Tag Archives: media

9 Years Out: Hurricane Katrina

It was 9 years ago today that Hurricane Katrina made landfall, going on to kill at least 1833 people in Gulf South and cause $108 billion in damage.  She proved to be one of the deadliest natural disasters in American history and changed New Orleans forever.

You cannot be a person invested in New Orleans and not pause on this day, on this stretch of days, and think back to that August 2005.  I am not a New Orleans native; I was outside the city that summer, ensconced in my parents’ house in Maryland, safely watching horror unfold on the television, sitting numbly next to my father, a sailor who knew New Orleans well, unable to look away.  I was lucky, phenomenally lucky.  I didn’t realise that day what the storm would mean to me years later.  I just remember listening to my father argue with Brian Williams, I remember bristling when people suggested that New Orleans should be abandoned, that it was too expensive to rebuild, too expensive to protect, why did we need a city in a flood plain, anyway?  (Newsflash: nearly every major port city in the US is in a flood plain, and 60% of the cargo leaving or entering the US goes through the New Orleans-Baton Rouge ports.  That’s why we need it.  Ignoring history, ignoring people, focusing solely on dollars, that’s why we need New Orleans and her flood plain.)

As a rule, I avoid disaster tourism.  I think it shows the worst of human nature: our vulture-like tendency to stare at others’ personal horrors and feel relief that it is not us, all the while consuming their sorrow and loss and reducing it to a curiosity instead of a call to moral action.  The HBO show Treme caught the tone of it rightly: As a group of Mardi Gras Indians gather in the rubble of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward to mourn one of their own, who perished in the storm.  And in the middle of a spiritual, rousing moment as they sing Mardi Gras Indian songs in celebration and lament, a tour bus full of Wisconsin tourists pulls up, snapping pictures in clueless, viscerally awful fascination.  The objectification and voyeurism cannot be made more clear.

And yet, two things come out of this: one, New Orleans is a city that runs on tourism and knows it, commodifying her food, heritage, history, and oddities in order to bring those tourists in; two, Katrina looms so large on the landscape that people who know nothing else about New Orleans save jazz, Bourbon Street, and Cajun food not only know about it but want to see what it meant.

When I first went down to New Orleans as an adult, it was December 2008, three years AK — after Katrina.  I was working on the research for my first MA, a decision prompted in many ways by the storm.  I knew my health didn’t permit me to do rescue work or rebuilding, and my financial situation didn’t leave me much room for charity.  But I knew I could do a thing that was critical: preserving the history and culture of New Orleans, documenting it, and sharing it through my academic work as a topic worthy of serious study and engagement.  So I set to work on my first love, the cemeteries of New Orleans.  Yet whenever I mentioned my topic, everyone asked, “What about Katrina?”

So I got in touch with a contact, trying to avoid the Disaster Tourism angle, and asked if they knew some places out on Lake Ponchartrain where the levees had broke.  And I tried not to feel like scum as I snapped pictures, trying to communicate something incommunicable to my audience back up on the East Coast: that the X of the search and rescue teams was a symbol, a monument, a marker of trauma so intense as to be nearly ineffable, an inbreaking of the sacred rendered mundane in spray paint.  It was, in its way, the crucifix of the storm, marking sites of loss, death, martyrdom, and destruction so senseless, so needless that it has taken on proportions unimagined.

A search and rescue mark left on an abandoned house on the shores of Lake Ponchartrain.  Taken December 2008 by author.

A search and rescue mark left on an abandoned house on the shores of Lake Ponchartrain. Taken December 2008 by author.

I don’t flatter myself by imagining my experiences in AK New Orleans are important.  But for me, the storm marks a moment where I made the conscious choice to do academic work that had real world value and meaning.  It marks the moment where academics had to be more than just feasible and fundable.  It made me look at what I was doing and ask, how can I do more than just follow my own bliss?  How can I reflect my values into the world and have a moral response to unimaginable tragedy?  It marked the beginning of my nearly decade-long love affair with a city that’s easy to love and difficult to know.  Katrina changed me, at a distance.  Perhaps that’s what disaster and loss and suffering should do.  It should change us, make us consider how to make our actions reflect the world that needs to be, rather than the world around us.

Nine years out, it’s easy to think this way, especially sitting comfortably in a climate-controlled student union in DC, far and away from the realities of recovery.  It’s easy to trot out data and numbers (78% of the population returned, poverty level of nearly 25%, childhood poverty rate of 41%, increased disparity between rich and poor, lack of affordable housing in the city, etc).  It’s easy to think of this as a continuum of disaster, disease, and death that has plagued New Orleans from her founding to today.  It’s easy to ignore Katrina and her legacy up here.  It’s easy to let it go.  But I can’t.  And as a society, as a country, we cannot. August 29th demands that we stop and think and remember all the human failure that created such unimaginable human loss, and remember how easy it is to let it happen again.  All it takes is apathy.

Remember that all of this happened nine years ago, in the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world.  Remember that we, as a country, watched this happen to our own people.  Remember that this happened, that these 1800+ lives were lost.  And remember that this, too, is New Orleans.

Advertisements

Wrestling with Scarlett O’Hara

Part and parcel of graduate work is reading. Reading takes up the bulk of my time, and I average about 3-500 pages a week when I’m not in crunch time (and can manage about 1000 a week when I’m really pressed). Suffice to say, I have devoured a lot of books and articles on American History. This semester, in my focus on the American South, and on women in the antebellum South in particular, I have come to encounter one name more consistently than any other:

Scarlett O’Hara.

Scarlett being laced into her 17 inch corset by Mammy in the 1939 MGM film, “Gone With the Wind.”

Scarlett has appeared in nearly every book I’ve read thus far this semester.  She came up in Valerie Steele’s The Corset: A Cultural History.  She came up in Catherine Clinton’s The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South.  I’ve seen her in Kristen Olsen’s Chronology of Women’s History.  She’s mentioned in Bridget Heneghan’s Whitewashing America: Material Culture and Race in the Antebellum Imagination.  I’m pretty sure I saw her come up in Walter McDougall’s Throes of Democracy: the American Civil War Era, 1829-1877.  She’s come up so frequently that I have a tally going on my desk, ticking off how many times her name comes up — and how many times I reference her myself!  (This post is upping that count substantially.)

Pretty impressive for a fictional character written in the 1930s.

Scarlett O’Hara has become, for better or for worse, a symbol of antebellum womanhood, the prototypical Southern Belle — ironic, when one considers that Scarlett, with her temper, her manipulative streak, and her iron will, flies in the face of the 19th century ideal woman.  She embodies the moonlight and magnolias vision of the South that has been projected backwards by white imagination into history.  She is the visual symbol of cavalier culture, and she has more currency culturally, I would argue, than the image of the Southern cavaliers themselves.

(A piece of anecdotal data: When walking into the local grocery store here in Charlottesville, a sign welcomed back the University of Virginia Cavaliers.  My partner, a Virginia transplant, asked, “Wouldn’t the cavaliers be a more fitting mascot for William and Mary?  That school was at least around closer to the English Civil War.”  After a moment of gobsmacked silence, I had to explain the image of the Southern cavalier, and its socio-cultural currency in the South, which would lead UVA to have the cavalier for their mascot.  Ironically enough, my partner is a medievalist who studies Normans, and had never heard the connection of Southern cavaliers with the knightly ideal so popular in the South.)

Every Southern historian, it seems, deals with Scarlett.  They mention her, reference her, and use her as an acceptable starting point for the uninitiated into the world of Southern history and culture.  Scarlett is the place we begin to talk about plantation belles.  Scarlett is the place we begin to talk about Southern fashion and corsets, her 17 inch waist being assumed as the immediate benchmark for antebellum ladies.  Scarlett is the place we begin to talk about white mistresses and slaves.  Scarlett is the image of the South, and we cannot escape her.  And through our ongoing willingness to embed Scarlett into our serious history texts, we begin to give Scarlett a life of her own that Mitchell could have never foreseen.

I suspect I sound overly critical of Gone With the Wind.  I rail about its inaccuracies when I talk to people about my work.  I get frustrated when people ask after hearing about my topic, “So you must really love Scarlett O’Hara, huh?”  The truth of it is, I do love Scarlett.  Scarlett was a role model for me as a girl, and I wandered into my love of the Civil War through routine re-watchings of Gone With the Wind and Ken Burns’ documentary.  But as I move on, I get increasingly frustrated that the image of the Southern woman is not a real Southern woman, but rather, a fictional construct made in the 30s, seeped in the post-war racism that characterized the early twentieth century.  Where, I want to ask, are the images of real women, women with names and histories and places that we can look to and see something real?  Why is fiction the dominant standard for all Southern women, be it Gone With the WindSteel Magnolias, Jezebel, or Designing Women?  Are the real women not interesting enough, not fiery enough, not visible enough?  Is fictional racism more comfortable than real racism?  Or are we unwilling to let history get in the way of our vision of the romantic South and the spitfire Southern belle, be she Scarlett O’Hara or Julia Sugarbaker?

I’m not sure.  I suspect that fiction resonates with us and stays with us in ways that history often doesn’t in a wider cultural sense, largely because of how Americans are taught their history.  (Hint: its usually poorly.)  To watch these films and read these novels is to connect with a romanticized  plot-convenient vision of the past, and to have a narrative arc that is designed to be emotional and satisfying, giving it the staying power that history, with its inconveniences and heartbreaks and rough narratives rarely has.  We wrestle with Scarlett O’Hara, I think, because Scarlett is the gateway drug to the rest of what is waiting in the South, be it the good, the bad, or the frequently ugly.  Scarlett is a white vision of an idealized white past, and she’s more comfortable for white folks than the truth.  Culturally, white America has never dealt well with uncomfortable realities when fiction is much more convenient and lovely, after all.

Suffice to say, my Scarlett O’Hara Watch tally isn’t going anywhere.  Because, I suspect, neither is Scarlett.  Scarlett is the vision of the modern woman projected into the past, and with racial issues largely sidestepped or avoided on a larger scale.  She’s the image of one woman doing it all on her own, and getting what she wants, even if the guy issue is complicated (and in this day and age of divorce, who doesn’t sympathise with her holding onto the house and losing the husband?) and her life is a walking tragedy at times.  Her clothes are good, she’s gorgeous, and she’s got ambition to spare.  Mitchell, despite writing Scarlett in the past, was looking forward in some very prescient ways.  And so Scarlett stays with us, the epitome of the imaginary South, eclipsing the cavalier and garnering more name recognition than most of the Southerners who made the Confederacy what it was and what it ever failed to be.