‘Karen’ and the Caribbean

Tulane fair

This is the first time I’ve visited New Orleans during hurricane season. It’s been a much less active season than anticipated and 10 September, the peak of the season – and incidentally the day we arrived – passed without a single hurricane and just one named storm making landfall along the US Gulf Coast. Andrea did not menace south-eastern Louisiana making Karen the first, if not apparently very dramatic, threat to the city of New Orleans in 2013.

For those from more temperate climes the threat of Karen was initially mildly alarming, but we have been reassured: fill up your tank, get some supplies in, and locate your flashlights. An evacuation is not anticipated, says the mayor’s office: ‘prepare families and homes to shelter in-place.’ Certainly the festive atmosphere on Tulane University’s beautifully landscaped and opulent Uptown campus (pictured above) this Friday evening did not exude anxiety. Indeed, gathering supplies and battening down the hatches is possibly a rather comfortable ritual in a wealthy neighbourhood like Uptown (that we have been temporarily parachuted into) that feels, despite its relative geographic proximity to the central business district, distinctly suburban – if with a slightly exotic twist (tropical vegetation, the Creole architecture for which New Orleans is famous – a beautiful suburb, which feels like a vaguely oxymoronic formulation). This is an activity for an atomized car culture for whom the message: ‘you’re on your own’ is, perhaps, interpreted by many as a sign of freedom. Especially in a neighbourhood on high ground that was mostly spared Katrina’s floodwaters.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) landing page is currently branded with the following message: ‘Due to the Federal government shutdown, NOAA.gov and most associated web sites are unavailable… Only web sites necessary to protect lives and property will be maintained.’ And it turns out that the weather section is one such site. Nonetheless it is interesting to reflect on the implications of a government shutdown on the eve of a tropical storm 8 years after Hurricane Katrina, which highlighted a different kind of government shutdown, the kind that in fact resulted from the same disastrous political context that frames the current shutdown: political resistance to government provision of even the most basic social safety nets (specifically in the current context, healthcare).

This political impulse, and indeed the hermetically sealed experience of middle class suburban life, is worlds away from the subject of a conference I’ve attended over the last few days: ‘Radical Caribbeans’. Hosted by Tulane’s Cuban and Caribbean Studies Institute, the programme was packed with sessions dedicated to examining the aesthetics and politics of collectives, particularly those collectives that seek to represent the most disenfranchised peoples – in economic, environmental, racial, and gendered terms. And in fact, as one session on Thursday explicitly highlighted, aspects of New Orleans culture are marked by radical political and aesthetic constellations that radiate from and back to the Caribbean and other black diasporic locations – even if these connections are all but invisible in the charming but slightly bland atmosphere of Uptown.

The second line parades for which the city is now famous derive from the mutual aid societies that sprung up in working class black communities for whom the government shutdown – or at least rollback – has long been in operation. The city is also home to the Mardi Gras Indians – groups of African American men who pay tribute – through costume, music and dance – to Native American culture and, many argue, the Native American tribes who aided Louisiana’s large maroon population in the 18th century. The post-Katrina community organizing that has attempted to resist the neoliberal remaking of New Orleans – involving the dismantling of public education, health and transportation – might be seen as a contemporary chapter in this kind of activism that has resisted government oppression, dysfunction and rollback.

New Orleans has been described by many as a ‘Caribbean city’, and not just because of its sub-tropical climate and the fact that some parts of it look and feel like Port of Spain. A radical critique of the ideology of work is embedded in the city’s myriad festivals of which Mardi Gras is only the most prominent example. While the statement that New Orleans operates on ‘Caribbean time’ is usually a derogatory one, both to New Orleans and the rest of the Caribbean, there is something quite interesting and genuinely resistant behind the caricature. But the prejudice endures.

It is no coincidence that reading David Brooks on the Haitian earthquake in 2010 is curiously reminiscent of his stance on New Orleans in 2005:

Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.

We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.

It’s hard not to feel that New Orleans too is a ‘progress-resistant’ culture – that is similarly crying out for the cure of middle-class American values – according to Brooks:

The first rule of the rebuilding effort should be: Nothing Like Before. Most of the ambitious and organized people abandoned the inner-city areas of New Orleans long ago, leaving neighborhoods where roughly three-quarters of the people were poor.

In those cultural zones, many people dropped out of high school, so it seemed normal to drop out of high school. Many teenage girls had babies, so it seemed normal to become a teenage mother. It was hard for men to get stable jobs, so it was not abnormal for them to commit crimes and hop from one relationship to another. Many people lacked marketable social skills, so it was hard for young people to learn these skills from parents, neighbors and peers.

If we just put up new buildings and allow the same people to move back into their old neighborhoods, then urban New Orleans will become just as rundown and dysfunctional as before.

Both Haiti and New Orleans have been on the receiving end of ‘structural adjustment’ programmes initiated by the US that have seriously damaged indigenous economies and cultures. They are part of the same political ecology, battered both by racism and storms that often form in the Caribbean and head towards the US Gulf Coast. The fact that many storms that make landfall in the United States often batter Caribbean islands on route is only ever a footnote of global news coverage. It was hardly mentioned in the western press in 2012 that Hurricane Sandy devastated an already devastated Haiti – less than two years after the earthquake – on its way to New York. While Katrina sparked the attention of a global news network alive to anything occurring in the United States, one only needs to compare the constructions of New York in the wake of Sandy to those of post-Katrina New Orleans – or indeed the constructions of 9/11 and Katrina survivors – to understand something of the marginal status of New Orleans in the larger national imaginary.

Karen formed in the Gulf of Mexico where she has, apparently, and thankfully, become ‘disorganized’. But she serves as a reminder that tropical storms are a transamerican reality that might help us think beyond atomized cultural habits. It is sensible to gather supplies if you’re about to be hit by a severe weather event, but it is worth remembering that the hoarding and monopolization of resources, the privatization of community, is precisely why some groups are so vulnerable. Where others stay dry.




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