The Full Force of Black Pain

A review of five books about Katrina by Vijay Prashad.

By Vijay Prashad Jan 15, 2007

After the Storm. Black Intellectuals Explore the Meaning of Hurricane Katrina
Ed. David Dante Troutt
The New Press, 2006

The Great Deluge. Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast
By Douglas Brinkely
William Morrow, 2006

Come Hell or High Water. Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster
By Michael Eric Dyson
Basic Books, 2006

Breach of Faith. Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City
By Jed Horne
Random House, 2006

Katrina’s Legacy: White Racism and Black Reconstruction in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast
By Eric Mann
Frontlines Press, 2006

A big storm, the perfect storm, and the surge of water that it produced flooded a city that lives with the inevitability of such a disaster. In 1722, the Great Hurricane wiped out the newly founded city. Dogged persistence brought it back to life. Carefree construction by the oil and gas industry tore into the heart of the delicate ecology of the coastal waterways. Between 1930 and 2005, a million acres of buffering wetlands in Louisiana disappeared as a result of coastal erosion, massive engineering gaffes and the greed of those who controlled the ports and the oil industry. These could have served as the brakes to any storm surge. But they were an endangered species long before Katrina pushed all that water up the Mississippi and over Lake Pontchartrain. Levees constructed in the 19th century and refashioned periodically were in dire need of repair and even reconstruction. Congress did not delegate the funds, and the Army Corps of Engineers did not muster the political will needed to maintain its handiwork.

As the waters rose in the hours after the storm passed by the city, a very particular demographic remained behind to feel its wrath. They were mainly Black, mainly working-class and mainly women. Many were elderly, and many were disabled. They had no cars and little money to skip town on the fly. They were part of the Other America, invisible to the corporate media, whose median demographic is suburban. Even President Bush, 17 days after the hurricane hit, stood in New Orleans’ Jackson Square and marveled, "All of us saw on television, there’s some deep, persistent poverty in this region. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cuts off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action." The "us" in his statement was clear: it was not "them," those who suffer and struggle in America.

It is the enormity of the devastation against "them" that provoked the outrage across the nation. The cruelty of city planning, the inadequate protection of the citizenry, the callous disregard for those stranded and desperate–all this provided a touchstone for our dismay at this current administration in particular and the direction of U. S. civilization in general. Which is why so many books have already been written about and around Katrina. There is no end in sight. There are so many stories to tell, so many different issues to raise. None of the books under review is comprehensive. When tragedy strikes, each individual has a story worth enshrining.

Two of the books are written by academics, one by a journalist, another by a political activist and the fifth a selection of writings edited by a legal scholar. Michael Eric Dyson’s Come Hell or High Water lays out all the substantial issues, while Douglas Brinkely and Jed Horne provide the rich narrative accounts that force you to relive the moment through the lives of several representative individuals. The essays in David Dante Troutt’s volume are both serious and emotive, indictments that are able to lift the spirit as much as bring one to anger. Finally, Eric Mann’s important intervention forces us to take the aftermath of Katrina seriously enough to demand not just the rebuilding of New Orleans, but a Third Reconstruction. If the other books leave you feeling angry, hurt or depressed, Eric Mann gives you a way forward. Whichever book you read to get a handle on the issues, add Mann’s book as the coda.

Douglas Brinkley teaches at Tulane University in New Orleans and directs its Roosevelt Center. He’s an establishment historian who wrote the book about John Kerry’s Vietnam experience (Tour of Duty, 2004). A refugee from the storm, Brinkley immediately put his talents to use. He wrote a history of the present that spans the day before Katrina hit to its immediate aftermath. The voices of a range of individuals such as Reverend Willie Walker of Noah’s Ark Church and Louisiana’s Governor Kathleen Blanco take us through the tragedy. Bush and Blanco, the oil and gas industry and the levee managers–everyone comes in for a court martial. But it is Nagin who takes the brunt of the assault: he did not call for a complete evacuation early enough, nor did he prepare his resources to come back after the devastation to pick up the pieces. That he was the mayoral choice of the white corporate elite (oil, gas, shipping, real estate) is important, because one could draw from this that, like Bush, he never saw the Black masses as his base.

Brinkley’s is the standard approach. It sets aside race because it finds an explanation in class (hurricanes don’t care what color you are; they do take advantage of your inability to get the hell out of their path). What better way to show that the tragedy is not a result of racism than that the main perpetrator in the story is a Black man! Brinkley’s liberalism seeks its savior in a great leader, an FDR, a Truman, even a Clinton. Nagin falls short.

The essays in Troutt’s volume, Dyson’s fiery book and Horne’s more restrained account treat Nagin’s folly as the symptom of something far greater, not the cause of it. These accounts acknowledge the long history of racist disenfranchisement of the city’s Black population, but they go further. One can’t say that Katrina woke us up to the detritus of enslavement, Jim Crow and the incompleteness of the civil rights movement. That’s not enough. Something more is afoot. Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964), the condition of Black life has deteriorated. Globalization hemorrhaged U.S. industry, and the Republican assault on "Big Government" devastated the State’s capacity to deliver on the promise of the civil rights movement. These two dynamics rendered the Black folk of cities like New Orleans relatively disposable. As Rutgers University law professor David Troutt writes in his lead essay, "In a city built on environmental risk, poor Blacks were literally kept low down until they became irrelevant."

Horne’s illustrative stories, Dyson’s careful analysis and Sheryll Cashin’s essay in Troutt’s book provide a clear indication that while Katrina is a story of both race and class, it is plainly also about race and space. Horne, who is the metro editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, begins his book with the story of Patrina Peters, a 43-year-old Black woman who lives in the Lower Ninth Ward and whose house became a raft on the day of the storm. A hard-working woman from a hard-working family, Peters was wracked by epilepsy and Crohn’s disease, beloved of her kin and left bereft by the state. A God-fearing woman, Peters did not believe that the storm would do more damage than the others that preceded it, and with only a mild warning from the authorities, she decided to ride it out with her daughter. When the tide rose, she called 911, and the dispatcher told her what she thought of her distress: "You didn’t listen to your mayor? You should have listened to your mayor." That was it. You live in the Ninth Ward. You are disposable. Cashin, a law professor who worked in the Clinton White House, zeroes in on the ghetto, on the enclaves of working-class Black life, to explain how class operates through race. "The black poor," she writes, "are the only demographic group in America singled out for a degree of segregation that demographers call hypersegregation–extremely isolated neighborhoods where more than 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line. The technical meaning of the term is less important than the fact that no other group—not poor whites, Latinos, Asians, or even Native Americans—experiences this degree of isolation from the American mainstream." In these American slums one can feel, as the University of Pennsylvania’s Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities and author of several well-regarded cultural critiques (including one on Tupac and another on Bill Cosby) Dyson writes, "the full force of Black pain."

It is the centrality of "Black pain" that motivated veteran activist Eric Mann to write a "letter to New Orleans." A sweeping account of racism and antiracism from the Civil War to the present, Mann’s letter, which is now revised and expanded into the book under review, leads to a simple conclusion: the Katrina episode provides a historic opportunity, and "Movement forces that previously have been weak and divided can find a rallying cry and a moment of focus to launch a programmatic and ideological struggle that pushes the system back on its heels." Mann and the Los Angeles-based Labor/Community Strategy Center have spent the past many years in the creation of a "Program of Resistance," a document that allows our disparate movements to find analytical and political unity around a series of concepts. How, for instance, is the Gay and Lesbian movement related to the Trade Union movement, and how are both of these linked in turn to the Black Liberation movement? Mann’s Katrina’s Legacy draws from this programmatic form of thought to give us not only answers for the reconstruction of New Orleans, but also for the reconstruction of a Left movement that recognizes the centrality of "Black pain." Jed Horne introduces us to Malik Rahim and Common Ground, the "multi-pronged social-services operation, a template for the kind of do-it-yourself communitarianism that adherents hoped might one day supplant the clumsy and crumbling bureaucracies that had served New Orleans so poorly, before and after Katrina." Mann is interested in these reforms: he demands that all rebuilding funds "go directly to grassroots movements with social programs conceptualized as part of the broader movement for Reparations–such as programs to organize Black collective land, parks, hospitals, farmers cooperatives, and rehabilitation centers for released prisoners." Even here he has an expansive vision, what he calls the Third Reconstruction. The State must be drawn over to the people and away from the policy of jobless growth. Only then will the Black population cease to be disposable, and only then will genuine slum clearance lead to the creation of meaningful eco-zones for people who have good jobs and good social services. Until then, we’re waiting in hell for the high water.

Katrina hit New Orleans on the 50th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till, a Black teenager from Illinois who was brutally murdered in Mississippi by a group of white racists. When a young Black woman, Anne Moody, heard of his death, she wrote in her moving Coming Of Age in Mississippi (1968): "Before Emmett Till’s murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me–the fear of being killed just because I was Black. This was the worst of my fears." These fears are now back, as the full force of Black pain is cultivated by racist statecraft.

Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian history and professor of international studies at Trinity College.