News & Politics

Ten Years Since Katrina: A Meditation on New Orleans

We are black and alive, still, despite what the pictures say.

This anniversary is a crossroads, a time 
to decide what to run toward and what to cast aside for a lighter burden. Ten years ago, I was a “refugee” from an American city. The consequence of that label has been a chaos of circumstances and quick decisions. The first 10 years, all a scramble to reconstruct oneself. The truth is, I am one of the lucky ones. One of the luckiest. I am home. I am sane. I am alive to speak for myself. I mourn for those lost and struggle with the gratitude and guilt of being spared. Survival is an animal instinct that moves us all toward good and bad, and I am doing my best with its weight. In these 10 years, I’ve learned to use this realization to heat and cool my anxiety, to forgive myself and propel my body into motion. There is so much about the last 10 years that I would rather forget, experiences I would remake. But it is not possible to go backward. There is only what is,and right now the stakes are high. New Orleans changes for good, a little bit at a time, every day. Houses in my neighborhood flip at sometimes three times their pre-Katrina “worth.” For white families in the new New Orleans, the median income has grown at triple the rate of black families’ income. It’s no wonder many are insistent that New Orleans is back and better than ever. There are roughly 100,000 fewer black people in the metro area. Old people out; new people in. It is critical not to cede the story at its crossroads.

Raised black in New Orleans and having made it to this side of these 10 years, I remember that with living comes the sacred responsibility of recalling. New Orleans has always been a place of many peoples. The Chata (Choctaw) named the city Bulbancha, “Many Languages Spoken There,” and the Ishak call it Nun Ush, “The Big Village.” Many of the places and locations known to tourists and travelers worldwide, such as the Port of New Orleans, the French Market, and Congo Square, served as thoroughfares for trade and culture long before the arrival of whites. Born and raised black in New Orleans, I speak an English marked by its African and Native vocabularies and patterns of speech. I like my short adjectives repeated two and three times each. The food is good-good and the picture might be pretty-pretty-pretty. I grew up with a distinct awareness of our longstanding ties to this land and the people who originally inhabited it. New Orleans is our place, a place with a syncretic and independent culture and a multilayered relationship to the diaspora—a relationship not of theory, but of practice.

Super Sunday is one tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans. A gathering of nations, it is an homage to and a reiteration of the political, spiritual, and blood bonds between indigenous peoples. Occasions like this, along with St. Joseph’s Night, are the times apart from Mardi Gras when certain citizens of New Orleans mask and transform themselves. Raised black in New Orleans, I learned to see the full expanse of our culture, the total expression of what it means to be transcendent, to be free, to resist. Growing up, I celebrated Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, with my schoolmates every year. Occasionally, I would attend Mass or bring flowers to the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. Other times, I had to argue for respect in neighborhood businesses that were almost never black-owned but always black-supported. I struggled to understand where we had all come from, the histories that landed us in this place together.

My life in New Orleans has been an intersectional black experience, one that continues to teach me about the globe and the journeys of peoples across it. For me, Katrina and the 10 years that have followed are as much a story of movement as anything else. Many of us raised black in this city have had to wander elsewhere in the years since; others of us have adjusted our eyes to home’s jarring new landscape. I know that there is power in an identity of group and individual survival. I call upon it daily in order to understand my body in this new place. Raised black in New Orleans, we are all looking to make a way, through memory, to the life stretching out in front of us.

* * *

The one-year anniversary of Mike
 Brown’s murder, and of the start of the protests in Ferguson, will precede this 10th anniversary of Katrina. The chilling news of Sandra Bland’s death in a Texas jail cell, and the murders in between these deaths, haunt this first decade of the storm’s destruction and aftermath. The news media’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina created looters of human beings. There were orders to shoot those human beings on sight. This year, we have all been inundated with the photographs and video clips of human beings suffering and dying. We have all seen them: some in choke holds, others riddled with bullets. People hanged or laid out on the concrete. This year has been the endless looping on television of human beings who look like me, rendered black and dead. Ten years since Katrina and 10 years among the undead, I recall having had my humanity interrupted, my community made fodder to a culture in which gazing upon our deaths is an act as simple as a few guilt-free clicks. These days, I share my culture with those who zoom their lenses in on me and my son—those who demand with point-and-shoots to know if we are a part of the festivities?

The Maafa is a ceremonial gathering and procession from Congo Square to the Mississippi River that has happened annually in New Orleans for the last 15 years. Attendees are asked to wear all white to honor those who came to New Orleans via the transatlantic slave trade. The procession makes several stops throughout the Quarter. One purpose of the gathering is to say: We remember. The Maafa is a day for those of African descent to show up in places where our ancestors were bought and sold. It’s a day to let it be known that we have an account of what we’ve endured in this place. On the walk, I cannot help but reimagine the tens of thousands amassed at the Superdome, the Convention Center, those on rooftops, highways. Those people who were already dead, the bloated and defaced bodies that camera lenses could find, but help could not reach.

At the conclusion of this year’s Maafa, we walked from the river through the Quarter, and a white man grabbed my friend’s shoulder. Shouting with a weird, expectant grin on his face, he pressed: Hey! My girlfriend wants a picture of you.All night after this encounter, I was reminded of the memorabilia that peppers the French Quarter’s souvenir shops: the postcards featuring smiling black faces at the center of sunflowers or happily eating or chopping sugarcane. Also postcards of a more sacred variety. These are the relics of universities, museums, and lay collectors, postcards with the images of black lynching victims and the mobs responsible for their murders. Lately, I think daily of the people, the families, the Americans, who waited patiently for the arrival of these postcards in the mail. The people for whom these photographs served as a form of entertainment and a way to communicate shared values. I am willing my way through the new images of black death that accost us this year. I still do not know what to do with the ones that live in my memory.

* * *

Currently, I reside in New Orleans’s 
rapidly gentrifying Fifth Ward/Mid-City neighborhood. Navigating it mostly on foot, I am always ridden by the recollections of what was there before Katrina. All over the city are the places that no longer exist, the dimension of my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, the evidence of which has been mostly washed away. Lost to forever are still more human beings. Where did all the people who disappeared go? Ten years hasn’t been long enough to call any of them back across land or ether. It is something to be erased—or to be photographed like a relic while you’re still living.

This 10-year anniversary is a crossroads, a time for all refugee-citizens to live in the fullness of what we remember. I come from a people who have always asserted their right to assemble, to show up and be seen, to be counted as nations within a nation. Those of us who remain in New Orleans are tasked with separating the mere passage of time from ideas of progress, of back and better than ever. We are fighting the notion of death as a pathway to new and more resilient cities. We will not be the thing that bonds other humans to one another—the dead bodies to remind others to cherish their mortality. We are black and alive, still. This is the truth, despite what the pictures say.

Now is not the time to cede the story of the past 10 years, or the next.

Recalling the summer of 2005, the first memory is heat. It was a hellish August. Already there were things I would have liked to forget. The New Orleans I grew up in was a strange and dangerous and exhilarating place to be. There were traps and pitfalls and early deaths. There was also no place like it on earth, and much to look forward to. I was a senior in college when Katrina came in from the Gulf of Mexico. The levees breached and topped, and MR-GO, a channel built to shorten the route from the Gulf of Mexico to the Industrial Canal, pushed a wall of water through all that I had ever known. Human beings were left behind to face this water. Some lived. More than 1,800 died, many of them drowned. Many others have died prematurely in the months and years that followed.

Every day is a fight to make sense of the shape of my new existence. In the 10 years since, I have earned two degrees, become a mother, and buried my son’s father. I have grieved, fallen in love, been heartbroken, and moved more than a dozen times. Because I was raised black in New Orleans, I was taught many tricks on how to survive—that even heartache can be cause to make pretty and celebrate. Here, despite all that has changed, the drums beat as they always have: a little something to help the children remember that we have been here a long time, and a long time ain’t going nowhere. I struggle against those in my city who say that with progress must come our erasure. I don’t know how long my city has for me, but every day that I remain, I am working, searching for a newer, truer meaning for the concept of forward.

Kristina Kay Robinson is the coeditor of Mixed Company, a collection of short fiction by women of color. Her work has appeared in The Baffler, Xavier Review, and Guernica.

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