American Quarterly 57.4 (2005) 1005-1018
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Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?:
Katrina, Trap Economics, and the Rebirth of the Blues
I hear the Blues everywhere/I feel the Blues all in the air . . . /Now you may not believe in reincarnation/But I know the Blues will live again/With all this hatred, of nation against nation/That put the Blues right in its tread./I want to tell you, people if I can/That the Blues and trouble both run hand in hand/And at a time like this, I know the Blues is in command.
The Katrina tragedy was a blues moment. The legitimacy of the United States is dependent upon multiethnic and multiracial cooperation at home and abroad, yet it affirms its status as the architect of a new world order by denying the existence of racism. Katrina has exposed both the absence of social justice and the futility of this "plausible deniability" dance. The blues tradition of explanation and development provides both a way out of the inner workings of inequity and a way into the Third Reconstruction.
The picture of twenty thousand slowly dying African Americans chanting "we want help" outside of New Orleans's Convention Center was a blues moment. It disrupted the molecular structure of a wide array of carefully constructed social relations and narratives on race, class, progress, competency, and humanity. In the blink of an eye, African Americans, an identity fraught with ambiguity, were transformed back into black people, a highly politicized identity. Mass suffering simultaneously killed the dream and "learnt" the blues to the hip-hop generation. Katrina's message was unmistakable. For example, on September 9, in an essay written for The Monitor of Kampala, Uganda, Vukoni Lupa-Lasaga summarizes the message sent to the African diaspora and the world at large:
This wasn't the way America was supposed to be. . . Many people in the United States genuinely believe—with a fervor that puts religious fanatics to shame—that nobody else in the world can do anything better than America. But the failure of government at all levels in responding to the hurricane disaster rehashes a much older story about the United States, [End Page 1005] one that has been steadily and deliberately noisily drowned or whited out of mainstream discourse. It is the story of race, class, poverty, and studied incompetence . . . for the rest of us, blacks in the United States serve as the proverbial canary in a coal mine. Those images on TV should, therefore, be a lesson for Africans and other people of African ancestry all over the world. Whether you are in peril in Darfur, Sudan, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, or New Orleans, saving your black behind isn't a priority for the American government, founded on a doctrine of white supremacy.2
The victims of Katrina were victimized once again by an army assembled to deny what they experienced, from administration officials such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to leaders of the African American community who cautioned restraint. In this moment of crisis, many other black leaders, intellectuals, and professionals lost the gift of voice.3
Prior to the Katrina tragedy, there existed a raging global debate over the Bush administration's views on racial justice. Several incidents were ongoing sources of tension: the 2000 presidential election and black disenfranchisement, the undermining of the United Nation's Conference on Racism in 2001, opposition to affirmative action in 2003, Texas redistricting, the rise of racial profiling, and crises in the Middle East and along the Mexican border. In June 2004, NAACP chairman Julian Bond accused Bush and the Republican Party of appealing to the "dark underside of American culture . . . They preach racial equality but practice racial division . . . Their idea of equal rights is the American flag and Confederate swastika flying side-by-side."4
The 2004 election's themes of war, social intolerance, and disenfranchisement further poisoned the well. After Katrina, this debate began to...