Twelve years later, everybody knows what happened, but not many can truly grasp how real it was. Sometimes I forget that everybody’s life didn’t change on August 29, 2005. Twelve years later, I also easily forget how many lives changed and ended on that day and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As someone who made it out of the city just before the levees broke, I’ve even grappled with whether I’m even a “survivor” of this natural disaster as so many others underwent physical, emotional and mental distress that I cannot even begin to comprehend. This is outside of the more than 1,800 lives that were lost.
Artists like Jay Z and Beyonce keep the memory of this history alive through song and visuals, from Minority Report to Formation, a visual created more than 10 years after Katrina because the realities of the storm are still with us today. We didn’t need Charlottesville riots to remind us of the realities of being black in America; Katrina made that all too clear. The people who were trapped in the storm and left without federal government assistance for days were those who did not have the financial means to leave the city, making this more than just a natural disaster but a race/class issue.
Whether you look at it through the lens of an inadequate government response to crisis in a predominantly black city or the lens of hundreds of drowning black bodies reminiscent of those gone overboard during the middle passage, the picture clearly shows an issue with how poor and black people are prioritized. We associate the phrase, “I can’t breathe,” with Mike Brown as those were his last words while being suffocated by police; but those are the words that subconsciously slip out when one lives a life of suffocation, when one lives a life constantly trying to stay afloat in this world where levies and systems fail to protect you from drowning.
As much as black people “can’t swim,” we sure as hell know how to stay afloat: Staying afloat on top of that home you’ve been working your whole life to pay off while also financially supporting parent(s) and/or sibling(s), staying afloat while your baby floats away after going too long without food, staying afloat and swimming miles while 9 months pregnant to get an asthma pump for your firstborn, staying afloat while trying to find food and being labeled as a violent looter, staying afloat as your brother is stabbed right next to you because there is not enough food to go around in the convention center or a little girl is raped because there are sick people in this world.
Staying afloat is within our DNA and we continue to do so. We do so inorder to rebuild, in order to rewrite the narrative that was written for us, in order to recreate the vibrant lives that we live while sustaining our breathing.
The people of New Orleans stay afloat and rebuild daily with a vibrancy that clearly cannot be erased. No storm or lack of government concern is stronger than a city that lives on daiquiris, crawfish and a good time. NoLa rose up from devastation and “laissez lez bon temp roulez” as it has been doing for centuries. Nola reclaimed her breathe as her people swam to safety, shared food to keep each other alive, assisted search efforts for lost family members, shared resources to rebuild houses and neighborhoods, revamped the school system and re-awakened the NoLa that the world loves not just for Essence Fest or some beads and jazz, but for the exact tenacity and vitality that has always dwelled within the chocolate city and black folks all over the world.
What happened at the New Orleans was a tragedy that we need to remember so that we refuse to ever allow it to happen to our people again, but what also happened 12 years ago was a lesson to my 12-year-old self of what happens when you put black people to the test. (It was also a lesson on listening to your mom when she wakes you up at 3am and tells you she’s been praying and you need to pack a bag and be ready to catch this ride out of town in 20 minutes.) It taught us that when you’re neck deep and it feels like you’re living in an aquarium with helicopters hovering by, withholding assistance and watching your struggle, when all signs of life seem over, it’s never over. When it comes to the Big Easy, the good times always roll back on in.
Naa-Shorme | Creator, Write to Live