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.”