The film Beasts of the Southern Wild touched my soul. Not just on account of the amazing performances, but because it’s all about home.
That’s what we call it, those of us from Louisiana. 'Home.' It’s how we vouch for one another, how we claim our tribe. When my mother tells me that so and so is “from home," it means that he or she can be trusted; that we share values and have mutual understandings; that this person, she may have just met, is family.
'Home' is in trouble.
It’s been seven years since the waters of Katrina broke the levees, flooding the lives and dwellings of the beautiful and strong people of New Orleans. Though Hurricane Isaac, who touched land just southeast of NOLA, may be a test for the new million dollar surge gates built around the city, little can be done to renew the town’s faith in it’s government officials or the Army Corp of Engineers. We have reason for concern and distrust.
The horror stories of August 2005 would rival your greatest, most awful nightmares. Dead children and elders who could have been saved; corpses floating in murky, musty water; Black, unarmed bodies shot to death on bridges by police who swore to protect and serve…you name a gruesome thing, it happened there. And even those who were somehow fortunate enough to be relocated found themselves displaced and treated like refugees in their own country–separated from their homes and families with few resources and little kindness. They were uprooted and told that they were better off for it.
My friend, Kayla nerves up whenever it rains heavily. We are gulf babies; hurricanes are not new to us, but Katrina was different. We personify her because we see her as a person, as a thief. She stole lives, not only physically but mentally. Whenever reports surface that we may face a storm, Kayla packs up her most valuable things in big plastic bins. She is still, and may forever be, wading in water and pleading for her life in her mind. The process is heartbreaking to watch, it is panic and pain filled–the sort of post-traumatic stress that only comes from fighting wars they tell us. But that’s exactly what surviving has been since the levees broke, we’ve come to understand. I wonder how much she can heal, reliving, every hurricane season, how she and other people from home were forsaken and forgotten; how they were thrown away.
Before President Obama was sworn in, and America lost all pretenses and all ability to hide how racist and ugly it can be, Katrina spoke volumes about what this nation thought about Black life. We learned, as we noted our officials taking action only after help was offered from foreign lands, that we were, that we are citizens and refugees simultaneously–with an emphasis on the former.
But none of that matters now. We are busy offering political commentary and laughing at the quite laughable GOP. Kayla’s maw-maw (or grandmother to those not from 'home'), refused to leave New Orleans this time. She has rebuilt her house brick by brick, tear by tear. When she was first allowed back home, we didn’t know that her heart could stand to see it. Its where she lived and loved Kayla’s grandfather before he went on to glory; where she raised two sons and countless grandchildren and great-grands. She was one of the lucky ones who owned land and wasn’t pushed out in order to build new, swanky, very expensive high-rises. New Orleans has become quite the place to be, even with its high murder and unemployment rates. Some French Quarter bars stayed open despite Isaac’s threats. The town seems to be made of money these days. But, of course, none of it ever seems to reach people like Maw Maw who has carried the city on her back for decades.
The city has changed, but the differences are only surgical–scars and all. On a cool and humid August day like today, maybe even in the rain, you can always hear some second line. Nobody celebrates death and resurrection like NOLA, even as the coming surge waters threaten many of the planned memorial services scheduled to take place throughout the city. Though the city is in trouble, and is sick, it still dances and claws in its fight to make it over.
Heavy-hearted, I asked my pen to write a story about New Orleans that would do it and its people justice. Alas, Beasts' six-year-old heroine Hushpuppy said it best:
“They think we're all gonna drown down here. But we ain't going nowhere.”