“(The majority of the hurricane aid has) come from the individual people. … Get involved, don’t be afraid to get in someone’s life.”
– Rev. Lance Eden, pastor of First Street United Methodist Church in New Orleans
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we watched in horror as people who could have been our children or grandparents – the most precious and vulnerable among us – were left to die around the Gulf Coast for want of water, medicine and medical treatment. As the rest of the world watched the TV images, transfixed in disbelief, the staggeringly inept response by the government opened old wounds for people of color. The strange fruit of Southern lynchings. The Wounded Knee massacre of 1890. The Latino Zoot Suit riots of the 1940s. While we try to believe and tell our children that with steady, gradual progress people of color will eventually become fully enfranchised in our society, Katrina again called that into doubt.
Yet people of color took their feelings of rage, frustration and disenfranchisement and turned it into defiant activism in a way we haven’t seen for generations. Everybody got involved in the effort to help restore some of the human dignity that we saw cast aside at the New Orleans Superdome and Convention Center, where evacuees had to beg for help. Locally, people of color rallied together to show that we will look after our own whether they are in our neighborhood or across the country, and we feel their pain. Churches held food drives; people raised money and other aid at an untold number of benefit concerts and events; volunteers used their own time to help. Many Washingtonians opened their homes to welcome complete strangers who needed a place to stay. That the grass-roots movement did what the government would not was as much a symbolic statement as a material one.
For local people of color who have family in affected by the disaster, it’s even more personal. These families shoulder a large part of the burden of housing the approximately 4,000 evacuees in the state, even though they don’t get aid or compensation for the added resources they expend. But they would not have it any other way.
This is a watershed moment, in many ways, for race relations in the United States. It will take decades to rebuild our communities’ shattered faith in government. Katrina forced us into an overdue conversation about race, class and the persistence of inequality in the U.S. It exposed, in sharp relief, the myth of American superiority in its democracy, technical capability and its ability to care for its own. For these reasons, we felt it was critical that we, as ethnic media, visit our affected communities and tell their stories ourselves.
To this end, photographer Inye Wokoma and I spent a week in the affected Gulf Coast states. What we found was incredible on numerous levels. We were moved as much by the enormity of the destruction as we were by the magnitude of the resilience and generosity of the storm’s survivors. Their stories are presented in this special issue, which we devoted to the impact of the hurricanes on people of color. For reader commentaries and opinion as well as an expanded photo gallery of the trip, visit our Web site www.colorsnw.com.
We want to extend our deepest thanks to the many people who made this special issue possible and the people who opened their homes and lives to us. Mildred and Eric Moody and Lorraine and Abraham Williams truly manifest what people mean when they talk about “Southern Hospitality.” For story help, thanks to Rosalund Jenkins, Michelle Nelson and everyone else who contributed ideas. There were so many stories that need to be told; we are sorry we were not able to get to them all. Thanks to Nirmala Bhat for her terrific editing help. A big thanks to Brenda Dardar-Robichaux and the United Houma Nation for welcoming us to their unique community. Thanks, too, to Rev. Michael Manaway, who took the time to show us around battered Biloxi. Special thanks also to Lance Eden for amiably letting us follow him around for a week during one of the most stressful times of his life. And finally, Antoinette McLain, we can’t thank you enough for making this story possible.