When Hurricane Katrina landed in New Orleans, I was only nine years old. I was living in the Northeast and I don’t think I was fully capable of comprehending the destruction that was caused when the levees broke and the city flooded, so I figured I was pretty far removed from the whole thing. Knowing what I know now, I would say that the disaster was a huge human rights crisis and that no mature human, no matter how far removed from New Orleans, should have an excuse to be ignorant of the full truth behind the catastrophe. But I guess I can give nine-year-old me a break.
Perhaps the part that I remember best was Kanye West’s off-script live broadcast in which he pointed out the highly racist media coverage, made the famous statement that George Bush doesn’t care about black people, and left his co-host, Mike Myers, utterly speechless. I had just begun discovering my love for hip hop at this point in my life and I remember admiring West for his bravery, bluntness, and willingness to speak the truth. Of course most people discredited West’s words as those of a disgruntled entertainer, or wrote his message off as one of the ‘rants’ that he was already getting a reputation for. I have a real problem with the way people so often discredit the words of those in the hip hop community, and I also dislike the use of the word, ‘rant,’ but that’s a story for another time. Overall I think the Kanye-bashing that took place was mostly an attempt to remove the focus from the truth behind West’s words. As Harris-Perry points out, during the three days during which New Orleans residents were left to fend for themselves in the midst of the massive flooding of their city, George W. Bush shared a birthday cake with Senator John McCain, visited a senior citizens’ home, gave a speech on the war in Iraq, and played the guitar with a famous country singer. Are you kidding me? While thousands of mostly black people ran out of food and water as they remained stranded for three days? Does this sound like someone who cares about black people?
Finally, the main reason I am writing this: I’d like to discuss the role of black women as the American nation’s miner’s canary. When I say ‘miner’s canary,’ I am referencing the metaphor explained by Harris-Perry in which the experiences of black women are used to test the state of American democracy. When I first read this metaphor I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know if it was a good thing or a bad thing that black women were being used in this way. Even now, I think there’s some good and some bad to it. When the media turned to images of frightened black women carrying their children through waist-high mucky water, it did so mostly to dramatize the aftermath of Katrina and to put faces to the sympathetic victims of the storm. Regardless of the media’s intention, it succeeded in doing something far more powerful. It exposed those hit hardest by the disaster, and forced Americans to acknowledge the disproportionate suffering of black women. To anyone who was not blind to the state of society, these photos were about far more than just Katrina. They were symbolic of the harsh intersection between race, gender, and class that black women have to face daily. To paraphrase the writing of the black women who were part of the Combahee River Collective, for black women to be free, every person would have to be free, because the freedom of black women requires the destruction of every existing form of oppression. For this reason, I think there is hardly a social movement that black women are not a part of, as they must fight oppression from all sides. And as we saw in the film, A Place of Rage, social movements need black women and have succeeded because of black women. Angela Davis and Alice Walker are only a few more famous examples. Therefore, I think there is power behind making the suffering of black women the face of the Katrina disaster. It is through the experiences of black women that we can see just how far from liberty and equality our society is.
However, there were things I disliked about the use of black women as the miner’s canary. I thought it was very hypocritical of the media to use black women as the face of the suffering, while simultaneously referring to storm survivors as “refugees” and comparing New Orleans to Port-au Prince. In doing so, the media completely devalued the lives of the black survivors, treating them not just as second-class citizens, but apparently as non-citizens, as though they were not U.S. residents and the parts of New Orleans that they lived in were not part of the U.S. So while it’s important to bring attention to the disproportionate suffering of black women in the aftermath of Katrina, it is pointless to do so while also depicting black women as the ‘others’ who are supposedly less worthy of rescue.
Overall I think the attention brought to black women in the case of Katrina can be a good thing, and that it yields a good deal of power. I just get worried that people will interpret it the wrong way or will fail to actually think beyond Katrina. What do y’all think? Is the canary metaphor a good thing? Bad thing? Let me know!