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Displaced New Orleans Poet Sunni Patterson: I Will Be a “Cultural Ambassador to Bring a Light to Every Injustice”

StoryAugust 30, 2010
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We go to New Orleans to speak with poet and performer Sunni Patterson. She’s from the Lower Ninth Ward, but like thousands of the city’s residents has been forced to live outside and is now based in Houston, Texas. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

ANJALI KAMAT: We’re going to turn now to poet and performer Sunni Patterson. She’s from the Lower Ninth Ward, but, like thousands of the city’s residents, had been forced to live outside and is now based in Houston, Texas.

Sunni joined us on Democracy Now!

when we were broadcasting from the Lower Ninth Ward on the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in 2007. She read some of her poetry about the storm.

    SUNNI PATTERSON: So we know this place,
    for we have glanced more times than we’d like to share
    into eyes that stare with nothing there
    behind them but an unfulfilled wish
    and an unconscious yearning for life
    though death rests comfortably beside us.
    At night their moans are louder.
    They come to visit the guards at the gate,
    and they stay until morning
    torturing their guilt-ridden insides.
    The silent cries of the keepers are louder
    than the booms that come from the guns
    they use to occupy the space.

    And we know this place,
    for we have seen more times than we’d like to imagine
    bloated cadavers floating through waters of a city gone savage,
    foraging the land for what can be salvaged.
    But what can be saved when all is lost?
    It happened in August, twenty-nine days in.
    We are now five days out of the only place
    we knew to call house and home.
    Few things are certain:
    one, we have no food;
    two, there are more bodies lying at the roadside
    than hot plates being distributed
    or first aid being administered
    or recognition as a citizen.
    Fourteenth Amendment, X, refugee, check.

ANJALI KAMAT: Sunni Patterson performing in the Lower Ninth Ward live on Democracy Now! three years ago.

Sunni Patterson, welcome to Democracy Now! Your thoughts on this fifth anniversary? You no longer live in New Orleans. You’re in Houston. Talk about what it feels like to be back in New Orleans.

SUNNI PATTERSON: Well, you know, of course, New Orleans is home. Thank you for allowing me to be on the show this morning.

But, you know, we’ve been talking about this fifth anniversary and the difference that you feel with this particular anniversary. It’s much more of a hoopla, we could say, that comes with it. It’s still unbelievable to me at the same time. Yesterday we had an event in what’s called Hunter’s Field. We started over in the Ninth Ward and second-lined down to this park area called Hunter’s Field. But it rained all day yesterday. And to see, at the same time again, the people stand there just to even call the names of people that they knew, that they have lost in the hurricane, and even as a result, after the hurricane, people that have been lost to post-traumatic stress, you know, heart attacks, cancers that have been festering and all kinds of other health —- overdoses that we’ve been dealing with. So to see these things and then, at the same time, to still see a glimmer of hope in the people’s eyes is still an amazing, amazing thing. I know for myself, not being able to be in the city full-time, it’s something that still tugs at my heart, of course. But what I do know is that, you know, we have a lot of work to do, and I know that wherever I am, I’m certainly going to be a cultural ambassador, you know, for the city, to bring a light to every injustice and even bring a light to, you know, all of the stories of hope and victory and resiliency that go on every day and every moment.

ANJALI KAMAT: Sunni Patterson, is there a new poem you’d like to share with us? We only have a few minutes left.

SUNNI PATTERSON: We only have a few minutes. OK, I can -—

We have not always found comfort in killers.
We have not always found solace being rocked
in the bosoms of those who silently pray
and openly destroy.
No, not always have we mistaken mimicry for mastery
or pretending for knowing
or enslavement for freedom.
But across my memory —-
across my memory marches millions -—
bold, regal, resilient, confident —-
unshackled feet stumping up spirits
to guide us through this fickle material world.
We like sun and moon folk,
universal souls praying our prayers,
singing our songs.
Eshu, Ogoun, Shango, Yemaja, Oshun, Obatala, Oya,
Damballah, Ayida Wedo, Loa, Nkongo, Olodumare and Yami.
We know all of you by name.
We are people of beginnings, of culture, of strength.
Not always have we given into the empty threats
and scare tactics of the powerless ones.
Not always have we allowed the blood of our sons and daughters
to color the streets while we’re walking asleep,
marching to the beat of that siren song.
They’re still wearing their sheets,
with nooses in reach,
showing their teeth and smiling, it seems.
But I hear in the breeze
in the rustle of the trees
and the dangling of the feet,
they say, please, don’t let them ever forget.
You see, not always have we suffered from amnesia.
Not always have we forgotten how to conjure up spirits,
ancestor wisdom,
fix up a mixture,
spiritual elixir,
ancient traditions.
We, like magicians,
god-like vision, we -—
we are people of sight.
So, no, not always have we fallen
for this okie doke
or inhaled the hazardous smoke of the manipulators
or been satisfied with crumbs for meals
our hands have prepared.
Hughes said life for us ain’t been no crystal stair,
but at least the steps are there
to push us up higher,
teach us how to go beyond the destroyer’s disguises,
look them in the eyes and be able to see.
Because what’s surprising when you know the nature of a beast
and especially when they’ve shown the same face for centuries?
So you tell me,
what’s the difference between two sisters in New Orleans
shot point-blank in the back of the head,
and two women bound in their car in Baghdad?
Or government-sanctioned killings in Kenya,
and a sister held hostage in a house in Virginia?
Or poverty in Haiti, poverty in Jamaica,
rape in Rwanda or rape in Somalia?
A sweatshop in China or one in Guatemala?
Or small pox and blankets, syphilis and Tuskegee,
formaldehyde and FEMA, ethnic cleansing and Katrina?
I recall within a speech Dr. King made us aware,
he said injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.
So they can spare us their drama, huh?
We got the heart of them field working mamas.
We carry the torch of that ancestor fire.
So with every fiber that flutters in our being,
with every find that comes from our seeking,
with every hearing that comes from our listening,
and every sight that comes from our seeing,
we must be faithful, strategic, victorious and free.

ANJALI KAMAT: Thank you, Sunni Patterson.


ANJALI KAMAT: Jordan Flaherty, I want to end with you. Sunni talked about amnesia. What lessons can people around the world learn from the resilience of the people in New Orleans? As Pakistan faces the worst floods in a hundred years, Haiti recovering from earthquake, disasters natural and unnatural, what community-based lessons can people learn?

JORDAN FLAHERTY: It’s really hard to speak after Sunni Patterson; my breath is taken away. I think that there are so many important lessons to learn again from the grassroots resistance, from the organizing, from the communities coming together. I think we need to learn not to give money to Red Cross and these big charities that are not accountable to the communities that are most in need. We need to find the folks in the grassroots and find ways to support them. We need to understand that this system causes crisis, and so that there will always be more of these crises. And we need to look out for the corporations that will try to profit off these crises, what Naomi Klein has called “the shock doctrine,” these politicians that try to use this crisis to take away power from the people and control from the people and shift over to more corporate control, more privatization. But there are communities in Haiti, in New Orleans, in Pakistan —-

ANJALI KAMAT: Five seconds.

JORDAN FLAHERTY: —- that are rising up and organizing. And so, we need to support these communities. Thank you again for Democracy Now! for all you do to spread the word about this.

ANJALI KAMAT: Thanks, Jordan. Jordan Flaherty, community organizer, writer in New Orleans, the author of Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six. Thanks also to Sunni Patterson, poet from the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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