Field Notes


The Free Spirit Brass Band. Photo courtesy of Robin J. Hayes

While I was in New Orleans bicycling around the 6th and 7th Wards earlier this month, I passed by a tiny vintage house in Robin’s egg blue with a proudly displayed sign: The New Orleans African American Museum. I was reminded there that 2012 is an important milestone in the African diaspora’s history.  This year marks the 100th anniversary of the African National Congress, the social movement organization that helped eradicate apartheid.  It is also the 200th anniversary of the founding of Tremé, the first free black neighborhood in the United States that is slowly rebuilding itself, although it has been abandoned by our federal government ever since the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

7th Ward graffiti. Photo courtesy of Robin J. Hayes

In so many of the classes I teach, students start the semester with a strong sense that racism is unjust and an equally resilient lack of confidence that racism can and must end in our lifetime. My friends, many of whom are very dedicated scholars, artists and organizers have the same—not cynicism—resignation. Walking around the 9th Ward, where there is an abundance of grassy lots and rippling tarps instead of families and neighbors, I felt similarly dispirited.  I thought the people who had come back to the 9th were very brave.  They worked in coalitions to reconstruct a few beautiful brightly colored houses that stood up from the grass against the power that tried to let them drown.

A few months ago at Progressive Pupil, we opened a Twitter account.  One of our first hashtags was #organizingworks.

Undefeated Divas and Gents Second Line Parade, MLK Weekend 2012, Tremé. Photo courtesy of Robin J. Hayes

Even the most militant among us have a tough time opening ourselves up to grounded and immediate visions for a world without racism and a world without oppression.  This is partly due to the fact that dominant institutions almost never fully acknowledge how effective grassroots collective action has forced elites to make significant changes.  It’s also because we’re trying to move a mountain.  At Progressive Pupil, everyday while we’re learning about Black studies, we see examples of how people concerned about racism have worked together successfully to affect change—even in the most adverse circumstances.  When people concerned about racism work together over time for a common goal, we win.

The evolution and survival of Tremé (and the 9th Ward) and the ANC’s triumph in 1994 (which made South Africa the last country on the continent to gain its independence) are excellent examples of why coping with the late nights, early mornings, empty pockets and steady streams of frustration that come with anti-racist activism are worth it. Of course, both New Orleans and South Africa still face significant obstacles.  Both communities are struggling to rectify centuries of underdevelopment. Yet, those of us who are working in solidarity with those communities and against racism everywhere can be buoyed by the fact that, eventually, #organizingworks.

Here’s to a Happy New Year and a more just 2012.  Thank you for all of your hard work and support.

Yours in solidarity,


PS Watch!

Director Connie Field has made an uplifting and enlightening documentary epic about the ANC called “Have you Heard from Johannesburg?” You can check it out on

Also, if you haven’t seen “When the Levees Broke” and “If God is Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise” by Spike Lee, they are great ways to learn about the historical and contemporary spirit of struggle in black New Orleans.


The Free Spirit Brass Band. Photo courtesy of Robin J. Hayes

The New Orleans African American Museum is hosting a series of events marking the bicentennial in Tremé. If you find your way down to New Orleans, why not join in a second line parade?

The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond in New Orleans gives a very effective workshop on Undoing Racism.

You can also support the rebuilding of New Orleans. Check out Make It Right, Brad Pitt’s organization which supports sustainable, affordable and beautiful housing.  Also, the St. Bernard Project is doing great work to support Katrina survivors.

The ANC Youth League seems to be carrying the torch of the early progressive and anti-capitalist ANC.  Find out more about their call for the nationalization of South Africa’s mines.

Please let us know about any anti-racist organizations you’re working with.

PPS We’re still hard at work on the expanded version of Beautiful Me(s). We’ll have news soon about screenings in late February/early March.

by Robin Hayes

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