In Cajun French, the same phrase people use to say that they feel like crying, J’ai gros cœur, literally translates as “I have a big heart.” The double meaning, which may seem contradictory to some, makes perfect sense to those of us from Louisiana. We don’t cry because our hearts are broken. We cry because our hearts are big.
Outside of Cajun Country, down in New Orleans, we mourn our dead with joyous parades, which may also seem like a contradiction but which also makes perfect sense here in Louisiana.
This is, in particular, what makes New Orleans so magical and beautiful and unlike any other place in the world. It’s not something you can find in a tour guide book, because it’s spontaneous and organic and completely authentic.
Yesterday, after the news broke that one of our state’s most beloved humanitarians had passed away due to complications from the injuries she sustained after being a victim of a mass shooting on Mother’s Day four years ago, dozens and dozens of people showed up at the steps of her apartment in the Treme to give her a proper second line. Oh Lord, I wish I could have been in that number.
Deb Cotton was right. New Orleans is a cult. But unlike most cults, it celebrates life in all of its excesses, and it knows the importance of transforming grief into revelry.
“It is my belief that you don’t choose New Orleans — New Orleans chooses you,” Cotton wrote. And she continued:
Those who have fallen for her, live with her, are sprung, lost and turned out in love with her, know exactly what I mean. Ain’t no amount of wind, water, gunfire, potholes, ‘ignant’ politics or doomsday predictions can pry your death grip from her. Come hell or high water, you stay — or return. She makes you high from laughing too much and too long. She breaks your heart till you’re crying on the kitchen floor. She haunts you, melts you and is just a damn joy to live in. I think she’s a cult.
This may seem at least half-crazy to people who don’t know New Orleans or Louisiana, and fortunately, the Cajuns also have a term for “half-crazy” as well: moitié fouz.
Louisiana is moitié fouz, and more often than not, that’s a good thing.
Louisiana is the prison capital of the world but a place in which “every man” is told he can be “a king.” It is, according to national pundits, a “ruby red” state that Donald Trump won by double digits, but it is also one currently led by a Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, who won by double digits only a year before.
In 1983, Edwin Edwards, also a Democrat, became the first person in Louisiana to receive more than 1 million votes in his successful campaign for a third term in the governor’s mansion, and the next year, Ronald Reagan became the second person in state history to enter into seven-digit territory. Edwards, though, is still the only politician in Louisiana to receive more than a million votes in two different elections, in 1983 and then again in 1991, and at almost 90 years old and after serving eight years in federal prison, he remains the state’s most enduringly popular politician. This isn’t something one would expect from a “ruby red” state.
Louisiana is moitié fouz.
We are, at the same time, both one of the poorest and richest states in the country, a state that champions the spectacular beauty of its natural environment yet willfully allows its coastal wetlands to be negligently destroyed by Big Oil, a state whose fascinating and complicated history is without peer in the United States yet one that continues to battle against revisionists and racists whose appreciation of state history extends only to the four pathetic years in which Louisiana reluctantly joined the Confederacy. It is, proportionately, the second-most diverse state in America, but it is also the clearest example of the ways in which institutional racism is preserved through transformation— from slavery to Jim Crow and from the War on Drugs to mass incarceration.
Louisiana is a bundle of contradictions and misapprehensions. It is the birthplace of James Carville and Donna Brazile as well as David Duke and Tony Perkins, the home of Duck Dynasty and Southern Decadence.
It is a riddle that countless writers, historians, political scientists, and pundits have attempted and ultimately failed to solve. But it is precisely because of these contradictions that the state of Louisiana remains such a compelling, frustrating, and worthy subject. It’s why Deb Cotton moved here in 2005 from California (by way of Texas and Oklahoma), and it’s why I’ve moved back here twice from Texas, in 2005 and then again in 2015.
Louisiana is moitié fouz, but if you were born and raised here or if you spent enough time to fall in love with this place, you realize how irresistibly maddening and charming and singular this state can be, despite all of its enormous flaws. You also learn, if you’re really paying attention, that Louisiana has almost nothing to do with what happens on a four or five block stretch of Bourbon Street. That’s where we quarantine the tourists. And you learn that, despite its reputation for debauchery, corruption, and complacency, it is a state that actually inspires the fiercest and most passionate brand of loyalty.
Louisiana has more native-born residents, per capita, than any other state in the country. We may be desensitized to corrupt politicians, but we’re not reflexively forgiving. Both the former Mayor of New Orleans and the former Congressman from New Orleans are languishing in federal prison right now, for example, and when our senior U.S. Senator, David Vitter, decided to run for governor, voters finally delivered the punishment against him that had always eluded authorities in the aftermath of his salacious prostitution scandal.
This isn’t to say we’re perfect- not even close, but we are not and never have been the caricature of ignorance and debauchery that too many visitors believe us to be after wrapping up an extended weekend in the French Quarter.
Louisiana may be moitié fouz, but there are countless numbers of us who also take this place quite seriously.
And Deb Cotton was one of them, one of the best of them. Only a month after she was shot while documenting a parade on Mother’s Day in 2013, and while she recuperated from her injuries in the hospital, Deb wrote one of the most stirring, remarkable, and compassionate commentaries you’ll ever read on the subjects of gun violence and societal responsibility. Quoting:
That young man who shot me is all our young men. He’s us. All those young men that we’re throwing into prison, those young men who are killing us, the ones we’re demonizing — they’re us. We made them. We raised them. (Or didn’t.)
Maybe it’s too late for the young man who shot me. Maybe he’ll spend the rest of his life in jail. But we can change what’s happening out on the streets. We have the resources to deal with this problem. We always have. What we’ve lacked is willpower.
Where we’ve screwed up is in letting our gatekeepers, our political leadership, take advantage of the least of us. We turned away when homeless men and women became as familiar as fire hydrants and homelessness became acceptable. We winked and looked the other way as cronies of Congressman Bill Jefferson looted charity and support programs meant for underserved neighborhoods. (Is it any surprise that the communities most ripped off by such schemes are the areas where we’re seeing the most murders and violence?) By not drawing a line in the sand against these leaders who take from those who can’t speak up, we ensure our downfall.
We pay our taxes for these programs that are supposed to support people who have less than we have, and when politicians build stupid programs with the money or fly off with it in their pockets, we yawn. That makes us culpable in the murderousness that has us all so alarmed.
In honor of this exceptional humanitarian (and yes, I prefer the term humanitarian over writer or activist, because more than anything else, that is what she was), let us sing and dance and parade on the streets in celebration of her life and her message. Let us be moitié fouz, because that’s who we are. But let’s not look the other way. Let’s not yawn.
J’ai gros cœur. It’s easier to solve the problems that plague us with a big heart than with a broken one.