In Remembrance of Katrina

Two years ago, when Katrina hit, I was was the invited guest of my friend and her family on Fire Island. I had just graduated Pratt that May; wasn't really working yet, still fighting TF in court (then known as IFKALP), behind in my bills and feeling very very stressed. I was very appreciative of my friend's offer, and the Sun and I had a fabulous time. There was TV, but we weren't really watching it, and while I knew the hurricane had hit I wasn't quite aware of what was happening in New Orleans.

My friend's husband, superIQtechnogeekgeniustype guy, had his laptop, and gradually began to make us aware of what was happening... the "Terrordome", the flood, all of it. (Later, he sent me a link to this picture, and I wish I knew who took it so I could credit them.) It was horrible. I think that I will always remember that day, in the same way I remember 9/11--where I was and what I was doing and why. I will always remember the way the light looked, how clean the air felt, the white sand, the Sun's browning body dodging waves. And the stark, horrible contrast in the images of dead and bloated bodies, panicked people on rooftops in a sea of green gook, uncontrollable looting, total anarchy. This is America. Things like this don't happen here. Day 1. Where was FEMA? Day 2. WHERE is FEMA? Day THREE. Am I missing something??? What don't I understand? WHERE THE FUCK IS FEMA????

And then the pontificating and the opinions began to fly, the discussions about how and why so many people got left behind. Who's fault was it? Why didn't they leave? Wasn't it there own responsibility to leave? Once I got back home, I would watch TV and yell "What fucking difference does it make!? WHY IS THERE STILL NO HELP?" And you know, two years later, I still wonder the same thing... why do vast areas of New Orleans still look like a war zone????

On my mom's list, I was alerted to a discussion that was going on. I did not save the whole thread, nor would I publish here anything that anyone else wrote. But I remember one or two posts left me shaking with anger and hurt. And confusion. I was amazed that still, despite the death and destruction and the lack of Federal Aid, there was undying love and support for George Bush (GW). (I was amazed that he had even won a second time... but Katrina left me wondering to myself, do I live in the same America as these people???) And some were still unable to blame him for his part in what happened down there. I responded to a few posts online, and after awhile, the conversation went offline.

The frame of reference from one of the participants in the discussion was that some white people (and some conservative "Blacks" too, for that matter) are under the impression that Black people living in poverty are there because they don't try hard enough to get out. That their poverty is not based on bad fortune or racism or stacked odds, but an attitude of entitlement. In other words, people are poor because they are too lazy to go out and do for themselves... would rather wait for the government to bail them out. Better yet, they EXPECT the government to bail them out.

My mother (who is not at all conservative--but came from an extremely privileged childhood) calls it "The Entitlement of the Poor. " The thinking that poor people are so used to thinking that they are poor and will always be poor (or that because they will always be Black and because they are Black they will always be poor) that therefore, the government is required to take care of them.

No doubt... this happens. But at the time, having spent three years STRUGGLING while I was attending school, without working, I had the wonderful opportunity to have to sit in the Food Stamp office, or try to get help for my rent from Welfare or "Jiggets" or Housing (none of which EVER came through for me, by the way--despite the fact that I more than qualified for it). I had an up-close-and-personal encounter with some of our poorest folks. I was humiliated, right along with them, as we tried to get food or help or housing for us and our children. I have sat in the Welfare office and bawled, snot running, scared shitless... and not only did I not get any sympathy or help, I never even got a fucking tissue. "I simply can't help you" one supervisor said to me, and turned her back on me and walked away.

That experience convinced me that a vast majority of people would willingly help themselves if they could... IF THEY KNEW HOW. But that they stay in the hell hole they are in, because it's the one they know how to maneuver in. Nobody shows you how to get out. The difference between me and 100,000 other poor folk, was that both my parents are highly educated. And a wee bit militant.

So here, in remembrance of NOLA and Katrina, was my response to the discussion. I'm not sure how much sense it will make, seeing as how the whole rest of the thread isn't here, and I refer to some things that were said earlier... but I saved it, so I feel obliged to post it:

"What you see is through eyes that *know* America belongs to you.

What I see is a people who have been emotionally battered for 400 years, told they were 3/5ths of a human being for at least two hundred, and then suddenly set free with no guidelines on how to assimilate, kind of like a battered woman suddenly sprung free, or a prisoner of war. My great-great-grandmother Josephine was 14 when the soldiers came to Savannah, "dragging their bayonettes along the picket fences" and told her she was free. That was it. Left to their own devices, to figure it out the best they knew how. Most figured it out. Usually, the lighter-skinned ones because they were more readily accepted (My great-great grandmother was a mulatto, the child of a confederate colonel and his 14YO slave, and after slavery was brought to adulthood by his sisters). But a whole lot of them didn't figure it out. I know the attitude of which you speak, but the problem is, is that this attitude is what has become accepted as a representation of AfricanAmericans, when the vast majority of black people absolutely don't think that way. And of the ones that do, most of those don't know another way because they've been left to rot. New Orleans in particular has been poor for a long, long time. In a nation where 9% of the population live below the poverty line, NO's poor was 25% of the population. I would bet that a good portion have lived like that since slavery ended. What's sad is that most of "us", especially up north, never knew ourselves. One of the reasons I don't like Chicago is because when I go there, I get slapped with the reality of vast communities of black people who don't have a clue how to live above the poverty line.

Even up in the north, there are people who have been poor for generations, and don't even know how to function outside of the ghetto. I got to see it up close and personal with the Diva's bio family. 3 generations of welfare recipients, barely educated and alcohol addicted. But the answer is quite obviously that they didn't *want* to pull themselves out of it, they simply didn't know how. The reason we took the Diva, basically snatched her, was because we recognized how bright she was, and knew she didn't have a chance in hell of surviving. And we fought everyone, including her family, to give at least one "poor, black girl" a shot at living like a human being. And yet, despite our family and our love and our encouragement she got shuffled through the school system and looked down on because they don't immediately see my mother and me and my sister standing behind her. And usually, it took my mom, with her lighter skin, to get any kind of response from the school system. In school, she's another black child. My sister begged for remedial services for her. She begged for counseling. She never got it.

All these programs that you think we have a better chance at getting aid from aren't even known to most of us. We hear about them, but they are not readily available, and when you *do* find them, they're often full, mismanaged, and full of "Student Loan" scams that you leave you in debt. I know because I went through them. The "welfare to work" program in NYC is a joke, because what they've done is to take welfare moms and ex-cons, and have them sweep the subway and empty the garbage. Basically, it's modern-day slave labor, and they don't train them how to do anything useful.

A long time ago, when I did receive public assistance, because we had taken possession of the Diva and the landlord insisted we pay rent on the abandoned apt we had taken over, I heard by word of mouth that there was a free program that would teach me how to type. It was completely free to welfare recipients. And the countless times that I had to be in the welfare office (you had to re-certify every three months in those days) not one caseworker had ever mentioned it to me. Not one flyer had ever been posted in the office. I followed up, I found out where it was (a block from my building, even) and I went. And so did countless others--the program was full. And we had all found it the same way; on our own. And I found out the other day that the program was still in existence... and yet the program has *never* been "public knowledge". And BTW, the reason I actively sought out training was because the "job placement" welfare had me do was carting paper back and forth in the local welfare office. I knew I deserved better than that... but only because of my parents.

Right before 9/11, I found out that NYS had a program that would give you a grant for "retraining". But you had to fill out all these forms, in a particular order. The unemployment office hinted at it, but I found it. I think it became more public knowledge because 9/11 happened, and suddenly thousands of white people were unemployed. And so I went through the whole process, found the training program which promised me "financial aid" until the grant came through. Because the grant took 6 mths to a year to appear, and they paid it directly to the training facility, I applied for the loan. Later on, I found out that the city had paid the training facility, but they never bothered to give me the refund. I had to complain to about 3 different agencies, including NY state, in order to get them to cut the check. I always say being poor is a fulltime job.

I happen to have parents educated at Harvard and Sarah Lawrence College. My great-grandfather was one of the first blacks to graduate Harvard, and was the founder of the largest black insurance company in the midwest (except I think he was mostly Native, but that's another story). He sent his son, my grandfather to the University of Chicago, where he graduated with a law degree. My other grandfather was a newspaper editor and a social worker. My mom got to tour Europe as a teenager, had her own horse, her own car, went to private school. My parents got married and lived in Rome for a year. I come from three generations of educated African Americans (on my mother's side--my father's side was barely educated, but most of them could have passed for white, and some of them did). And I honestly believe that this is the only thing that separates me from most of the AA people I know.

My father took us out of this country when we were babies because he didn't want us to grow up in a country where we were the minority. When I came back to America, I felt I belonged here, because I *knew* I didn't belong to Jamaica. But I've seen other countries, how other places operate. I often feel like a cultural infiltrator, because I can make myself comfortable on either side of the divide. I know how to speak both languages. I'm not easily intimidated. Mostly because I didn't grow up here--and thanks to my father--I do know that there are places where the majority is of African descent, and so I didn't grow up feeling "out of place". I also have been taught that there is no such thing as "race" and it really comes down to economics.

There has always been slavery, there has always been one group of people oppressing another. It was usually tribal, or war-related. This is the first country that used God and the government to grant certain rights to some people by virtue of skin color, and to strip others. And it was done to justify slavery, because good Christians had to justify the enslavement of other people, and they needed cheap labor. But they told *us* it was because we were inferior, that we were subhuman. And then they set us free (and not out of love, but because of politics) and left a whole bunch of us to our own devices.

And this is why I'm angry. I'm angry because people have come to assume that people *want* to live in severe, mind-boggling poverty. And they often assume that blacks want to live this way, and people forget to mention the severe, mind-boggling poverty in the backwoods and mountains of America, where the population is white. They don't even say that about the Natives, on the reservations (that they want to live this way). Can at least admit to putting them there.

And they don't understand that there are basic cultural differences between African Americans and Caucasians that make that transition difficult. What one person perceives as "shifty eyed" is another person feeling very uncomfortable staring. What one person perceives as "shuffling" is another's acute discomfort at being in an unfamiliar environment. What one person perceives as not being able to "speak right" is another person's creole, a pidgin English that grows and changes as the times change. People are sprung out of their neighborhoods and are expected to suddenly walk and talk like they're in Rome, but they have never been taught how to. I speak "Ebonics" with the best of them when I'm in Harlem, although the language is constantly changing and there are words now that I have no idea what they mean. My tone of voice changes, my inflections change, my diction changes. My body language changes. As a little girl I spoke fluent French, and then fluent Jamaican patois, and my mind "clicks over" when I'm in Harlem the same way it used to when I spoke French or patois. But I *know* how to speak standard English, because my parents taught me how. The Diva knows how to speak standard English because we taught her how. When she's with her friends, *I* don't even understand her.

There is no such thing as race, yet there is racism, and minorities feed into it and practice it just like white people do. It's not that we are blameless, because we're not. I know that black people spend *far* too much time assuming that white people are out to get them. That the system is out to get them. That they will never get ahead by playing by the rules because the rules change. But I understand this mindset because of the relationship with IFKALP. A great many times, the rules *do* change. Every time I go to the foodstamp office, for example, the rules change depending on the worker I get. OTOH, I keep going and doing what I have to do because I make it my business to research things. But see, I know how to use Google. I was taught how to find answers. I was taught to question authority and to make up my own mind about things. I was always amazed by how many people never questioned anything, just accepted what they were told.

You don't have a choice at being poor if you've always been poor. My father called it "voluntary poverty" when we moved to Jamaica, because he knew that he was educated enough to get a real job. But he knew how to think and how to write, and could choose *not* to. My mother was not born into poverty. It was a choice for her to walk away from her society; but she always knew that she had resources and education. It's a different story when you don't have that. If you've been shuffled through school because nobody cared enough about you to make sure you could read, at some point it's likely you'll drop out because by the time you get to HS, and know that for the rest of your life you'll be working at McDonald's *anyway*, why stick it out? The school says "well, the parents should help with the homework" forgetting that a good portion of the parents themselves are barely literate. If you do manage to graduate, and your family is poor and unfortunately maybe you have a kid now, you go for a job interview. But you don't speak standard English, you can't pass an interview. You don't get the job. And if *everyone* you know in your neighborhood is having the same experience, you begin to accept this as normal.

I read an article once that said the majority of poor people were clinically depressed. They had given up hope. I think this is true. And we all know what depression can do to alter a mind. I know from my own self that when I'm particularly stressed about bills, like right now, I can lose my thread very easily and have to force myself out of apathy. But I know the difference between living comfortably and not living comfortably, and so I recognize that apathy as a physical symptom of stress.

Most poor black people that I know are happy that they have some piece of a job. They take pride in it. Whenever I was at work, I always tried to give people tips on how to navigate the system, to keep their job. A big piece of advice I gave them was to never congregate with other blacks on the job. The minute a white supervisor sees two or more black people talking, you got spoken to. I had it happen to me on several occasions, and I worked at some "name-brand" places. The "smile more" comment was a real comment I got on a job review once. I was incensed. I was told I had an "attitude" because I asked questions. It's one real reason I don't have a job now. I don't have the ability to accept that anymore without blowing up. I'm afraid to go back to a real job (though I might have to get over that) because I don't trust myself not to cuss somebody out.

So the rules are different when you're black, and they don't always stay the same, and it makes it very very hard to navigate. So often, people stick with the devil they know. That "bling" you see, the fancy cars parked in front of run-down homes, we see it too. I don't like it but I recognize it as a symptom of the disease. I know why it's there. Some kid got a job, is probably still living at home with his mother (they're usually men who own those cars) and his idea of progress is to own those things he sees as wealth. His perception is skewed; he's competing with his peers. He's not competing with the "other" America, because it means nothing to him. He can't function outside the hood. So he lives well, inside of it. It's the "Big fish/Little pond" syndrome.

The fact that you've written me shows you care, and I accept that. But what I've taken offense to is that you belive the hype. I don't care, particularly, that you love GW. I actually admire that; it must be nice to have that kind of faith in your leader and your government. But what I'm saying to you is that I don't; and many many black people don't. We liked Clinton more because he at least pretended to give a crap. He would at least act as if he were comfortable when he visited us. His body language was easy. He liked big-boned girls with butts. We liked Clinton more than some of the others. Traditionally, the Democratic party has become the party of the underdog, based on hype. FWIW, my father is a registered Republican. But in reality, whoever is in office, it's the same crap. Black people in particular did no better under Clinton than they do under Bush or under Reagan. But black people, like Natives *want* to believe in this country. But we always feel we get left behind, and sometimes that's true, and sometimes it's not. But what happened in this hurricane reinforces what a lot of AfricanAmericans feel; we got left behind. And blamed because we couldn't get out. *That* pisses me off.

And some "knuckleheads" feel, "well, hell.... you'll never get it otherwise, find a loophole and milk the system". But there are "knuckleheads" in every community, and I get really annoyed that our "knuckleheads" end up representing all of us, where in others, they are just "knuckleheads".

I too, hope that maybe this will make things change. But I don't think so. I see the stories shifting already, now that the calvary arrived. Barbara Bush's statement of the evacuation "working out very well" is already being reported as her seeing "the sunny side". I find it insulting. I find it so depressing. In a few more days, the news stories will be pushed to page two. People will forget. The spin doctors will clean it up. Life will go on. There will still be poor people. And really, it's nothing personal."


professor said…
very well should've sent it to a magazine...this country really doesn't care about the poor...I see it teaching, my students are *trying* to better themselves, but only one in eighteen can really read, much less write a cohearent paper and maybe two of eighteen know their way around the only one in a class of eighteen is likely to suceed...
Carrie said…
This was SO well written Jesi. Depressing and true and has no good answers, but incredibly well written.

Thank you!

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