Katrina and Historical Memory: Death in the Water

By Diane Harriford and Becky Thompson.

Published by The Humanities Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

As people across the world watched the class four Hurricane Katrina hit the Louisiana coast and the Mississippi Delta of the United States in late August 2005, they witnessed that a staggering number of people could not leave. We watched as they waded in the water, tried to swim to dry land and even succumbed to the water. We also recognized parallels between this disaster and the Middle Passage. The Middle Passage described as the most brutal of human atrocities toward other humans imaginable was the months’ long journey over water, the Atlantic Ocean, that brought Africans to the Americas and to slavery. Many died enroute and were tossed overboard. Others, hoping to return home, jumped overboard and to certain death. The images of water from Hurricane Katrina—the muddy water, the out of control water, the water that drowned people, the water carrying bodies, the water covering disappeared bodies—looked like the same water. The Katrina disaster was another ocean of death. Water in this context is a metaphor that runs deep in black historical memory, a repository for countless untold stories. In this paper, we will show how Katrina tapped into a historical memory, affecting black people in New Orleans as well as black people witnessing the event. This memory is not easily accessible today because the DuBoisian “double consciousness” which kept that memory alive is being replaced by consumerism and individualism. Neither provide the spiritual foundation that in the past bound black people to their history and to each other. Hurricane Katrina re-awakened these ties. As a way to understand the response to Hurricane Katrina, we seek to expand Du Bois’s view of double consciousness to include an analysis of what Gloria Anzaldúa calls “mestiza consciousness”. Such an expansion moves us toward a more comprehensive vision of social justice for the people of New Orleans.

Keywords: Historical Memory, Double Consciousness, Mestiza Consciousness

The International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 4, Issue 10, pp.1-12. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.849MB).

Diane Harriford

Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Sociology Department, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, USA

Diane Harriford is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Women’s Studies at Vassar College. For the last twenty years, she has been teaching sociology, Women’s Studies, and African American Studies while engaging in various social movements. In the 1970s, she was an assistant to Bella Abzug, a member of the US House of Representatives from New York. Diane also worked closely with the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Currently, Diane is involved in the National Women’s Studies Association and the Black Radical Congress. Diane has spoken widely on women and slavery in the 19th century, on Black women and sexuality, and Black women in the academy. Most recently she has spoken in Brazil on the rise of Black conservatives in the US.

Becky Thompson

Professor, Sociology Department, Simmons College, Boston, Massachusettes, USA

Becky Thompson is the author of several books, most recently, A Promise and a Way of Life (2001); Mothering without a Compass (2000); and A Hunger So Wide and So Deep (1994). She recently co-edited Fingernails Across the Chalkboard: Prose and Poetry on HIV From the Black Diaspora (with Randall Horton and Michael Harper, 2007). Her poetry has been published in a number of literary journals. With Sangeeta Tyagi she co-edited Names We Call Home (1996) and Beyond a Dream Deferred (1993) that won the Gustavus Myers Award for Outstanding Books on Human Rights in North America. Her activism has included work against the escalation of the punishment industry, against apartheid and U.S.imperialism, and in support of human rights. She has been awarded several prestigious fellowships. Currently, Becky is Professor of Sociology at Simmons College and has held academic appointments at Duke University, Princeton University, Wesleyan University, and elsewhere.


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