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What Lies Beneath: Katrina, Race and the State of the Nation

Nekoro Gomes
Date Published: 
August 01, 2007

South End Press, 2007

There is a tone of painful earnestness found in the many voices collected in What Lies Beneath that is almost antiquated in this post-9/11 decade of “with us or against us” polarization and Daily Show-type cynicism. Granted, many of the observations of racial difference, social stratification and parallels to conflicts abroad in the book have not been lost on anyone in this distrustful day and age, from the average Joe to rap artists like Kanye West. But the overwhelming honesty that comes from the contributors to this anthology is unrelenting in its dissatisfaction with a society that has become all too willing to accept the devaluing of anyone unable to justify themselves in America’s hyper capitalist 21st century.

One of the most heartfelt aspects of the reflections from the community activists, academics, journalists and lovers of New Orleans (both as transplants and natives) who have been called in to bear witness for the abandoned Crescent City is a willingness on the part of the contributors to turn the lens of rightfully indignant criticism inward on themselves.

“The fact that my voice has been more prominent than…much more informed voices is a part of this disaster that must be acknowledged,” writes journalist and activist Jordan Flaherty in his essay, “Corporate Reconstruction and Grassroots Resistance.” He goes on to write, “Black people of New Orleans have not only been killed and displaced and robbed, but also silenced.”

The bitter reality of progressivism in America today is one in which predominantly white and middle-class activists speak for (and purportedly act on behalf of) largely non-white masses, and this narrative, acknowledged on the part of Flaherty and many other writers is very important.

What is perhaps most important in the first-person accounts collected are the ways in which many of the activists working tirelessly in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath were simultaneously able to address the needs of abandoned citizens in New Orleans without compromising an agenda of commitment to principles of social, racial, economic and gendered justice. As a result, no one emerges from the dirty water of the Mississippi River completely clean. Essays such as, “To Render Ourselves Visible: Women of Color Organizing around Hurricane Katrina,” by authors Alisa Bierria, Mayaba Liebenthal and INCITE! Women of Color against Violence, turn an equally critical eye to the phenomena of gentrification spurred by white volunteers, as well as the brutal reality of sexual violence against black women committed largely by black men in their own communities.

First glimpse

“Southerners on New Ground,” an essay penned by lesbian social activist Mandy Carter, highlights the added stigma attached to Hurricane Katrina’s Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered and HIV-status survivors, who are hardly no less survivors than their heterosexual counterparts.

Dylan Rodriguez draws interesting analogies between the internal displacement of America’s black New Orleanians in 2007 with the fate of the ethnically dark-skinned and coarse-haired Ayta people of his native Phillipines, who were displaced from their homeland by an eruption of the Mt. Pinatubo volcano in 1991. “For reasons I’m not sure I can fully understand or explain,” empathizes Rodriguez, “Katrina resonates with me in ways that render sympathy and mourning as inappropriate.”

Where Rodriguez attempts to extend the lessons of Katrina to a global context, journalist and author Ross Gelbspam analyzes the natural forces at work in Hurricane Katrina as a symptom of human-influenced climate change in his essay, “Nature Fights Back”. Gelbspam makes the right connections between the lack of federal funding that went toward restoring the natural buffer of Louisiana’s coastline in the four years leading up to Hurricane Katrina and the role of the powerful energy lobby in keeping the public at-large in the dark about the severity of global warming.

If Hurricane Katrina is indeed our generation’s first glimpse into the most brutal of fates for America’s blackest and poorest citizens, it is a fate that can hardly be considered as “new” given our nation’s history. Furthermore, the story of the Battle of New Orleans fought by the progressive activists on the front lines should be a call to arms and a necessary template for the future.

“In an age of global climate chaos, imperialist war and corporate supremacy, New Orleans is only the beginning,” reflects Roger Benham in his essay, “The Birth of the Clinic.” He continues: “Those who value justice, equality and our planet’s future must not only work to change policy at governmental and institutional levels, but also prepare to respond to crises where coercive institutions can’t or won’t.”