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ROBERT JACKSON University of Tulsa The Southern Disaster Complex Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? —William Faulkner, “Address upon Receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature” (119) 1. WHAT COULD BE MORE SOUTHERN THAN DISASTER? FROM EARLIEST European contact to Katrina, one way to tell the story of what is now the US South is as a series of disasters—natural, man-made, and otherwise. Consider the following selective but surprisingly representative time line. 1590: Disappearance of the Roanoke colonists. 1676: Bacon’s Rebellion,afterwhichVirginia,inaparticularlydisastrousmove,shifted away from indentured servitude in favor of race-based slavery. Slavery built the South into what would have been, had the Civil War turned out differently, one of the five largest national economies in the world; in the bargain, slavery also overworked and ruined much of the soil in the Upper South and deforested and depleted much of the Deep South, to say nothing of slavery’s even more catastrophic devastation in terms of human life, social relations, and democratic institutions.1 After Reconstruction, which Southern blacks and whites agreed was a disastrous period (though for different reasons), the New South’s dependence on staple crops, particularly tobacco and cotton, blossomed into another environmental and economic disaster, further compromising the region’s natural resources and chaining it to an oppressive economic paradigm from which it would be virtually impossible to escape for the better part of a century. 1892: The boll weevil rolled north from Mexico into Texas, wreaking havoc on cotton for decades to come, and revealing the absurdity of the popular cry—now as well as then—for “border security.” 1893: The flowering of an economic depression that hit the South particularly hard, giving the region a three-decade head start, more or less, on the Great Depression. And in the twentieth century? 1 For comparative economic analyses before 1960, see Batemen and Weiss (27-48) and Wilson (xiii-xxii). 556 Robert Jackson Racial segregation, lynching, xenophobia, political demagoguery, headlong resource extraction, unprecedented land use for urban sprawl, continuing pockets of deep poverty, and a desperation to attract even the most environmentally damaging industries to foster “growth”—coal plants, auto factories, oil refineries, nuclear reactors and waste sites. Welcome to Dixie. The region’s annual and ever-more-powerful storms, and especially Katrina, invite the latest reckoning with the historical and aesthetic relationships between Southerners and their disasters. But something was missing from the media blitz in the fall of 2005 and the subsequent mainstream American appreciation, if that’s the right word, of Katrina. For the responses of many black and white Southerners to this most recent, and most disastrous, disaster were largely consistent with the long, robust discourse, generated over several hundred years and beginning to take its modern form in the late nineteenth century, with which the region has meditated on and portrayed its disasters. An appropriate name for this discourse might be the “Southern disaster complex.” Most disturbing about the response to Katrina was the widespread confusion about whether it was a natural or a man-made disaster. This confusion continues even into the present moment, not days but years after the event. But as the early days of shock and horror turned into weeks, and then months, of numbing mass suffering and death and inept or nonexistent leadership in official responses, I began to realize that such confusion has been an integral part of the Southern disaster complex for a long time. From a certain perspective, more aesthetic than pragmatic, it is not just integral but highly desirable, even necessary. The Civil War was certainly the greatest disaster in the South’s history as far as most white Southerners up through the Civil Rights Movement were concerned: it provided an inexhaustible mine of riches for this confusion, and continues to appeal to many Americans for the same reason. Shelby Foote remarks in Ken Burns’s 1990 documentary film The Civil War that Southerners realized too late that “defeat was foreordained” and opines at...


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