- The Wake and the Work of Culture:Memorialization Practices in Post-Katrina Black Feminist Poetics
In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast area of the southern United States. Its aftermath laid bare the radically uneven vulnerabilities that are violently distributed along racial lines in the United States. In particular, Katrina exposed the anti-black underpinnings of what we have now come to term neoliberalism, or the way the post-civil-rights state marshals resources for white supremacy through the terms of color-blind bureaucracy, multiculturalism, and inclusion. In the storm's material and symbolic wake, one could argue that an entire movement of black arts, literatures, and cultures emerges—a "post-Katrina" periodization that intersects with and challenges the post-9/11 designation for political and cultural turns in the contemporary moment. Spike Lee's documentary When the Levees Broke (2006) joins diverse works such as Jesmyn Ward's novel Salvage the Bones (2011), Patricia Smith's poetry collection Blood Dazzler (2008), the breakout film Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), works by visual artist BMike, Beyonce's blockbuster visual album Lemonade (2016), and songs by artists such as Big Freedia, Lil Wayne, and Yasiin Bey as post-Katrina imaginaries that center on race, space, and class as recentralized concerns of black cultural production, in many ways reaching back to the era of the Great Migration and a focus on black southern life in the early part of the twentieth century. In this post-Katrina landscape, black cultural production has dug deep into this aesthetic tradition and challenged the critical territories of ecocriticism, post-humanism, and new materialism in relationship to race and representation.
The storm has come to represent a nexus of natural, infrastructural, and ethical failures that forced a moment and perhaps an era of public reckoning with the ongoing processes of black disenfranchisement from US state protections and rights. The Ninth Ward, the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and other black landscapes [End Page 1] of the United States were not only sacrificed to "protect" the value of white-owned and occupied land during the storm, as when parts of the city were strategically flooded and the infrastructures to prevent damage were left unattended and unkempt for years, but also marked as beyond repair during both rescue and rebuilding efforts funded by the federal government and covered by mainstream national media. African American poetry (and art) about Katrina promises and is demanded to bear witness to this spectacular, violent show of force, to manage public and political appetites for recognition and remembrance through its ability to merge the material and the abstract in linguistic form. This cultural imperative stands as both opportunity and limit for black artists and poets, as they are expected to weigh in exclusively on the fates of black life, historical and present, and are frequently only given accolades and earn readership when they accede to this demand to represent the spectacle of black subjects in pain. As John Gery explains,
[T]he events created an opportunity for poets—in a distorted, almost grotesque manner—a chance for, if not fame, exactly, a degree of notoriety: Suddenly, without anticipation, as it is for demolition teams and electricians, animal rescue workers and psychotherapists, people around the country, around the world, have turned to the poets wanting to know what we are thinking and doing.(1541)
Katrina also authorized a public discourse about the contemporary, enduring presence of debilitating racism in the material lives of African American citizens in the face of a state that has left them vulnerable, and named them openly disposable life, against a tide of neoconservative color-blindness. Katrina, as a moment of reckoning for the second Bush presidency, can stand not only as an event but also as a metaphorical watershed—the moment when some measure of the ongoing process of black dehumanization by the state was exposed and when black artists and black politics began to enter into a new direction, a renaissance, whereby their demands for representation, cultural and political, had a renewed call to be heard by white-dominated politics and media. However, those calls to represent are also, to...