Taking its name from famed blues singer Bessie Smith's 1927 single, Richard Mizelle's innovative synchronic history Backwater Bluesrecovers the voices and experiences of African Americans during one of the most destructive environmental disasters in American history. The 1927 Mississippi River flood devastated communities in seven states as excessive rain created a slow-moving disaster. Patchworks of levees, not yet standardized and coordinated by the Army Corps of Engineers, failed from natural forces and human intervention. The river flooded areas along its main corridor, as well as its backwaters—those places and people long forgotten and marginal.
Contrary to existing scholarship which analyzes the flood in the context of policy, environmental disasters, and the shaping of the Yazoo Mississippi Delta, Mizelle combines alternative sources, namely blues music and historical fiction, with traditional primary sources to fully explore key questions related to the African American experience. In this way, Mizelle makes similar moves as in Robin D. G. Kelley's Race Rebels(1994) and Keith Wailoo's Dying in the City of the Blues(2001), finding new ways to excavate experiences often not chronicled in traditional archives.
Central to this study is how environmental disaster exposes the troubled relationships between race and place, protection and vulnerability, wealth and power, and citizenship and non-citizenship. Mizelle begins by making a case for blues as a valid source of counter-hegemonic expression. African Americans simultaneously expressed vulnerability and close relationships to the environment in the medium which created a shared memory around the disaster. He then moves to a close analysis of two essays penned by author Richard Wright. These essays depict the "limited options of Black people" (p. 69), where decisions made to survive were not easy and could themselves result in death.
Chapter 3 is, perhaps, the most fascinating. Mizelle asks who is charity for and what does it do? Analyzing the militarization of charity and flood relief, the author documents how the American Red Cross, the main disaster relief organization preceding the growth of federal power, was used as a means to control black movement and black labor. The Red Cross camps were often undesirable places to take refuge. Men were forced to labor on failing levees, a dangerous job in itself, while trapped in a system of debt peonage. Conditions in the camps were unsanitary and the refuge from the violence of nature exposed southern blacks to the violence of men. Given the extraordinary circumstances, Mizelle maintains that these camps were "microcosms of daily survival" (p. 127). [End Page 590]
African Americans not affected by the disaster learned of these horrific conditions through the black press. Efforts led by the NAACP channeled financial resources to organizations which could directly benefit their southern counterparts. Roy Wilkins and George Schuyler traveled south undercover to investigate relief camps and levee labor conditions. Efforts like the NAACP's mobilized black support and began a program of federal policy reform that would continue into the New Deal. More than this, the NAACP elucidated the political violence experienced by African American flood survivors. Finally, Mizelle demonstrates how the disaster influenced black mobility. Using the development of Frenchtown, an ethnic enclave of relocated Louisiana Creoles in Houston, Texas, Mizelle makes a case for a "racial flood diaspora" (p. 12).
The specter of Hurricane Katrina looms large over this text. Though Mizelle does not make many direct comparisons, the questions explored here lend themselves to understanding the cultural and political implications of the disaster. In particular, he examines the multiple (violent) uses and purposes of artificial levees as experienced by black people. Though Mizelle is creative in excavating non-traditional sources, sometimes his work errs on the side of source analysis, which detracts from his larger analytical and narrative work. This is understandable for those who are unfamiliar with myriad blues forms; Mizelle contextualizes them very well.
Overall, this small book excellently executes large ambitions as it engages with numerous bodies of scholarship including African American history, environmental history, and histories of medicine...