God and the devil in the wake of Katrina

Friday, November 11, 2005

David Remnick reports in The New Yorker (issue of October 3) from New Iberia, Louisiana, where hundreds of African-Americans from New Orleans had taken refuge. Here is some of his account:

A friendly man in his late 30s named Walter Hays sat down to talk. Hays is African-American, a Navy veteran…Walter Hays wanted to tell his [story]. He was in New Iberia with a group of 28 close family and friends, including 3 infants and several small children. The adults had vowed to bring everyone out together….

[A description of four horrific days on the Claiborne Avenue overpass follows]

[They] knew they had to get out of town, but there was no transport. A police officer told them that they should break into cars and see if they could steal one. Hays and his best friend…found a key that fit Bus No. 9322 and picked up the rest of the extended family and headed out of town…On the road to New Iberia, a police officer pulled them over. “I was scared,” Hays said. “After all, we’d looted the bus. The cop, a white guy, looked inside…and he gave us a police escort…And in New Iberia, an officer said to me, and I will remember this forever, he said, ‘I want you to understand something. You think this is the end of life as you know it for you. But this is a new beginning. You have a lot of people pulling for you.'”

Walter Hays had been telling his story for a couple of hours, with many other details of disasters averted and kindnesses provided. By now many of his friends had gathered round him, adding clarifications and saying that, all in all, they were blessed.

“All along the way, things were strategically placed in our way by the Lord,” Hays said, in agreement. “The dopehead who helped us, the people in Houma, wading through the water…the tiny infants who made it out, sleeping on the bridge, like it was a terrible desert. It’s Biblical, isn’t it? After everything we’ve been through, if you aren’t changed morally, spiritually, then you’re dead inside.”

And then, just at the point where the story seemed over, with a flourish of amens and thank-the-Lords, [a young man from among Walter Hay’s friends] said, “Now, just remember.” He paused and lowered his gaze at me [Remnick]. “Remember, he said, “this was a premeditated disaster. They flooded the city. It happened on a pretty, sunny day, two days of rising water. You tell me: where the rich people at?”…The others nodded. They agreed with this no less than they agreed on the saving grace of God….

At the Reliant Center in Houston, a woman named Patricia Valentine, a fifty-four-year-old woman from Treme, a black neighborhood near the French Quarter, told me…that she had no intention of returning home…”I was in Hurricane Betsy forty years ago…and the levee broke. What are we, stupid? Born yesterday? It’s the same people drowning today as back then, They were trying to move us out anyway. They want a bigger tourist attraction, and we black folks ain’t no tourist attraction.”

…Scholars…have written extensively on the role of rumor and conspiracy theory in the African-American community, especially among the poor…These counter-narratives emerge from decades of institutional racism and from particular episodes in American history such as the use of hundreds of poor African-Americans, between 1932 and 1972, as lab rats in US government trials, known as the Tuskegee experiment, on the effects of syphilis….”Perception is reality, and their reality is terrible,” Jim Amoss, the editor of the [New Orleans] Times-Picayune, said. “We are talking about people who are very poor and who have a precondition to accept this belief…they know a thing or two about victimization.”

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