While my larger reflections center this past Sunday’s episode, I haven’t been able to quite shake the narrative of the last. Specifically, LaDonna’s (Khandi Alexander) brutal attack and rape has kept me online pondering taser purchase and thinking about all the ways to protect my children. I’ve been torn by the representation of a Black woman being savagely attacked against the reality of Black women’s victimization receiving scant attention. Something about the senselessness and pedestrianness of it, sandwiched between the angst of an out-of-work musician and another one hustling to get work, left me with a feeling of dread and uneasiness. Living in uptown New Orleans, the frequent violence reporting exists as just that—reports about a place that does not reflect my daily reality. Notwithstanding the occasional requisite “black man on the loose” posters plastered around campus, a comfortable day-to-day occupied my psyche until this disturbing episode.
The creators of Treme sat on a panel at Tulane University in November of last year where they talked about the series, its outlook, its goals, and its differences from The Wire. The focus for Treme was the culture-cality of the city and where the creators aimed their arrow for most of season one. But in this season two, amongst the sadness and pathos, they begin to address the deeply embedded divisions, corruption, and largely racialized visioning of a city wedded to a plantation economy that shapes its educational institutions, housing patterns, job allocation, and routine interactions.
In the rhythm of recent episodes, (and really mainstream jazz), the crosscutting between scenes of Sunday’s episode requires not only an intimacy with the characters but also a colossal feigned empathy with and identification of the similarities between their situations. While New Orleanians seem to love the series and are elated that it has been renewed for a third season, at least the ones that post to the Times Picayune site nola.com, talking to several Black New Orleanians strikes a slightly different note. One ex-pat felt that the story engages the city like a tourist would—centering all of the things that tourist boards foreground in their presentations of cities—food, music, local color, and if possible, exoticism. New Orleans indeed has all of those things and Treme shows them. But the pedestrian, everyday, go-to-work daily New Orleans, the feel of extended family in a place where so many have never known, will never know, any other way of life has been largely absent.
The twin emotions of comfort and resignation feel like they are just beginning to emerge in this series. While a story like Davis’s, for example, is annoying at best, distracting and offensive at worst, Albert Lambreaux Sr. and his frustration/anger with homeowners insurance, Batiste’s reintroduction to the school system and its problems (alongside the lingering dread of Katrina dwelling inside Black children), and the brutality that comes with sustained poverty through LaDonna’s rape, the killing of Benny’s son, and repeated discussions of police brutality get at another New Orleans. It is this New Orleans, the largely Black and poor New Orleans, that is only starting to gain traction in Treme.
This New Orleans is not on the tourist path; it’s beyond Bourbon and besides Mardi Gras. It is this New Orleans that privileges familial traditions and histories. It is one where talks about Indians move beyond costumes and masking. It could be the 7th Ward New Orleans and the histories of racial mixing, ambiguity, and Creolization as a way of life and division live. This New Orleans must contend with the outcomes of corruption, cronyism, greed, and nepotism.
Living here in New Orleans, one of the most striking conundrums about this series is that while its heartbeat lies with the culture of Black inhabitants, it seems their larger lives cannot be the focus –perhaps due to its audience of largely white and affluent viewers. Regular, non- artistic Black New Orleanians do appear as extras and even capture central roles, as in the case of the awesome, Phyllis Montana-LaBlanc as Desiree. However, a large majority of Black New Orleanians cannot even afford to pay for the network in which this series about their city, their culture, and their lives appear. Like F.E.M.A., Treme has a certain impotence built into its existence. It’s a TV program. But as the series continues, I look forward to viewing the reconciliation or at least further examination of its polls and can only hope that its presentation provides more effect and impact than the Feds (and local government) did at that moment.