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Backwater Blues

The Mississippi Flood of 1927 in the African American Imagination

Richard M. Mizelle Jr.

Publication Year: 2014

The Mississippi River flood of 1927 was the most destructive river flood in U.S. history, reshaping the social and cultural landscape as well as the physical environment. Often remembered as an event that altered flood control policy and elevated the stature of powerful politicians, Richard M. Mizelle Jr. examines the place of the flood within African American cultural memory and the profound ways it influenced migration patterns in the United States.

In Backwater Blues, Mizelle analyzes the disaster through the lenses of race and charity, blues music, and mobility and labor. The book’s title comes from Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues,” perhaps the best-known song about the flood. Mizelle notes that the devastation produced the richest groundswell of blues recordings following any environmental catastrophe in U.S. history, with more than fifty songs by countless singers evoking the disruptive force of the flood and the precariousness of the levees originally constructed to protect citizens. Backwater Blues reveals larger relationships between social and environmental history. According to Mizelle, musicians, Harlem Renaissance artists, fraternal organizations, and Creole migrants all shared a sense of vulnerability in the face of both the Mississippi River and a white supremacist society. As a result, the Mississippi flood of 1927 was not just an environmental crisis but a racial event.

Challenging long-standing ideas of African American environmental complacency, Mizelle offers insights into the broader dynamics of human interactions with nature as well as ways in which nature is mediated through the social and political dynamics of race.Includes discography.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-xii

Writing a book is an exercise in patience and stamina. I am fortunate to have benefited along this path from the support of family, friends, colleagues, mentors, and institutions. I thank the Rutgers Center for Race and Ethnicity and the McKnight Foundation for fellowships that provided valuable research and writing time. I am also grateful to the Council for Research and...

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Introduction: John Lee Hooker’s Blues

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pp. 1-24

The sheer breadth of the Mississippi River Flood of 1927 continues to present an interesting challenge to scholars. While other disasters such as the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, and Hurricane Katrina might have resulted in more physical damage and loss of life, the 1927 flood stands alone in the ways in which it influenced both environmental...

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1. Down the Line: Blues Brilliance, Displacement, and Living under the Shadow of Levees

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pp. 25-50

The blues serves as an important theoretical counternarrative to the historical archive and how historians make sense of the 1927 flood through “traditional” sources. For many reasons, traditional archives obscure more than they reveal about black social realities during the 1927 flood. A dearth of firsthand sources from black people precludes tying archives to a materiality of...

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2. Burning Waters Rise: Richard Wright’s Blues Voice and the Double Environmental Burden of Race

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pp. 51-74

In June 1926, one year before the 1927 flood spilled across the Yazoo Mississippi Delta landscape, W. E. B. Du Bois delivered a speech at the twelfth annual Spingarn celebration honoring Carter G. Woodson; the speech was later published in Crisis magazine as “Criteria of Negro Art.” Already a towering figure in the field of sociology, Du Bois inserted himself squarely into...

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3. Racialized Charity and the Militarization of Flood Relief in Postwar America

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pp. 75-100

In early June 1927, Neval H. Thomas, president of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the NAACP, addressed a large crowd of black Washingtonians at a local theater. He spoke at length about the 1927 flood and the responsibility of black Washingtonians to help members of the race during this disaster. Thomas also stressed the need to find a suitable method of sending...

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4. Where Sixteen Railroads Meet the Sea: Migration and the Making of Houston’s Frenchtown

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pp. 101-122

The 1927 flood occurred during the height of the Great Migration, highlighting important ways the environment significantly shapes patterns of movement. Environmental displacement is an anxious and uneasy movement; there is often no choice but to migrate out of certain vulnerable landscapes. But mobility is also akin to freedom, and the decision to migrate after the...

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5. Every Day Seems Like Murder Here: The Mississippi Flood Control Project in New Deal–Era America

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pp. 123-150

In early January 1933, Roy Wilkins and George Schuyler emerged in front of a packed house at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City’s Harlem. The NAACP was holding its annual celebration gala and the crowd waited in eager anticipation for what the two men had to say about their recent trip south, when they had posed as laborers investigating charges...

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Conclusion: When the Levee Breaks

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pp. 151-160

The 1927 flood was an important moment in the long history of disaster relief and federalism. One of the main questions that arises from the history of the 1927 flood, and in fact the history of all environmental disasters, is where one can look for help in times of distress. Who is responsible for the alleviation of suffering after a disaster in the form of relief? It may be true...


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pp. 161-190

Selected Discography

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pp. 191-192


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pp. 193-210

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About the Author

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pp. 211-211

Richard M. Mizelle Jr. is assistant professor of history at the University of Houston. He is the coeditor of Resilience and Opportunity: Lessons from the U.S. Gulf Coast after Katrina and Rita.

E-ISBN-13: 9781452943961
E-ISBN-10: 1452943966
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816679263

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 886540099
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Backwater Blues

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Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Migrations -- History -- 20th century.
  • Floods -- Mississippi River -- History -- 20th century.
  • Disaster victims -- Southern States -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century.
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