- Staging Slavery in Post-Katrina New Orleans:Crisis as Shock Therapy?
We should stop for a moment and ask ourselves—at this point in our history—after Katrina, after Rita, after Ike, after Gustav, after the national recession, after the BP oil catastrophe, and after the tornado—if presented with the opportunity to build monuments that told our story or to curate these particular spaces … would these monuments be what we want the world to see? Is this really our story?(Landrieu)
These are words Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, delivered in a speech on 23 May 2017, referring to the Confederate monuments the city of New Orleans had removed in the previous month. With this long list of the disasters that afflicted the Crescent City since 2005, he clearly suggests that these disasters have inexorably altered the perception New Orleanians have of the history of their city. He claims that Katrina was the first of these eye-openers.
Katrina was not the strongest hurricane of all time despite its strength. It was 400 miles large, thus smaller than Sandy in 2012 (482 miles) and Igor in 2010 (920 miles). It was a category 3 hurricane, while Irene, in 2004, and Andrew, in 1992, were respectively classified as category 4 and category 5. It provoked a rainfall depth equivalent to Irene (17 inches) and, although it is among the deadliest hurricanes that have hit the United States with 1,833 lives lost, it caused the deaths of fewer people than the hurricanes that hit Galveston in 1900 and Florida in 1928, for instance, with respectively 8,000 and 2,500 casualties.1 Yet because it hit New Orleans and revealed major flaws in the environmental, social, urbanist, and racial policies of the city, it triggered a number of nation-wide conversations on climate change, environmental issues, poverty, and race relations in New Orleans and the United States more generally. Because of the deep inequalities and fractures it revealed among races, it was the origin of a debate on persisting racial inequalities in the city and, ultimately, it launched a conversation about New Orleans's slave past and the amnesia that had surrounded it for more than a century. [End Page 1]
While the question of memory had long been a neglected topic, in the last two decades of the twentieth century, most societies of Europe and the Americas initiated a conversation on memorialization, which inaugurated a movement often termed "memory boom," which, in turn, triggered a powerful need to theorize on the question. French historian Pierre Nora's ambitious project, which resulted in the publication of his seven-volume Lieux de mémoire between 1984 and 1992, initiated a profusion of works aimed at understanding the differences between history and memory, at the notion of public memory, and at delineating the blurred contours of memory in contemporary western societies. Although Nora eluded the question of slavery in his monumental project, many historians followed his lead by writing about memory—but, unlike him, by writing about memory and slavery—and produced a large corpus of works on the topic.2
This intense reflection on the memory of slavery was spurred by the memory boom that marked the end of the past century. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, indeed, all of the former slave societies of the Americas, most of their former colonial powers, and many of the African countries that provided slaves to the American continent, initiated a significant movement acknowledging the horrors of slavery and the role of slavery in building the New World. From Africa to Europe and the Americas, most societies of the Atlantic world began memorializing their slave-ridden pasts. The United States followed the global trend towards a more nuanced representation of its past. That movement spread, to varying degrees and in diverse forms, to the American South, including some rural parts of Louisiana. For many years, however, New Orleans resisted the general movement and opted for a memorialization that staged solely the city's Creole past. The city highlighted the cultural repercussions of a unique encounter of ethnic and racial groups, only very incidentally mentioning, through...