WANTED. Somehow, by the time that my name was picked, I decided on Louisiana. Why Louisiana? Quite simply, the New Orleans Superdome was the location of Super Bowl 31, where the New England Patriots had recently lost to the Green Bay Packers, 35-21. Like any good New England boy, I was a Patriots fan, but when it wasn’t easy. The Pats were a shitty team, but the 96-97’ season was epic. They somehow scrapped their way to the SuperBowl and lost to Brett Favre. In the leadup, I had become obsessed with the Superdome, the 74,295 seat football stadium in New Orleans. In my mind, it was the single greatest structure ever built. That was all that I knew about Louisiana, but I figured this information was adequate for talking about the state.
Most of my project about the STATE of LOUSIANA was Superdome-based. I did some other research about New Orleans, and the state bird, the pelican. This was, at its heart, a Superdome project, not a Louisiana project. This was BEFORE google, kids, so the extent of my research was looking at an outdated Encyclopedia entry. My mother, wonderful person that she is, helped me make beignets the day of my project, and I brought those in. The problem with beignets, though, is that they don’t keep very well. You gotta eat 'em fresh.
I wrote a poem about Louisiana, that may exist somewhere, but I haven’t found it yet.
On presentation day, the little classroom filled with parents. This was huge. All these old people, Mrs. Landon, and a bunch of stupid kids. I was slated to go towards the end of the class, because of my last name. You know how it is with us Walshes. As I watched my peers give very thoughtful, well-planned and rehearsed presentations (with note cards and SHIT!), I began to realize that my half-assed superdome presentation wasn’t going to cut it. I got super nervous.
Travis straight-up owned his presentation on Arizona or something. I was mortified. So I got up there, read my poem, and a parent, I think it was Travis’ dad, asked me a question that required a small amount of knowledge about Louisiana–he asked me if Cajun people spoke French. I said, “I don’t know,” retreated to my desk, and put my head down. I tried really hard not to cry.
Some parents told me how great the beignets were, but I was devastated. I fucked it up. I was outclassed by the other ten year olds in the room. My presentation blew ass, and everybody knew it.
This is one of the first experiences that I remember where I felt publicly humiliated. I was super dramatic, so in reality it probably wasn’t that bad, but to me, I had brought dishonor to my family. My poor mother had tried to help me, and I didn’t do my fair share. Sure, this was my first public poetry reading, so that’s something to celebrate, but at the time I was devastated by how much better my friends were. I sunk into the realization that I was stupid and bad at school.
It’s funny how these memories of youthful fuck-ups stick out more than the joyous times. It’s my brain trying to remind me that I am trash. It’s like, hey, don’t forget that you don’t know shit about Louisiana, dude. Don’t act like some Louisiana expert! And I’m like, hey brain, take it easy. It was a long time ago. Something in me doesn’t feel good about this, though. I have a score to settle.
Brother, I know you’re a bigtime NOLA Head. What’s your experience with Louisiana?
Part TWO: Getting it right
SO NOW, twenty-four years later, I’m back to fix things. In the clear light of day, I know that the personal injury that I made to myself pales in comparison to how I did Louisiana DIRTY. Louisiana, surprisingly, is more than just the Superdome! Should the history of an entire state be laid on the scrawny back of a 10 year old in 1997? Maybe not. But I could have taken the charge more seriously.
We have a chance to right the wrongs of our history! This episode should serve as a lesson to everyone: we don’t need to dig our heels in when the tides of history roll through. We are capable of change. We can acknowledge the great sins of our past and do better. I promise, as hard as it might seem to move forward, that the push towards a better future begins right now!
So, I present to you, a ReDo of my Fourth Grade “state project” on the great state of Louisiana!
Part THREE: My State Project
I didn’t get any of these basic facts in my fourth grade project. I may have provided the number of seats in the Superdome, but I didn’t have shit for the actual population of Louisiana. OKAY, so Imagine that I’m 10 years old. I’m a 10 year-old, 34 year old man.
LET’S GET THIS WIKIPEDIA PAGE FIRED UP!
Hello, Travis’ dad, Mrs. Landon, my mom, all of my friends’ parents, and my peers who are not as well-prepared as me. I think you’ll find that I have some dope Louisiana facts, and you’ll leave this presentation with a better understanding of the complex social, political, and racial history of what we now call Louisiana.
Part Three Subcategory: FACT BLAST 5000:
-Before I delve into the nitty gritty stuff, let’s give you a basic overview!
-The capital of Louisiana is Baton Rouge, and the largest city is New Orleans. Louisiana has a population of about 4.7 million people, which makes it the 25th most populous state in the country. That’s right, folks. It’s RIGHT in the middle of population. The motto should be, “Right in the middle of US State Populations,” but the motto is actually “Union, Justice, Confidence”, which I can get behind, besides the notable fact that Louisiana seceded from the United States and fought against the Union. Obviously we’re gonna talk about THAT.
-The state seal has a pelican (the state bird) with that motto printed around it. Good state bird, Louisiana. That state flag features a pelican feeding its young. This is one of the facts that I remember from Fourth Grade actually.
-the magnolia blossom is the state flower.
-the white perch is the state FISH
-the state tree is the BALD CYPRESS
-The BLACK BEAR is the state mammal
-The state dog, which i didn’t know was a THING, is the Catahoula Leopard Dog, which is a hunting breed and it has webbed feet. I’m not kidding. They’re really cute.
-state reptile: GATOR
-state insect: HONEYBEE
-Louisiana has TWO State songs, FOLKS: “Give me Louisiana” and “You Are My Sunshine”
-the state amphibian is the American Green Tree Frog, and it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t know this as a ten year old, because if I did, I would have done a project on the American Green Tree Frog and forgotten about Louisiana…
-A large part of its eastern boundary is demarcated by the Mississippi River. Louisiana is a big time RIVER STATE.
-Louisiana is the only U.S. state with political subdivisions termed parishes, which are equivalent to counties, making it one of only two U.S. states not subdivided into counties (the other being Alaska and its boroughs). That also lends a pretty great folksy quality to the whole Louisiana thing. You hear that you’re in a Parish instead of a county and you’re like, “oh yeah, I’m in Louisiana now.”
-Louisiana has more Native American tribes than any other southern state, including four that are federally recognized, ten that are state recognized, and four that have not received recognition.
-Louisiana has distinct cultural groups that differ from other similar ethnic groups in the US. African, Isleño, Creole, and Acadian.
-Louisiana has no OFFICIAL STATE LANGUAGE, which I think is super cool. The most spoken language is English 91.26%, but there are significant numbers of French 3.45% (incl. Cajun and Creole) Spanish 3.30%, and Vietnamese 0.59% speakers.
-Louisiana is one of the most Christian-identified states in the US. Around 80% of the population identifies as Christian of some denomination.
-Louisiana is consistently among the lowest states in the US for Human Development. It has low markers for health and education, and high rates of poverty. In 2018, Louisiana was ranked as the least healthy state in the country, with high levels of drug-related deaths and excessive alcohol consumption, while it has had the highest homicide rate in the United States since at least the 1990s.
-Louisiana has the fourth highest percentage of Black Americans in the country among states and territories, and the second highest among US States, behind Mississippi.
-Now you know me, Travis’ Dad. I’m about to talk about old-timey Louisiana and the confederacy, because you can’t talk Louisiana without talkin’ enslavement.
Race and ethnicityAloneTotalWhite (non-Hispanic)55.8% 58.7% African American (non-Hispanic)31.2% 32.6% Hispanic or Latino[a]— 6.9% Asian1.8% 2.3% Native American0.6% 1.9% Pacific Islander0.04% 0.1% Other0.4% 1.1%
Part Three SubCategory: A little primer on the history of Louisiana
-We know that humans have been settling in what we now call Louisiana for the past five thousand years. From Preucel and Mrozowski, some crusty anthropology guys: “The area of Louisiana is the place of origin of the Mound Builders culture during the Middle Archaic period, in the 4th millennium BC. The sites of Caney and Frenchman's Bend have been securely dated to 5600–5000 BP (about 3700–3100 BC), demonstrating that seasonal hunter-gatherers from around this time organized to build complex earthwork constructions in what is now northern Louisiana.”
Louisiana is home to possibly the first known complex culture in North America:
“Nearly 2,000 years later, Poverty Point was built” This dude John L. Gibson theorizes that “The Poverty Point culture may have reached its peak around 1500 BC, making it the first complex culture, and possibly the first tribal culture in North America. It lasted until approximately 700 BC.” Poverty Point is this archaelogical discovery in Northeastern Louisiana. There are a bunch of MOUNDS, stones, and effigies left behind by the culture. It’s really dope.
-It’s called the Poverty Point culture because the discovered mounds were located because it was discovered on the Poverty Point Plantation. If you don’t think we’re going to talk about plantations, then you haven’t listened to this show.
-Over the thousands of years following the demise of the Poverty Point culture, many indigenous societies lived, built, and thrived on what we call Louisiana, including the Baytown culture, Troyville culture, the Coles Creek Culture, the Caddo Nation, and the Houma Nation.
-Guess what? Those European scoundrels, the Spanish, first explored Louisiana in the 1500s. Though the Spanish were the first Europeans to touch Louisiana, the French were the first to really colonize Louisiana in the late 17th century.
-In 1682, French explorer Robert Cavelier de la Salle named this massive region Louisiana to honor King Louis the 14th. At that point Louisiana was fucking huge. A Royal French ordinance in 1722 called Louisiana “all land claimed by France south of the Great Lakes between the Rocky Mountains and the Alleghenies.” SO Louisiana was pretty much most of what we now consider the Midwest, including Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Iowa…all that shit.
-French BUSINESS interests advanced throughout the Louisiana territory, and the region became prosperous for agriculture (using imported African slave labor, of course) and trade with other superpowers.
-BUT obviously France BLEW it in 1763, and ceded most of its land to Great Britain after the Seven Years War. The rest of Louisiana became a colony of Spain through the 1762 Treaty of Fontainebleau.
-In 1765. Thousands of Acadians from the French Canadian colony of Acadia went to Southwestern Louisiana because the British expelled them. The Spanish governor accepted the Acadian refugees, and THOSE were the descendents of Louisiana’s Cajuns…TRAVIS’ DAD!!
-France eventually got Louisiana back, but not for long, because the sneaky ol’ US gov was about to buy it.
-Chattel slavery was a huge part of Louisiana’s economic importance in the early years. Under the French, there was a Code Noir (Black Code) that regulated interactions between black people and white people, required slave owners to education enslaved people in the state religion, Roman Catholicism, and obviously forbade mixed marriages.
-In the late 18th century, the last Spanish governor of the Louisiana territory wrote: “Truly, it is impossible for lower Louisiana to get along without slaves and with the use of slaves, the colony had been making great strides toward prosperity and wealth.”
-The US purchased the Louisiana territory in 1803, and although the importation of enslaved people was technically illegal, the practice continued through ports in New Orleans.
-Louisiana became the eighteenth state on April 30th, 1812. The territory of Orleans became Louisiana, and the entire Louisiana territory became the Missouri territory.
-Louisiana, and New Orleans specifically, made their money almost exclusively through enslavement and all of the markets that enslaved labor created: “By 1840, New Orleans had the biggest slave market in the United States, which contributed greatly to the economy of the city and of the state. New Orleans had become one of the wealthiest cities, and the third largest city, in the nation. The ban on the African slave trade and importation of slaves had increased demand in the domestic market. During the decades after the American Revolutionary War, more than one million enslaved African Americans underwent forced migration from the Upper South to the Deep South.”
-Despite these injustices, Louisiana has been, and continues to be, home to vibrant communities of African-descended people. Creole culture in Louisiana, which refers to an amalgamation of French, African, Spanish (and other European), and Native American cultures, has had an established presence in Louisiana since the 1700s. There have been free Creole
“According to the 1860 census, 331,726 people were enslaved, nearly 47% of the state's total population of 708,002. The strong economic interest of elite whites in maintaining the slave society contributed to Louisiana's decision to secede from the Union on January 26, 1861.
-Louisiana was defeated quickly by the Union in 1862, and many Louisianians had Union sympathies. Parts of Louisiana were actually designated a state within the Union during the Civil War.
-in 1866, shortly after the Civil War, the New Orleans Massacre galvanized national opposition to the moderate reforms of President Andrew Johnson, and it served as the catalyst for more sweeping Reconstruction reforms. This is one of the largest racial massacres in our history of awful racial massacres, and we rarely, if ever discuss it or learn about it.
-This description of the massacre is from wikipedia: “a peaceful demonstration of mostly black Freedmen was set upon by a mob of white rioters, many of whom had been soldiers of the recently defeated Confederate States of America, leading to a full-scale massacre.  The massacre "stemmed from deeply rooted political, social, and economic causes," and took place in part because of the battle "between two opposing factions for power and office." According to the official report, a total of 38 were killed and 146 wounded, of whom 34 dead and 119 wounded were black. Unofficial estimates were higher. Gilles Vandal estimated 40 to 50 blacks were killed and more than 150 wounded. Others have claimed nearly 200 were killed. In addition, three white convention attendees were killed, as was one white protester.
-There are other racial massacres in Louisiana’s history, all equally horrific, including the Colfax massacre and the Colfax Massacre and the Opelousas Massacre, which killed 50-100 people each. Both Colfax and Opelousas were perpetrated by white mobs to prevent black men from voting. In all of these massacres, members of the white mobs faced almost no accountability.
Despite these atrocities, Louisiana saw a period of burgeoning racial equality during the Reconstruction Period, which was quickly halted in 1877 when Federal troops withdrew from Louisiana and some scumbag buttfaces took over legislatures. From there, most of the progressive policies were repealed and replaced by a period of Jim Crow shit.
-to encapsulate the absurdity of oppressive Jim Crow laws in post-reconstruction Louisiana politics, mass disenfranchisement led to nearly no black voters. By 1910 there were only 730 black voters (less than 0.5 percent of eligible African-American men)
-from 1940-1960, during the Second Great Migration, thousands of black Americans moved for better opportunities and places where they could actually vote.
-Louisiana has been a place of intense white backlash to Civil Rights progress. Over the years, Louisiana’s significant black population has fought for basic rights, but it has taken literal centuries of blood to grant access to rights that white Louisianians have expected by virtue of their birth.
-LOUISIANA didn’t ratify the 19th Amendment until 1970 (that gives women the right to vote). It wasn’t necessary to make it federal law because 36 states ratified it, but it’s still bizarre that it took them an extra 50 years. The power holders in Louisiana have consistently hated universal human rights. This, of course, extends to the power holders in most states, so I’m not only picking on Louisiana.
-Louisiana is the world’s largest of crawfish. It supplies 90% of the world’s crawfish.
-Louisiana has a big agriculture industry. It does the US classics like soybeans, cotton, cattle, poultry, and you got sugarcane and rice, too.
-The state is the ninth biggest oil producer in the country.
-In the early 2000s, the Port of South Louisiana between New Orleans and Baton Rouge was the largest volume shipping port in the Western Hemisphere, and the 4th largest in the world. It’s still significant now, but not like it was back in its heyday.
-Weirdly enough, Louisiana is a player in the film industry. Apparently some people have called it “Hollywood South.” I dunno. I think that’s kind bullshit, but whatever. I feel like I’ve heard of other places called that. Why not just call it Louisiana? Whatever.
-Tabasco sauce is from Louisiana. So that’s dope.
-Tourism, of course, is a big part of southern Louisiana’s economy. We all know that parts of New Orleans are ground zero for scumbag buffoonery of the highest order. Pre-pandemic, New Orleans tourism had a 10 billion dollar impact on the city economy, and boasted about 19 million yearly visitors. COVID wasn’t kind to New Orleans, and the city lost hundreds of millions in potential revenue and thousands of leisure and hospitality jobs in 2020 and 2021.
-We could say this about many places in this country, but the fact that so much of the NoLa economy is tourism based further entrenches the racial wealth gap within the city. The city’s hospitality workers are disproportionately people of color, and during times of economic difficulty, the lack of a living wage for many tip-based workers hurts the most vulnerable and important laborers in the city.
-This analysis is from an article called “How the New Orleans tourism industry perpetuates its glaring racial wealth gap”:
“In the city’s 161 hotels, three quarters of employees make less than $15 per hour, according to a 2018 analysis by The Data Center, a non-profit analysis group based in New Orleans. The minimum recommended living wage for a single New Orleanian is $15 an hour, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator. Of those employees earning less than $15 an hour in 2017, 55% were Black. Similarly at the city’s restaurants, 56% of cooks are Black and make on average $11/hour, the Data Center states. In contrast, white employees held 71% of the surveyed restaurants’ higher-paying managerial positions in a city that is 60% Black.”
-We can’t separate the history of New Orleans and Louisiana from the current struggle for living wages among the predominantly black laborers of New Orleans’ largest industry. We can talk about the lack of response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and we can talk about New Orleans’ history as a slave-trading port. We have the history of racial massacres in Louisiana’s history.
-As you can imagine, right now the Republican legislature of Louisiana is attempting to enact voting restrictions, but the current governor, democrat John Bel Edwards refuses to sign any into law.
AND FINALLY: The Superdome, but mostly Katrina
I had to look into the Superdome, which is now called Caesar’s Superdome, because it was the cornerstone of my fourth grade project. The story behind the Superdome is much more interesting than I was led to believe as a 10 year-old.
I don’t want to talk about the Superdome without talking about Hurricane Katrina. For many Americans our age, Hurricane Katrina was an illuminating event in our social and racial consciousness. It was hard to ignore the obvious disparities in communities affected by the storm, and the fatal flaw in the flood protection system of levees led to 80% of the city inundated with water.
-Hurricane Katrina caused 1,836 fatalities and $125 billion in damage. It was clear to most that New Orleans, a predominantly black city, did not receive a swift and effective federal response. We saw so much footage of people struggling to survive, and we heard tons of racist jokes about black citizens of New Orleans dealing with apocalyptic conditions. So many institutions failed New Orleans before Katrina ever happened, and for many people outside of Louisiana, the catastrophe remained an abstraction.
The Superdome famously served as a shelter for displaced peoples following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Although the building was damaged by the storm, it was repaired for the start of the 2006 Saints season.
-During the rebuilding process, the disparities already evident in pre-Katrina New Orleans affected who moved back to their homes and who couldn’t: “A larger percentage of white residents returned to their homes than did black residents. This was attributed to an unwillingness of planners to rebuild low-income housing. In September 2005, the Washington Post noted former 10-term Republican Congressman Richard H. Baker from Baton Rouge reportedly told lobbyists, "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did."
Richard H. Baker is a supreme piece of garbage.
Part Five: THE END
Thank you Mrs. Landon, Ma, Travis’ dad, and my classmates. I know that you were probably expecting a Fourth Grade State project that didn’t focus so heavily on enslavement and racial disparities in Louisiana, but I’m a 10-year old who is deeply interested in the ways that history impacts our present, and what can be done to alleviate material problems in our world. I know that you probably didn’t get enough information about the Superdome and the green tree frog, and I apologize for that. Even if I had a week of classes to teach, I couldn’t get granular enough to do justice to Louisiana’s grandeur. This is, after all, only a fourth grade project, and I, a fourth grader in the body of a 34-year old.
What grade would you give me, brother?