I Feel to Believe

When we took an apartment in New Orleans, I began reading the Times-Picayune newspaper. I would spy a column by Jarvis DeBerry and feel as if I’d found an Easter egg. Back then, we were in the city part-time. I didn’t know DeBerry’s publishing schedule. So each column was a surprise and delight. A collection of those columns, each so impressive, could become repetitive or too much of a good thing. Instead, I Feel to Believe increases the impact of the individual columns. I’m not sure I could recommend a better book for someone seeking a picture of New Orleans.

I Feel to Believe is this year‘s pick of One Book One New Orleans. If you’re not familiar with this organization, OBONO picks a book to be read by the city each year. But they also proactively get the books into hands of readers. Community centers, juvenile detention centers, ESL classes—everywhere. We support them, and I urge you to do the same.

PSA over. Back to I Feel to Believe.

I Feel to Believe by Jarvis DeBerry
Each column is a gem

DeBerry’s first column is dated 1998. The last, 2019. That’s enough time for a few columns to circle back to folks DeBerry wrote about in prior years. This gives the book a narrative feel of a story being told. The time period also takes us through Hurricane Katrina, a defining moment in the city. DeBerry was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the storm. You can tell why.

The chapters are the columns, so they’re short. But they don’t fall into a repetitive structure (a mistake I often made writing commentaries for WKNO in Memphis.) And the selection and placement of the columns brings its own information. For example, the column on the displacement of Black New Orleanians after the storm follows—and echoes—the immediately preceding column on the African Diaspora caused by the slave trade. 

Reading the columns one after another, their true power comes through: the power of the personal. We’re given the image of DeBerry at 5 years old graduating from day care in a white cap and gown, plus tassel. DeBerry reports the joy—and despair—of New Orleans not through rants but through moments in the life of the city. Even when talking about elected officials, he’s not discussing “politics.” He’s lamenting the condescending tone of the Road Home officials. Or wondering how the disgraced Ray Nagin could bring such pain on his family. Every column, you’re learning something about DeBerry, New Orleans, and the human propensity.

The collection works so well as a whole, it almost feels wrong to pick out “favorites.“ I’ll mention two for their writing. “Emptiness Dwells Where Home Once Stood” begins with this perfect paragraph:

They knocked down my house Saturday. My first house, my only house, the three-bedroom purchase that symbolized for me my transition from quasi-adult to the real thing. Saturday, they knocked it down. 

I Feel to Believe

And this indelible image from the column on LaToya Cantrell’s losing opponent in the mayoral election:

“…but shouldn’t a black, native New Orleanian know that touting a Scalise endorsement during a mayoral election would turn people off like wieners in a gumbo?”

I Feel to Believe

If your local bookstore can’t get a copy of Jarvis DeBerry’s I Feel to Believe, order yours here.

Best essay collection, I Feel to Believe, Jarvis DeBerry, New Orleans essays

Comments (4)

  • Writing about someone else’s writing challenges even the best of.writers. But you pulled it off. You made me want to buy Jarvis DeBerry’s book and you did so in splendid piece of your own.
    I am glad you are back, and I hope this means we will soon ser more if your craft

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Thank you, Joe. You would really enjoy it. I also give props to the Times-Pic for recognizing what needed to be said–he pulls no punches on the racist origins of so much that happens. And, yes–I do feel as if I might make it “back.”

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      I so enjoyed it. Such a wonderful celebration of the city’s good and exploration of its bad.
      The “One Book” program is in several cities; I know Memphis had one. But OBONO takes it to a different level. They recognize the low the literacy rate in NOLA and use the book as a literacy opportunity, plus they work hard to get the book into the hands of ALL readers. They give out books at community health centers so patients get a book with each clinic visit. Give it to the women’s prison. ESl programs. To the reading for the blind program. Just everywhere. I am very impressed with their vision and execution.

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