The nation might believe it has moved on from Katrina, from the name so childish and somehow slightly foreign, not Sherry or Ann or Margaret. Moved on from the scenes of dark-skinned people in exodus–massed in parking lots with faces upturned as if seeking communion or advice or comfort from above, wading through iridescent oiled water up to their thighs, pushing shopping carts, the burros of poor American neighborhoods, loaded with belongings for the exodus. Sometimes, the soft bodies of children were contorted by sleep into impossible shapes, wedged in between the boxes or where a purse would rest if the cart were in a civilized place–say, a grocery store.
But recently, in a municipal auditorium in Southern California, across the country from Louisiana, in a crowd of 1,700 for a touring black theater production, a comedian warmed up the audience (maybe ten white or Latino people were present) with Katrina, because black Americans have not finished with her.
He began, “Y’all, Katrina was haaard on us. She beat us down, didn’t she?”
The audience began to shout.
“She wasn’t no Category 4 hurricane, y’all. She was a Section 8 hurricane, man, from the projects! Look at her name. Katrina! She sound like she Section 8, don’t she?”
The audience screamed with laughter.
The comedian’s bald head shone and he threw out his arms. “She was whamming around, banging on doors, hollering, ‘Is it a man in there? A man?'”
Then he whirled across the stage with arms outstretched, shrieking improvised karate-style calls as the hurricane moved through the landscape the audience saw.
“He betta have my check! I’ma get wild up in here in Louisiana! Where’s my money?!”
I’m paraphrasing here, because I was surrounded by clapping and stomping feet and all of our calls, so loud the comedian waited patiently, expertly, for enough quiet to move on.
“Now, the brother with the TV? Where the hell was he going? Where did he plan to plug that sucker in?”
And everyone knew exactly who he was talking about. Everyone in America saw him, right?
But then the comedian shook his head. “Katrina whupped up on us, y’all,” he said. “White folks were evacuees. We were refugees. We were looters. White folks were finders.”
He waited for the laughter to die.
“No, y’all, for real. But some white folks were cool.” He stalked off to the right side of the stage and began to hitch up his pants. “The government was treating us so bad, like dogs, y’all, that even the Klan stepped in.” He pulled his pants up higher, moved his shoulders and changed his whole face. “They sure did.” He paced the stage deliberately, slowly, and said in a Klan voice, “Man, the government cain’t do this to y’all. It ain’t constitutional. We can do it, but the government cain’t. Even I feel bad for y’all.”
He reached behind him and took the white handkerchief he’d been using to wipe sweat from his scalp and draped it over his head and face, and the audience went wilder. He bent slightly and imitated the man reaching out a hand as if from a boat or plane and said, “Come on, Fred, get in. No, get in! I’m tryin’ to help ya!” He shook the proffered hand. “Oh, OK–it’s me, George, OK?” He lifted up the handkerchief so the audience could see his face again. “Now, get up outta the water and come on.”
When the stomping and screams died down, he wiped his face again and smiled. “Anybody out there from New Orleans?”
A group of ten or so, mostly women, hollered and waved from the floor seats.
“You made it, y’all!” he said, and waved back.
Sitting beside me was my girlfriend E, who lived in East New Orleans for five years before coming to California to work in the same office with me. East New Orleans was hit hard; her former home was underwater. Her sister lived in Metairie, and the sister’s daughters lived Uptown. All had evacuated to Shreveport, to a motel, the night before Katrina struck. For two months they had been living hand to mouth in two motel rooms, eight people, with no assistance from the Red Cross, FEMA or any other government agency. One daughter’s boyfriend worked for Best Buy, and his company had been paying for the motel rooms. None of E’s sister’s friends or relatives outside Louisiana could send her cash, because she had no bank, no account and nowhere to cash the checks. She also had no post office box or address at the motel. By now, they had no patience.
That night, before the theater production began, E told me her sister had become frustrated and wanted to return to her apartment in Metairie to assess the damage and see if she still had a job at Tulane University, where she’d been working for years. Her daughters all insisted on accompanying her to New Orleans. Their homes were total losses, as were their cars. The Metairie apartment had minimal damage, but now the motel rooms in Shreveport were lost, so all eight people are crowded into a two-bedroom apartment, with no jobs and no money.
“And they never got checks from FEMA?” I asked E.
She raised her eyebrows and said in her wryest voice, “Nope. But Pookie done got his check.”
“Huh?” I said. “Pookie?”
She grinned. “You know. Pookie. He lives in Philly, but his girlfriend’s cousin’s grandma lived in New Orleans last year, and he’s got an address, so he got his check from FEMA.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “You mean Pookie.”
“Two thousand dollars,” E said, shaking her head. “Mmm, mmm, mmm.”
A few weeks later E’s sister found out she was laid off from Tulane, as was everyone else she knew, and her last check was the one she got on November 1.
On the other side of me at the theater was our friend T, who works for the IRS. She said, “Don’t get me started on the damn government and Katrina. They came into the office last week and told us we can’t hire anybody, because we’re getting millions cut out of our budget to pay for Katrina. Somebody’s getting paid for Katrina, but it damn sure doesn’t sound like the people who need it.”
I have gotten e-mails from several places in Louisiana where churches and communities are still housing and feeding and clothing hurricane victims, months later, without ever having seen a government official or Red Cross employee. These are small towns where evacuees showed up because they had family nearby, or because geographically this seemed a safe place, or because that’s where they ran out of gas. In California I have heard the same stories over and over. No government. No money. Just what we are all giving, as citizens. And Katrina has made hundreds of thousands of African-Americans feel as if they are not, even now, citizens of this country.
Americans, and people around the world, registered shock and disbelief at the images of dark-skinned people, many with foreign-sounding vaguely French accents, fleeing their pastel-painted, oddly ornate old homes after Katrina. Ancient cramped homes filled with people who had no cars and not enough money to leave New Orleans. Many were fifth- or sixth-generation Louisianans. Why had they stayed in this dangerous city, which should not have been built where it was, and why did they have so little?
No one brought up the slave markets or Congo Square. New Orleans and its surrounding areas were the heart of the immense slave trade in America for more than 100 years. Africans were brought by ship to New Orleans in great numbers, and even after America took the colony from France, made it a state and then banned importation of African slaves, black people were bought and sold in Louisiana through piracy and interstate trade.
In the 1830s, during Alexis de Tocqueville’s historic journey through America, he interviewed the French consul of New Orleans, Guillemin, who told him: “New Orleans has a very great future. If we succeed in conquering, or only in greatly diminishing, the scourge of yellow fever, New Orleans is certainly destined to become the largest city in the New World. In fifty years the Mississippi valley will hold the mass of the American population, and here we hold the gate to the river.”
The Mississippi Valley held a huge percentage of the nation’s wealth before the Civil War, and Louisiana plantations were populated by thousands of slaves. When Katrina hit, many of their descendants fled rising waters and wind, and looked into television cameras with their own incredulity, asking for a ride away from hell. “I am a citizen of the United States,” one woman repeated over and over, waiting with her bundles of possessions beside a freeway overpass.
“Katrina,” the comedian said ruefully, closing his warm-up act before the theater production began, the people all around me breathing hard with the aftermath of cathartic laughter, some even wiping their cheeks. “She whupped on us, didn’t she?”
Us. People nodded and held up their hands in the darkness of the theater. Citizens of the United States, who are still living in shelters and motels and cars, whose lives will never be the same, not only because water and wind tried to erase those lives but because their lives were negated and minimized and feared and then turned off, on television, after three months.
Even now, as Mayor Ray Nagin begs people to return to New Orleans, residents of the decimated Ninth Ward are being allowed to visit their neighborhood only for a brief time, just to see if anything is salvageable. Houses were moved off foundations, destruction was nearly total and news photos show that in area after area, not even a piece of wood or roof has been moved for cleanup yet.
I met two Louisianans recently who described New Orleans with a kind of shock and awe–they were shocked themselves, and they’d grown up in the swamps. “In the city you can go buy a refrigerator,” one said. “But you can’t get delivery until January, maybe February. So you’ll see some woman toting a handcart, pulling a refrigerator over the bridge into the city. Huffing and puffing. Like Mad Max or something.”
“This long,” the other one said, “and we’re just now getting water. Just now.”
As layer upon layer of government sifts through requests for funding, Louisianans are beginning to give up.
Years from now, when someone says to a man, “What happened to that ’56 Chevy you used to have?” he’ll say the one word. When someone says to a teenager, “You were born in New Orleans but you graduated from high school here in Minnesota?” the girl will think the one word.
When someone says, “Your grandfather died in 2005?” there will be the unspoken lament. When someone says to a whole generation of Louisianans, “What happened?” there will be the one-word answer.
In that way, her name will be added to the list that every black American knows, from both handed-down and newly created stories, told by grandparents or children. The names that call up shared knowledge and define moments in hurt and rage–Tuskegee, Tulsa, Rodney King and before him Eula Love, Scottsboro, Jonestown and MOVE and SLA.