Saturday, August 28, 2010

5 years after, who speaks for Katrina survivors?

It took five years for the establishment media to finally tiptoe toward acknowledging some of the worst of the horrors inflicted on the people of New Orleans--the workers and the poor, that is, above all the Black community--but they've finally begun to acknowledge what others have been saying all along. That the police in alliance with racist white vigilantes and business owners waged a terrorist campaign against the oppressed, murdering at will, shooting, beating, chasing, ousting and imprisoning African Americans whose crime was being alive in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. That the greatest part of the funds for rebuilding have gone toward those sectors that were already better off, in fact toward deepening the class and race divide, "refurbishing" New Orleans in the bourgeois white image deemed most conducive toward bringing in tourist spending. And that most African American New Orleanians have seen no part of the rebuilding largesse, either that funded by federal tax dollars or that driven by profit takers. Those who've managed to return find their lives as hard as and usually harder than before, and great numbers have never been able to return to their beloved hometown.
Tomorrow, August 29, the fifth anniversary of Katrina, solidarity events are scheduled around the country. Here in New York, the Brass Band of Harlem will lead a commemoration in Union Square, followed by a march to the Solidarity Center for a program and dinner to benefit survivors. Meanwhile, Malik Rahim, a longtime New Orleans community activist who has been tireless in his efforts to organize for justice and reparations, is on the last leg of a 1,500-mile Bike for the Gulf bicycle journey to Washington, D.C., where he will demand Congress take "real action to restore the Gulf from the devastating oil spill wreaking havoc throughout the region." I've heard Malik Rahim speak several times. He has a sharp leftist analysis of the class forces behind the devastation of the community at the time of Katrina, since, and, now, in the wake of the BP spill.

On the literary front, there have been more than a few books in the five years since the hurricane. I've blogged about a couple of them that I read: the nonfiction Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, about which I had mixed feelings, and the novel City of Refuge by Tom Piazza, which I liked a lot. But both Eggers and Piazza are white. How many African American writers have been able to get their books published? Let alone noticed and reviewed? Well, there's good news on this front: a number of Katrina books by Black writers are on their way. On her blog White Readers Meet Black Authors earlier this month, novelist Carleen Brice spotlighted a number of them. There's a children's book, Ninth Ward, by Jewell Parker Rhodes. There are two novels: Wading Home by Rosalyn Story and Southern Discomfort by LaTonya Jones. In non-fiction there are two that I've been hearing tremendous praise for and really want to read. One is Blood Dazzler, poetry by Patricia Smith, which is not new--it came out two years ago but unfortunately since I'm not very on top of developments in the poetry world I'm only now waking up to it--but which is about to reappear in a new form: as a play, at Harlem Stage, for four nights in September. The other is Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It's by Natasha Trethewey, an acclaimed poet who here takes on the longterm damage to and history of the African American community of the region, including her own family. She was recently interviewed about the book on NPR.

On the issue of who speaks for the survivors--even who has the right to the survivors' words--thanks to poet Andrew Rihn for pointing me to a pair of postings on The Poetry Foundation website. "The Voices of Hurricane Katrina" Parts I and II. Part I is "What Are the Ethics of Poetic Appropriation" by Abe Louise Young. Here Young, a white poet and activist originally from New Orleans, discusses Alive in Truth: the New Orleans Disaster Oral History & Memory Project and how it sought, and seeks, to provide an outlet for the actual voices of those whose lives were uprooted by Hurricane Katrina. The idea, Young writes, is to record their testimony, thereby to "help restore authorship and narrative control to people who had been assaulted by media images of themselves as criminals." According to her essay, Young and the others involved in the project seek above all to honor the agency of the Katrina survivors, not substitute themselves for them. "Hurricane Katrina did not happen in a vacuum," she notes,
in America's imagination, to everyone, or in general. It happened in a particular geography, a history, an economy, and a field of race and power built to render certain people powerless. When a white person takes the voices of people of color for his own uses, without permission, in the aftermath of a racially charged national disaster, it is vulture work--worse than ventriloquism.
The white person Young accuses of this vulture ventriloquism is poet Raymond McDaniel, in his recent volume Saltwater Empire. In his book, it seems, McDaniel includes testimony of Katrina survivors, their words that he found on the Alive in Truth website, within the lines of what he presents as his own poetry. Young eviscerates this as cultural appropriation in the worst tradition of white entitlement. She says that she read some of it to one of the Alive in Truth participants, who, "after hearing the poems in which her voice is featured," told Young, "He used my life without giving me no credit! That hurts my heart, that's cold-blooded!"

McDaniel, for his part, responds, sort of, in "Reflections on Found Poetry and the Creative Process." It reads, to me, as a self-serving ramble that might have been better titled, "It's All About Me, You Nitwits, & P.S. Poetry Is Above the Fray." Together, the two essays have garnered 120 comments, which, of course, themselves run the gamut from thoughtful engagement with the very important issues about privilege and appropriation that Young raises all the way to unfortunate "stop picking on us misunderstood white people" whines.