Art, Exile and Re-arrival

“Gomela” is a Bantu word meaning to go back to or to return. Coincidentally enough, it was also a theatre production which featured displaced New Orleans cultural ambassador and poet Sunni Patterson. Developed in collaboration with Junebug Productions, Gomela was “a journey through time and space.” After a post-Katrina traverse of twelve years that found Patterson in Houston, back to New Orleans for a small stint before being evicted, returning to Houston and then settling in Atlanta for several years, she and her family have been fortunate enough to celebrate a Crescent City homecoming of their own in 2017.

Simply put, the African Diaspora is the worldwide dispersion of African people between the 1500s and 1800s as a result of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Amidst the death, destruction, and forced exile of the slave trade, this traumatic event also provided a sense of identity and community for blacks throughout North and South America. After August 29, 2005, residents throughout the Gulf Coast (with up to 600,000 households in Louisiana) experienced another diaspora due to Hurricane Katrina. Over 1.3 million FEMA applications were submitted from cities stretching westward from Nome, Alaska and as far east as northern Maine. Patterson summarizes the Katrina induced barriers of return and the hurricane’s influence by saying “when we look at Katrina and what Katrina did, it was a war on place.” Throughout Patterson’s cross country travels as a writing workshop facilitator, Spoken Word artist and emcee, her spirit may be nomadic but she takes New Orleans with her wherever she goes. “You make, you create home. You never look at it as like home home. Even though you’ve created this haven… home is what you carry with you.” Although Black History Month is a relatively new adoption by the country (nationally recognized by the U.S. in 1976), our predecessors have always maintained and instilled a great sense of pride not only in who we are but also in our past. When discussing the all too common theme of exile and the eventual acceptance of that new place, there’s a significant amount of thought that goes into Patterson’s current work in the documentary Artist In Exile and as the host of Congo TV Network’s The Golden Hour. “At what point did these ancestors say or shake their children and say ‘no, don’t say that you are from Haiti, don’t say you are from Senegal? I still grapple with that because when is it okay to not say where are you from in this time?”

Photo by Gus Bennett Jr. (https://www.instagram.com/gusbennettphoto/)

New Orleans has an undeniable magnetic attraction which compels first timers as well as lifelong natives to never leave. Now five generations deep into the city’s culture and heritage, the Lower Ninth Ward native always saw both Houston and Atlanta as temporary homes. “I looked at all of them as ‘rest places’, if that makes sense. They were refuges,” says Patterson. Outside of Baton Rouge, the next logical and — sometimes only — westward destination for a large amount of displaced New Orleanians was Houston, Texas. Many individuals had family or friends that lived in Texas’ most populated city. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina ”as many as 250,000 arrived… landing in the city’s Astrodome.” Patterson was one of the 150,000 people that remained within the Space City’s limits a year later. The changes New Orleans residents have experienced as a result of Katrina ranged from minor inconveniences to life-altering decisions. Living in different cities in a post-Katrina landscape is sure to have an effect on just about anyone, let alone an artist who lives to create and sustains their family with their artistry. When asked how Houston influenced her writing, Patterson says “I don’t know if it was because of the space because it was refuge, but the experience of being in the place of origin, is what drove the art in the space. That space allowed me to be able to express in different ways.” There’s a stark difference between the meanings of space and home for the poet. Although both her immediate family and her midwife lived in Houston, Patterson saw Atlanta as more of a home for her core family. “Atlanta though, that was more home because that house was more my house, my family’s house” she says. “When we moved to Atlanta, by this time I’m adding three children (Jibril B/K/A “Bean”, 8, Amaziah, 4, and Natazia, 25) and a husband. Creating new space that I didn’t have in New Orleans because that’s something that’s gone.”

“Really who sitting in here will serve? Who can show that there is light? Who can tell the precious dawn that follows beyond its night and when you say it? Will you feel it? Will you really believe with all your might that every flower is sacred? That every future is bright. I’m asking who? Who in here will help? Who will prune and water the garden? Because if you’re not part of the solution then you’re part of the problem.”

Pulitzer Prize nominated writer, former Poet Laureate of Maryland and mother of six, Lucille Clifton is widely known both for the boldness and historical context of her pieces as well as their concise structure and length. Literary experts and inquisitive minds have marveled at the latter for decades, often questioning why the author’s writing is so short yet poignant. Patterson paraphrases Clifton’s answer in the way her own children influence her writing by stating “they taught me one, to not overthink, and that things don’t have to be so long. You have to find the time. It forces you to be a artist who is deliberate and intentional about creating because you have to do it wherever you can do it.” Even in 2018, New Orleans has always maintained an antiquated feel of social handshakes and face-to-face deal brokering when it comes to business matters. The city continues to grow, expand and change in ways foreign to many who were here prior to Katrina. However, living wages, a substantial lack of reliable transportation options and affordable housing remain persistent issues. Thinking of personal legacies, generational wealth and financial literacy are unfortunately not things regularly taught among Southern black and brown communities. This is something Patterson has directly experienced with her family’s rebuilding efforts after their home was severely damaged and demolished after Katrina. She looks to correct those previous mistakes with her future selves. “Entrepreneurship is one thing. Even if it has to come from me in parable to my children. I have them memorize affirmations and things like this so that it can at least seep in their psyches some kind of way. I write letters to them that they may never read. I pray for their adult self right now. That thing of paper and wealth and land… it’s a big thing.”

Returning to New Orleans after Katrina has been an uphill struggle for many individuals. After all these years, some desperately yearn to return home yet can’t afford it, while others have bitterly embraced the change in location and found greener pastures in other cities. Better schools for their children, less crime and more career opportunities can compel just about anyone to make the ultimate sacrifice and endure new surroundings for these benefits. Though accurate, resilience is often overused to continuously describe the plight and consistent push through of New Orleanians. Perseverance is defined as “the continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure or opposition.” What word could more accurately depict and embody Patterson’s journey back to the former murder capital of the country, widely known as much for its crooked politicians as its culinary expertise? “The New Orleans I knew/know has always been filled with these juxtaposing realities. “The gunshot and the drum sometimes shared the same space… the Indian chant and the bounce rap, etc.” explains Patterson. Through all of the perilous ups and downs, the natural and man made disasters, the shows, events, panels, the rebuilding and the miles traveled, there was never a doubt about her return. “New Orleans is home” she says. “So no matter what, I still have my community (although extended), love, and culture. I’m grateful that some things just don’t change.”