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  • Katrina’s World: Blues, Bourbon, and the Return to the Source
  • Clyde Woods (bio)

On Monday, August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall near New Orleans moving at a pace of 125 miles per hour. The dozens of levee breeches led to widespread flooding, more than one thousand five hundred deaths in Louisiana, and massive property destruction. The world was stunned by the five-day-long active abandonment of New Orleans and by four years of massive resistance to the demands of displaced residents to return. Considered both the worst natural and man-made disaster in U.S. history, Katrina fundamentally transformed the New Orleans region, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast. This disaster, and the many social, political, racial, economic, and family disasters that followed also transformed the United States and its standing within the community of nations.

For many students, activists, and citizens of the world, the aftermath of Katrina presented a seemingly endless number of intellectual dilemmas. How could this happen in the wealthiest country in human history? How could so many desperately impoverished people exist in such a country? How could the government of that country so callously abandon and repeatedly abuse hundreds of thousands of its citizens in the middle of a disaster? Why was the most powerful military in the world unable or unwilling to act? Could stark-naked racism on a massive scale actually exist in a post-racial era led by those who have declared themselves “color blind?” How could a city so closely associated with pleasure, romance, and fantasy reveal what Acklyn Lynch has referred to as a “nightmare overhanging darkly?”1

Katrina, multiple wars, and the global economic depression have humbled the nation while simultaneously forcing upon us a desperate search for new social visions. Confronted by these crises, particularly the Katrina dilemma, the response from academic disciplines has increasingly become unintelligible. Additionally, much of what is offered are recycled remnants of the theories, [End Page 427] polices, and practices whose very design ensures the reproduction of numerous forms of inequality. Moreover, the vast majority of the public, private, and nonprofit solutions offered in the wake of Katrina compounded the desperation of the distraught, displaced, and destitute. These polices, practices, and intellectual rituals were themselves impoverished by the subtle and brazen refusals to address long-standing social conflicts in the region.

I’m a ask you this one more time,Is you crazy, deaf, or blind?You don’t see them folks, in them boats, The kids without shoes. Man, it’s people dyin’.

—Dee 1, “Freedom Land”

The disasters surrounding Hurricane Katrina revealed the impaired contemporary social vision of every segment of society. Despite mountains of communication and surveillance devices, America was still shocked by the revelations of impoverishment, racism, brutality, corruption, and official neglect in a place it thought it knew intimately. While some witnesses to the tragedy responded with a historic outpouring of concern, the response of others was to criminalize the victims, yet again. We have all been forced to ask, “What do we really know about ourselves?” Did we know we were witnessing the destruction of a global cultural center? Did we know that those impoverished Black communities were the center of this center? Do we know that these same communities have been at the center of national conflicts over freedom and justice for the last two hundred years? Do we know what they have lost? Do we know what we have lost? Do we know what will be lost if these communities are allowed to disintegrate? These are just a few of the fundamental questions still unasked in the highly contested intellectual debates on the future of the Gulf Coast in which every citizen has a stake.

Ain’t gonna let nobody, Lordy,Turn me ‘round ! Turn me ‘round! Turn me ‘round!Ain’t nobody gonna turn us around.It’s like Sodom and Gomorrah down here,We ain’t turnin’ into pillars of salt, ya heard me.

—K. Gates, “Freedom Land”

What does turnin’ round, or turning back, mean in the aftermath of the multiple Katrina disasters? There is an omnipresent fear, rarely openly discussed in the literature, that the tortured past of Alabama...


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pp. 427-453
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