Visual artist and writer L. Kasimu Harris breaks out the Maker’s Mark in the Ninth Ward and talks about photographing the revolution, missed opportunities after Katrina, and how fighting with your girlfriend can lead to creative breakthroughs.
There is nothing more political, fascinating, uplifting, infuriating than school. The country we are as reflected in our education system is not always how we would like to think of ourselves. But the reflection is true. Take Nathan’s city of New York—last week the city’s best public school (Stuyvescent) sent out 895 acceptance letters for the class of 2023, but only 7 of those went to black students. SEVEN. In a school district where almost 70% of the students are black or Hispanic, it is outrageous. But it’s not just New York, it’s everywhere, including one of America’s greatest cities, New Orleans. A majority black city, that still failing its African-American students in some very important ways.
The Trip is going to do three episodes from New Orleans, all with African-American guests—an artist, a lawyer, and a rocket scientist/BBQ pitmaster. It feels especially right to start this week in a school, talking with artist and author L. Kasimu Harris who has made education a centerpiece of his work in some very surprising ways. There were hard conversations in the Big Easy but Nathan and his guests had a good time nonetheless.
Nathan Thornburgh: We’ve got our glasses and a healthy three fingers of Kentucky Straight Bourbon.
Kasimu Harris: Cheers.
Thornburgh: So, I wanted to add this disclaimer: Kasimu has much better whiskeys at home.
Thornburgh: Sometimes, what’s handy and available is what is the best stuff. We’re here in your studio, a space for making art, and in my experience, almost every studio space, whether it’s for art, or music, or anything else, has had a bottle of Maker’s Mark somewhere.
So, we’re in your studio, which is inside of a school in the Ninth Ward. Let’s just launch into that because it seems like such a good corollary to the project that you’re currently working on. Tell me about this educational uprising that you are bringing to life in your photography.
Harris: Well, I was working with a band called The Honorable South and they tasked me to do their album cover. And I just thought of this photo when I was with my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time. We were sitting at a bar on Valentine’s Day and we were having an awkward moment because we had an argument, so I started sketching something out on a little napkin and that photo of four students kind of glaring into the camera was going to be the album cover. The band wanted something different for the cover, but I loved my idea so much that I just continued it.
Thornburgh: This is a striking photograph. It’s four African-American students, who look like they’re high school age and they’re wearing prep school uniforms. The defiance is very big in their stance and in the way there. I can see the connection between this image and an album cover because anytime you take a selfie with you and like three other people and you have staggering depths…That’s like the band. That’s the cover shot. So, this is a long engagement you’ve had with this project, which is called the War on the Benighted.
Harris: Right. I’ve been working on this since 2015. In 2013, I was working on HBO’s Treme. I was either an interim clearance coordinator or an intern in the writer’s department. So, I was really engaged with a lot of scripts. I don’t draw very well, so after that initial sketch I made in the bar in 2015, I thought back to the Treme script and I basically wrote an outline of a script that became War on the Benighted.
Thornburgh: Who are the benighted in this scenario?
Harris: The adults.
Thornburgh: The adults who have built a system where you have a school-to-prison pipeline where the arts get shortchanged because of testing.
Thornburgh: In some of the photographs, it looks like the kids could be in the aftermath of a protest, or in the act of protesting. In some photos, they’re scaling walls, and they’re doing it all the while in these very natty prep school uniforms. It kind of places them as students who have finally had enough.
So, they were breaking in to educate themselves…
Harris: Correct. When you see them entering a school, that is in relation to the number of shuttered schools after Hurricane Katrina that never reopened. So they were breaking in to educate themselves about revolts or uprisings, things that you will not be taught in school. Maybe [students] will be taught the American Revolution, but they wouldn’t be taught about Toussaint Louverture and what he did against Napoleon and getting Haiti its freedom.
Thornburgh: Right. Even in New Orleans, how much of the curriculum is based around New Orleans, and for example, the Haitian influence here? Is this the rebellion you always had in mind as a high schooler?
Harris: I wish I was that cool. I think I was a marginal student—someone who tested well. In high school, during my senior year, I would cut school to go to the music library at the University of Loyola. I would sit there for hours looking at various things about jazz and the history of New Orleans. So, obviously I was interested in learning, but what they were teaching just a little boring to me. I didn’t go home and do nefarious things. I just wasn’t that interested in school. I think the catalyst was once in high school, I talked to a guidance counselor and she really rebuffed my aspirations. She looked at my marginal grades and said I should choose another route like a vocational academy or something like that. Nothing’s wrong with those things. I think we need master carpenters and skilled people in plumbing…
Thornburgh: Right, but we shouldn’t put our nerds into those professions.
Thornburgh: If you’re a music nerd hanging out in the music library all day, you probably were not meant to be swinging a hammer for the rest of the time.
Thornburgh: You grew up in New Orleans. One of the things Hurricane Katrina forced the city to do is figure out how the town rebuilds itself. I imagine it kind of brought up some of its old ugly instincts. Like you said, so many schools that never got reopened. What is the education story post-Katrina for you in this town?
Harris: Experimental. It’s almost like the Tuskegee experiment instead of it focusing on health, it’s education.
Thornburgh: This is more “let’s try some crap out on these people we don’t care that much about.”
Harris: That’s how I feel. We’ve gone away from neighborhood schools. We’ve gone to a majority charter system. Initially, after Hurricane Katrina, about 7,000 teachers as well as school personnel, were fired. That was the middle-class of African-Americans. They were replaced by and large by inexperienced, predominantly white, recent college grad college graduates.
We see what privatization has done to the healthcare industry, to prisons, to housing. None of those things have a winning record.
Thornburgh: No, no, no, no.
Harris: So now we want to privatize schools?
Thornburgh: Right. And we have the queen of privatization, Betsy DeVos, at the very top of this sclerotic and diseased structure.
Harris: And it’s not really school choice.
Harris: To be fair, the public school system prior to Katrina was not stellar. It had a lot of issues. One of them was funding.
Harris: I have a son who’s six. My wife and I enrolled him in a reading class when he was three. The reading class was maybe $300 or $600. So, we gave our child to headstart. If you can’t afford that, or if someone is from a low-income community and they don’t have the wherewithal or the knowledge or the time to read to their child, that child is going into pre-K and kindergarten already behind. So now you have teachers in underfunded schools working with children who are drastically behind. The problem gets exacerbated.
Thornburgh: I was talking about this with Jennifer Ching on another episode of the show. My kids are 13 and 10, and we’re thinking about high school in New York City. I went to this insane meeting where there were a number of people who were essentially making the case that in order for there to be equality at the very highest-level high schools in the district, which is 70% Black and Hispanic, that we should have the city subsidize afterschool programs that are private programs like Kumon or the reading program you put your son in.
It just struck me that the answer probably is: if you’re going to spend money to make your local schools better, better funded, and better places of learning, the best path is not just to make this kind of stop-gap tutoring program accessible to minority students. Why don’t we just work on making the core of the system better?
Harris: In my freshman year of college, I wrote a paper saying basically that there is no incentive to properly educate everyone because if everyone was properly educated or equally educated, who’s going to—particularly in New Orleans where there’s a big service industry—who’s going to work in a hotel? Who’s going to clean up those rooms? Who is going to be the cab driver? Who’s gonna shuck those oysters? Who’s going to fill those prisons? So, it’s not really profitable to have an equitable education. That’s how I feel.
Thornburgh: We need storytelling to tackle those issues. Like the stuff that you’re doing to dramatize what’s actually happening because people don’t understand.
You’re an artist. Your job is to throw some wood on the fire of these discussions. With Katrina, there were moments where you felt like this could be a fresh start. It could be a clean slate. But maybe you, who actually lives here, felt like “No, that’s not going to happen.”
Harris: Man, I think black folks missed out after Katrina. So much opportunity came here, and I think a lot of preference was given to out-of-towners—bonuses and things like that. I don’t want to say black folk didn’t have the foresight. I think some of it is that you’re dealing with so much trauma afterward that you are really just thinking about how to get your life back together. So someone moving here with entrepreneurial aspirations who doesn’t have that trauma can think, “Let’s make this a tech place. Let’s do a film here. Let me move in and handle my business.”
There has been a lot of redevelopment and innovation here in New Orleans, post-Katrina. But I think that some of the natives missed that boat. You asked about opportunities and how to change things. I think some of that comes from empowering the people. [We need to be] empowering ourselves to realize that we can make a change, be united, and pool our resources. That’s a big part of it right there.
One of my projects is about vanishing black bars and lounges here in New Orleans. They’re vanishing at a much faster rate than I thought.
I want to focus on the people, the place and the ephemera
Harris: St. Bernard Avenue, between Clayborne and North Rampart, for about 40, 50, 60 years, has been a hub of black bars. Black bars connect throughout Africa and the African diaspora, and more importantly in apartheid South Africa and Jim Crow Mississippi and Louisiana, where you couldn’t go to some of the downtown establishments. Black bars were where you could go and have your sip. It was a safe space, but these spaces are vanishing. You might not partake in libations, but you can still, hopefully, see the cultural relevance.
Thornburgh: Right. So they’re safe places that are these engines of culture in the city. What is driving them out? Is it real estate prices? Is it gentrification?
Harris: I think it’s a number of things. I think, essentially, a lot of black businesses are not institutionalized, so they don’t pass it on. Or some people just get tired and there’s no contingency plan to pass the bar on. One reason could be gentrification.
There was this Irish pub called Finn McCool’s. When the owners wanted to sell it, they sold it to some longstanding regulars. The regulars wanted to make a few changes, but they knew the importance of having this remain the Irish pub, you know? So that’s what I mean about institutionalizing and passing it down.
Thornburgh: That’s interesting. So the project that you’re working on with the disappearing black bars, is it like War on the Benighted? Is it a photo project across a period of time? How are you telling that story?
Harris: Straight. Telling it straight. War on the Benighted and some of my other work is what Richard McCabe, curator of photography at the Ogden, dubbed “constructive reality”. Everything is staged. With vanishing Black bars and lounges, I’m telling it as it is, maybe staging portraits, but the bar will be shown as it is.
Thornburgh: Documentary-series style. Pretty much hear the stories and just bring it together.
Harris: Yeah. I want to focus on the people, the place and the ephemera. There’s this idea—I think this guy named Roy Peter Clark at the Poynter Institute calls it the ladder of abstraction. So, basically there are themes that may resonate with the individual at first, but they continue to go up to themes that relate to everyone. So, these stories may be based in New Orleans, but it’s an issue that you think is national or international.
Thornburgh: I love that. You know, my group is journalists and, unfortunately, not everybody does a great job of maintaining that big wall between what did and didn’t happen. And you run into the limits of the documentary sometimes, right? If you want to make connections, especially between, like you’re saying, your city and a wider area, but are not going to do a multi-year documentary project all over, that’s where art can kind of step in.
Thornburgh: Sometimes you have to make art to sing about this stuff.
Thornburgh: And your projects do that. So, thank you.
Harris: Thank you, man.
Episode 32 Show Notes:
See more images of the heroic teen leading the education rebellion in Kasimu’s War on the Benighted series.
Keep an eye on Kasimu’s other ongoing project: Vanishing Black Bars and Lounges.
We highly recommend that you watch Treme, HBO’s drama series set in post-Katrina New Orleans.