Speaking for New Orleans

— Christian Roselund

What Lies Beneath:
Katrina, Race and the State of the Nation
South End Press Collective, eds., 2007, 176 pages, $14 paper.

SO MANY WORDS have been spilled over the disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent levee failures in New Orleans, yet still they do not address the full complexity of this tragedy, a tragedy that defies easy explanation by virtue of its sheer scale.

But for anyone living in New Orleans today, if there is anything we are sick of doing it is talking about the storm and its immediate aftermath. There is a widespread disgust among those who bother to pay attention to the way that this city is characterized by national media, both alternative and mainstream.

New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina are too often Rorschach tests for the nation; people look in and see what they want to see and what was already in their minds.

One thing is sure; that the rest of the nation does not understand New Orleans, and New Orleanians across racial and economic spectrums do not expect this to be remedied any time soon — this city has been misunderstood for decades, perhaps centuries, and is remarkably resigned to it.

This is the context in which we can see What Lies Beneath, as a collection of writings on Hurricane Katrina and the reconstruction of the city from very particular perspectives by a range of social justice activists. While many of these perspectives and their insights are not widely heard in mainstream media accounts, they vary in relevance and vision.

Some of the most vital and telling parts of the book come from the Black New Orleanians featured. Local teacher, cultural critic and writer Kalamu Ya Salaam provides vital historical detail to put this disaster into perspective in his introduction, bringing us back to the levee failures in 1965 after Hurricane Betsy.

Ya Salaam also gives some sharp insights into both the failure to evacuate and the current situation when he states that “I believe that the absence of a plan was the plan.”

Another high point of the book is a letter written by long-time organizer and activist Malik Rahim, famous for his part in the Black Panther Party in New Orleans in the 1970s and for his part in initiating the activist aid organization Common Ground in the days after the storm.

Titled “This is criminal,” Rahim’s letter is an excellent account of the situation on the ground in a part of the city that did not flood and speaks to the rage and desperation of a people left by their government to die. Also of note is blues singer Charmaine Marchand’s vivid account of her escape from the city.

Analyzing the Analyzers

Other than Kalamu Ya Salaam’s introduction and aspects of Rahim’s letter (written under dire circumstances shortly after the storm), however, these writings mostly supply first-person accounts. Broader analysis is left to the ever-willing hands of those who do not live here or have lived here for a short period of time, writers who at times seem incapable of seeing outside their limited worlds.

Truthfully, this is an eternal problem in New Orleans. Most of those who speak most loudly for New Orleans are white transplants — including New Orleans newspaper columnist Chris Rose (One Dead in Attic), author Tom Piazza (Why New Orleans Matters), Andrei Codrescu, our Romanian-born poet laureate, and even this reviewer.

While this seems to cause Chris Rose to lose little sleep at night, it inevitably is a subject for white writers who profess a race analysis, such as Jordan Flaherty, one of the foremost spokespeople for New Orleans in the alternative media. As Flaherty writes in What Lies Beneath:

“The fact that my voice has been more prominent than these other much more informed voices is part of this disaster ... black people of New Orleans have not only been killed and displaced and robbed, but also silenced.”

Even when white transplant writers such as Flaherty acknowledge this privilege, many of us still feel remarkably free to speak for this city — which also begs the question of how much liberal (and radical) hand-wringing about the absence of Black voices actually does to create a space for such voices in the media.

Flaherty’s writing at least explores a range of radical activity in the reconstruction of the city. This cannot be said of the limited and self-congratulatory perspectives put forth in the book by the Common Ground Collective, a radical relief organization that was created in the city largely by outsiders responding to the storm.

It is voices such as these that have been heard most loudly in the left and alternative presses since the storm, and they do the city and this tragedy a disservice. It is clear from the Common Ground writing in What Lies Beneath that they yet again fail to see beyond the sub-culture bubble in which they live, wherein they are perfectly comfortable not only approximating the culture of others — which in this case goes from New Orleanians to indigenous freedom fighters in southern Mexico — but also in putting their narrative forth yet again as a dominant “alternative” narrative on the disaster and recovery, even as they claim to acknowledge their failings.

Interestingly enough, this issue finds its way into the pages of the book. As the chapter by two writers from INCITE explains (while not mentioning the organization by name), the scale and effectiveness of the Common Ground Collective’s self-promotion in many places threatens to cover and erase other narratives from those who did not arrive as saviors but for whom this tragedy is their lives.

America’s Realities

Are the voices of people of color non-resident authorities in the book — mostly activists and writers — more telling? At least they provide what the title of the book promises: insights into how much this disaster reflects the tremendous inequities and brutality that lie underneath mainstream America’s false view of itself.

Here is the greatest value of this book — that it provides African-American and other perspectives on an ongoing tragedy of epic proportions that should wake everyone up to the long-ignored realities of race and class in America.

While these observations are often made with the benefit of only a second-hand understanding of the particular circumstances of this peculiar city, these inequities are hardly limited to New Orleans. One can easily speculate based on the template of Katrina what the response would be if Detroit or East Saint Louis were to face a similar disaster, just as an excellent chapter by Dylan Rodríguez draws parallels to the racialized response to a volcanic eruption in the Philippines, and to all disasters.

Under circumstances where the voices of low-income Black New Orleanians have been particularly and historically shut out of American mass media by intersecting forces of race, class and location, perhaps the range perspectives offered in What Lies Beneath come near to being the best that can be practically accomplished with such a project at this time. But we should not be happy with or resigned to that answer.

ATC 129, July-August 2007