What Meaneth Black Suffering? Race, Meaning-Making, and Democracy in Post-Katrina America

What Meaneth Black Suffering? Race, Meaning-Making, and Democracy in Post-Katrina America

by Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou

The U.S. government and America’s entire economy were constructed on a
racial foundation. Blacks were excluded by race from civic
participation and voting for several hundred years; they were
segregated into residential ghettoes, denied credit and capital by
banks, and relegated to the worst jobs for generation. Over time,
popular cultural and social attitudes about Black subordination and
white superiority were aggressively reinforced by the weight of
discriminatory law and public policy. Psychological, is the specter of
Black suffering and death in some manner reaffirming the traditional
racial hierarchy, the practices of Black exclusion and

- Manning Marable, “Katrina’s Unnatural Disaster: A Tragedy of Black
Suffering and White Denial” in Souls, “The Black South: Resurrecting
Jim Crow,” Winter 2006, Volume 8, Number 1

I share with you the same revulsion from evil. But I do not share your
hope, and continue to struggle against this universe in which children
suffer and die.

- Albert Camus, “The Unbeliever and Christians” in Resistance,
Rebellion, and Death


Hear us, O heavenly Father! “A Litany at Atlanta” rose to a coruscating pitch
of remonstrance, all by commanding the Deity to make sense
of black suffering and to relieve it;
“Bewildered we are passion-tossed made
with the madness of a mobbed and mocked and murdered people;
straining at the armposts of Thy throne, we raise our shackled hand
and charge Thee, God, by the bones of our stolen fathers, by the tears
of our dead mothers,
by the very blood of Thy crucified Christ:
What meaneth this? Tell us the plan;
give us the sign! Keep not Thou silent, O God!”

- W. E. B. DuBois, from W. E. B. DuBois: The Fight for Equality and
the American Century, 1919-1963 by David Levering Lewis


A few months ago, while I was giving a tour of Lower Ninth Ward to a
group of sociologists visiting New Orleans for a race, class, and
gender conference, a dialogue incurred that revealed more in what was
not said than what was said. One of my fellow tour guides, Abby
Lublin, a New York City teacher who had spent a few months in New
Orleans volunteering for the People’s Organizing Committee, referred
to human catastrophe in New Orleans as “genocide.”

The collection of distinguished female academics and I engaged in a
lively debate. We concluded that the word “genocide” pointed us in the
right direction, but was insufficient to describe what had happened on
August 29, 2005. (In fact, the use of the word genocide in reference
to New Orleans may cheapen what is happening in Darfur.)

Post-Katrina New Orleans is shaped by a historical set of issues and
by a present-day “unholy trinity” – of mass familial displacement,
mass fiscal divestment, and mass physical devastation. After several
months of living and working in New Orleans, I found lacking a
discernable vision for the city and region – and am reminded of the
question posed by W. E. B. DuBois a century ago: “What meaneth Black

Historically, black folk have had to contend with hegemonic forces
denying them both the means to make ends meet and what I would
describe as “meaning making”: the American empire alienated people of
African descent from the possibility of making meaning for themselves.
The genealogy of black folk in America is littered with examples of
this kind of dizziness and absurdity. The images of folks stranded on
rooftops and packed in the New Orleans Superdome are the latest and
grossest of this history.

By situating post-Katrina New Orleans within the existential context
of black life in America, this tragedy does maintain some uniqueness.
New Orleans is a phenomenon. It is the birthplace of jazz – America’s
first original art form – and an extraordinary mix of cultures that is
reflected in its food, architecture, skin tones, and social life. Yet
it is also the site of her greatest disaster (both natural and
human-made). In a word, New Orleans is tragicomic.

Today, her plight has disappeared from much of the public memory. And,
following a six-month tour in her bosom, I have found that the
struggle to rebuild the great city is tainted with an overriding
burden of hopelessness and misunderstanding.

Our challenge today is to bring to bear an interdisciplinary analysis
that affirms these historical realities: combining a nuanced vision of
the present with an eye on a prophetic future.

On August 29, 2006, the People’s Hurrican Relief Fund and other
community groups organized a funeral march from the Lower Ninth Ward
to the French Quarter and Congo Square. Photo: Diane Greene Lent

Black suffering and American democracy

Three recently-published books help point us in a direction of this
kind of approach: After the Storm: Black Intellectuals Explore the
Meaning of Hurricane Katrina (The New Press, 2006); What Lies Beneath:
Katrina, Race and the State of the Nation (South End Press, 2007); and
There Is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and
Hurricane Katrina (Routledge, 2006). While each anthology approaches
the post-Katrina America and race from a different vantage point, they
all contend with the meaning of black suffering within American

Before reading a word, each text calls up the angst of those tragic
days in late August and September of 2005. All three covers bear
gothic, Gordon Parks-style photographs – images that are nothing less
than miserable grace their covers – immortalizing democracy’s graphic

Those stark images lay the foundation for a series of sobering essays.
The effects of the breached levees in 2005 are laid over a historical
narrative of New Orleans, filled with endemic poverty and racism – to
return New Orleans to its pre-Katrina state would be unjust. We are
reminded in each text that fully one-quarter of African-American men
and one-third of African-American women in New Orleans lived below the
poverty line prior to Katrina. As Bruce Katz detailed in “Concentrated
Poverty in New Orleans and Other American Cities” (The Chronicle of
Higher Education, 8/4/06):

On the very day the levees broke, the Census Bureau released a report
on poverty in the nation, finding that Orleans Parish had a poverty
rate of 23.2 percent, seventh highest among 290 large U.S. counties.
Yet the economic hardships were shared unequally. Although
African-American residents made up 67 percent of the city’s total
population, they made up 84 percent of its population below the
poverty line. And those poor African-American households were highly
concentrated in 47 neighborhoods of extreme poverty – that is,
neighborhoods where the poverty rate topped 40 percent.

Where was god?

These realities coalesced in real-time as the nation watched thousands
of fellow citizens left to their own devices in the face of a Category
Five hurricane. My search for meaning during several months in the
Lower Ninth Ward led me to demand, as have others: Where was god? Why
had not god intervened? It is a question of theodicy and democracy at
once. How could a good god allow those whose existence was miserable
before the storm be silent in such a moment of tragedy and need?

In his foreword to After the Storm, legal scholar Derrick Bell leaps
to respond to my concern for god’s absence. “How can we awaken that
sense of humanity within us that some call God to address the needs of
those whose plight is the fault of man, not God? Perhaps, as many
theologians think, we should view God not as a superbeing somewhere up
there who determines our fates and can, at will intervene in our

After the Storm effectively contrasts these existential and
theological questions with the human evidence of abandonment of
responsibility. Blacks are not exempt: in his the book’s introduction,
Charles Ogletree highlights the Essence Festival, which annually
attracts over 100,000 African Americans to the Superdome to sway to
R&B and neo-soul artists. It is a harsh juxtaposition with the image
of masses stranded for days in that same structure. Similarly, John
Valery White problematizes Mayor Ray Nagin’s symbolic political
leadership and questions his commitment to poor blacks.

Governmental neglect and malfeasance is, of course, at the heart of
the discourse. David Troutt cites the history of urban ghettoization
through public housing policy and construction in “Many Thousands
Gone, Again.” And writing from a hotel room in Canada, from which she
watched the devastation unfold, Sheryl Cashin reconsiders the role of
urban organizations in light of Kanye West’s infamous proclamation,
“George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

Race or class?

Conversely, Adolph Reed lambastes the focus on race. In his terse
essay, “The Real Divide,” Reed incisively highlights the role of
class. He rejects race as the primary tool of analysis for two
reasons: first, “the language of race and racism is too imprecise to
describe effectively even how patterns of injustice and inequality are
racialized in a post-Jim Crow world.” Second, Reed argues that many
liberals gravitate to the language of racism not simply because it
makes them feel righteous but also because is doesn’t carry any
political warrant beyond exhorting people not to be racist.

Reed contends that use of race obscures class and does not recognize a
fundamental crisis in the political economy. Racism, for Reed, “can be
a one-word description and explanation of patterns of unequal
distribution of income and wealth, services and opportunities, police
brutality, a stockbrokers inability to get a cab, neighborhood
dislocation and gentrification, poverty, unfair criticism of black or
Latino athletes, or being denied admission to a boutique. Because the
category is so porous, it doesn’t explain anything. Indeed, it is an
alternative to explanation.”

Yet race must be addressed as we consider the phenomena of New
Orleans. Focusing on the descriptions of a black man carrying a bag as
a “looter” and a white couple as having “found” food, Cheryl I. Harris
and Devon W. Carbado investigate the role of racial logic in
articulating the activities of stranded residents in the flood’s
immediate aftermath. “Loot or Find? Fact or Frame” strives to unmask
the colorblind discourse surrounding race in the American media.
Michael Eric Dyson skillfully categorizes the forms of migration
experienced by black folk and situates Katrina in that context.
Clement Alexander Price methodologically discusses the Galveston,
Texas flood of 1900, finding poor blacks to be peculiarly vulnerable
to nature disasters.

These essays and others counter Reed’s claim of race being
inappropriate to describe this current crisis. His claim obscures the
blackness of suffering in late modernity. Where Reed is correct is in
saying that race and class need to engage in a more intimate dialogue
– and within that conversation we also need to include gender.

Jordan and Galvez Streets in the Lower Ninth Ward. More than a year
after the storm, the region still had no running water, electricity,
or open stores. Photo: Diane Greene Lent (dianelent.com)

Gender, age, and neoliberalism

In There Is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster, that linkage is made
most evident in an essay by co-editor Chester Hartman and social
policy analyst Avis Jones-DeWeever. In “Abandoned Before the Storms,”
the co-authors illustrate with wonkish precision the dismal
unemployment and poverty rates for African-American women. “In fact,
of the 43 states with sample sizes large enough to provide a reliable
measure of African-American women’s earnings, Louisiana ranked worst
in the nation with full-time annual earnings of only $19,400.”

Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s chapter, “Katrina and the Politics of
Later Life,” provide a unique argument. “Ageism,” she theorizes, “at
the level of feelings is a peculiar privilege, compelling but
ominous.” Ageism has this in common with racism or sexism: it forbids
thinking “we can ever be them.”

People over 50 died in far greater numbers in the storm’s aftermath.
These unwarranted deaths are linked to an ideology of decline, writes
Gulette. “Ageism is wrapped up in neoliberal state policy on behalf of
postindustrial capital. Power, not the needs of the woman on the
baggage mover or the 45-year-old on workers’ comp, drives the ideology
of declines.” Our national state, like others, is “promoting and
funding market solutions” in a “race to the bottom” to see “how much
and how fast social expenditures may be reduced in order to transfer
more national wealth to the corporate sector.” This is a global
effort, she maintains. The World Bank and the International Monetary
Fund are “at the forefront of attempts to foster a political climate
conducive to reducing the state welfare of old age.”

The insertions of ageism and gender to the Katrina discourse speak to
the level of nuance needed to understand what has been unmasked about
American “democracy” – and the global economy. Filled with graphs and
numbers, There Is No Such Thing provides insights on the role of
financial institutions alongside grassroots organizing, medical needs,
pre and post-public education crisis and the public housing. The
book’s most important element is that it puts forth a strong set of
policies – ones that would not rebuild New Orleans, but create a
deeper democracy.

Women ignored

What Lies Beneath offers a chorus of indigenous voices. Like a jazz
band, steeped in improvisation, the work is the most heartfelt and
wise of the three. Edited by the South End Press collective, the book
is both dramatic and elegant.

The personal struggles for survival are absent from the other pair of
anthologies. This collection poignantly retells several of these
stories. Charmine Neville, of the famous musical family, painfully
recounts being raped. She then describes how, despite such a
violation, she continued – like Harriet Tubman – to go back and get
those who had been left behind. In her simply titled essay, “How We
Survived the Flood,” she recalls:

There was a group of us, there were about 24 of us, and we kept going
back and forth and rescuing whoever we could get and bringing them to
the French Quarter because we heard there were phones in the French
Quarter, and that there wasn’t any water. And they were right, there
were phones but we couldn’t get through to anyone. I found some police
officers. I told them that a lot of us women had been raped down there
by guys, not from the neighborhood where we were, they were helping us
to save people.

The question of violence during Katrina and its aftermath is a
problematic, layered one. In “To Render Ourselves Visible,” the
radical feminist collective INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence
editors problematize the topic by looking both at how some survivors
were criminalized as well as the silence by organizers and analysts on
the question of sexual violence against women and children. This leads
them to declare:

Instead of figuring out strategies to take people’s experiences of
sexual violence seriously, the strategy was to bring the media’s
attention back to the “real” problems of institutional poverty, police
violence, and the failure of government response. Sexual violence
(along with its victims and perpetrators) is, again, rendered
invisible in the name of ending racism.

With a broad lens of critique, the INCITE! authors also point to how
outside organizations and individuals ignored local leadership – and
how women of color from New Orleans have organized themselves in
response. Throughout the anthology, women’s and other voices from New
Orleans are lifted up; not as a footnote, but rather a powerful
testimony to the endurance of the poor, and those who are their chosen
representatives. The stories of community groups – like Common Ground,
the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, and the Black Women’s Health
Project – are told by the organizers themselves.

What Lies Beneath also succeeds by evoking the tales of suffering
through different forms of writing. The poetic pen of Kalamu ya Salaam
and Suheir Hammad lend beauty to the pain of this experience. Jared
Sexton’s stirring essay, “The Obscurity of Black Suffering,”
illustrates the invisibility of poor black folk both inside and
outside of the black community. Sexton’s notion of obscurity sits at
the center of my own sense of emptiness concerning New Orleans.

Faith after the storm

In what I believe will be recorded as my generation’s “Montgomery,” I
cried every day. While the Interfaith Worker Justice Center that I
went to New Orleans to open is up and running, staffed with interns, I
still feel defeated. Perhaps, it is because New Orleans taught me what
I did not know. My faith was shaken; my vocation questioned; my sense
of professional success shattered; and any messianic impulse that I
have ever possessed receded with the floodwaters.

While I have fully lost faith in the capacity of national
African-American leadership and the white progressive establishment to
answer DuBois’s question, I have gained a deeper appreciation of the
work of everyday folk to change their lot. Like faith itself, the
local organizers of New Orleans are the substance of what I hoped for
and the evidence of what I could not see.

I, like the many authors of these three collections, am struggling
with my own meaning in the face of black suffering at the beginning of
the 21st century. I thank whatever gods there may be for these
anthologies and organizers because I now know a little more.

Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou is a contributing editor to Fellowship. He
spent six months in New Orleans organizing the city’s Interfaith
Worker Justice Center. Rev. Sekou is currently serving as a senior
community minister at Judson Memorial Church in New York City.