President Obama recently welcomed into the White House one of the most problematic leaders on the planet.
“The folks in the quarters and the people in the big houses further around the shore heard the big lake and wondered. The people felt uncomfortable but safe because there were the seawalls to chain the senseless monster in his bed. The folks let the people do the thinking. If the castles thought themselves secure, the cabins needn’t worry.”
—Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
In Zora Neale Hurston’s visionary 1937 novel, Janie Crawford and her boyfriend Tea Cake, an African American day laborer, refuse to evacuate their small unsteady house before a deadly hurricane batters the Florida Everglades.
“Everybody was talking about it that night. But nobody was worried,” wrote Hurston. “You couldn’t have a hurricane when you’re making seven and eight dollars a day.”
Turns out you could have a hurricane even if you’re making considerably less than that. And if you manage to survive, you might end up with nothing at all. No home. No food or water. No medical care for your sick and wounded. Not even body bags for your dead.
Americans have experienced this scenario before. Not just in prophetic literature or apocalyptic blockbusters, but through the very real natural disasters that have plagued other countries. Catastrophes that are eventually reduced to single, shorthand images that, if necessary, can later be evoked.
Take for example, visions of skyscraper-size waves washing away entire crowds in Thailand and other Asian countries devastated by last year’s tsunami.
Or remember Sophia Pedro? The Mozambican woman who in March 2000 was plucked from a tree by a South African military helicopter four days after giving birth?
And, for a personal example, let’s not forget Haiti’s September 2004 encounter with hurricane Jeanne, which left 3,000 people dead and a quarter of a million homeless. In that disaster too, patients drowned in hospital beds. Children watched as parents were washed away. Survivors sought shelter in trees and on rooftops while corpses floated in the muddy, contaminated waters around them.
As I watched all this unfold again on my television set, this time in the streets of New Orleans where I also have friends and loved ones, I couldn’t help but think of the Bush Administration’s initial response to the Haitian hurricane victims the year before: a mere $60,000 in aid and the repatriation of Haitian refugees from the United States back to the devastated region.
New Orleans’s horrific tragedy had been foreshadowed in America’s so-called backyard, and the initial response had been pretty much the same: Let’s pretend it didn’t happen and hope it goes away.
In the weeks since Hurricane Katrina struck, I have heard many Americans, pundits and citizens alike, make the case that the types of horrors we have seen and heard about—the desperation of ordinary citizens, some of whom resorted to raiding stores to feed themselves and their families, the forgotten public hospitals where nurses pumped oxygen into dying patients by hand, the makeshift triage wards on bridges and airports, the roaming armed gangs—are more in line with our expectations of the “Third World” than the first. Turning to Kenyan CNN Correspondent Jeff Koinange on “American Morning” a week after hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, anchorwoman Soledad O’Brien opined, “If you turned the sound down on your television, if you didn’t know where you were, you might think it was Haiti or maybe one of those African countries, many of which you cover.”
“Watching helpless New Orleans suffering day by day left people everywhere stunned and angry and in ever greater pain,” echoed Time Magazine’s Nancy Gibbs. “These things happened in Haiti, they said, but not here.”
Not to be outdone, even the Canadians jumped in the act. Chiding her fellow citizens for their self-righteous attitude toward American poverty, Kate Heartfield of The Ottawa Citizen nevertheless added, “Ottawa is not New Orleans. And it is definitely not Freetown or Port-au-Prince.”
It’s hard for those of us who are from places like Freetown or Port-au-Prince not to wonder why the so-called developed world needs so desperately to distance itself from us, especially at a time when an unimaginable tragedy shows exactly how much alike we are. The rest of the world’s poor do not expect much from their government, and they’re often not disappointed. The poor in the richest country in the world, however, should not be poor at all. They should not even exist. Maybe that’s why both their leaders and a large number of their fellow citizens don’t even realize that they do.
This is not the America we know, chimed many field reporters who, haunted by the faces and voices of the dying, the stench of corpses on city streets during the day and screams for help rising from attics at night, recorded the early absence of first responders with both sorrow and rage. Their fury could only magnify ours, for if they could make it to New Orleans, Mississippi, and Alabama and give us minute-by-minute accounts of the storm and its aftermath, why couldn’t the government agencies find their way there? Indeed, what these early, charged news reports offered, before the spin and public relations machines kicked into full gear, was a passport to an America where citizens do not always have bus fare, much less an automobile, where health insurance is as distant a dream as a college education, where poverty is a birthright, not an accident of fortune.
This is the America that continues to startle, the America of the cabins and not castles, the America of the needy and never have enoughs, the America of the undocumented, the unemployed, the elderly, and the infirm. An America that remains invisible until a rebellion breaks out, gunshots ring out, or a flood rages through. Perhaps this America does have more in common with the developing world than the one it inhabits. For the poor everywhere dwell within their own country, where more often than not they must fend for themselves. That’s why one can so easily become a refugee within one’s own borders because one’s perceived usefulness and precarious citizenship is always in question in that other America, the one where people have flood insurance.
I don’t know why it always seems to surprise some Americans that many of their fellow citizens are vulnerable to horrors that routinely plague much of the world’s population. After all, whether the Bush Administration is willing to acknowledge it or not, we do share a planet that is gradually being warmed by mismanagement, unbalanced exploration, and dismal environmental policies that might one day render us all, First World and Third World residents alike, helpless to more disasters like hurricane Katrina. Let us also not forget the ever-looming menace of terrorism, which can have the same effect, landing thousands on street corners and in astrodomes. One day we may all ask ourselves how we came to be there.
Perhaps it is comforting for some to believe, as former First Lady Barbara Bush and others have stated, that the poor and displaced victims of hurricane Katrina are now better off in places far from home because they “were underprivileged anyway.” But must poverty also force one to live a life bereft of homestead, history, memory, roots? Is it really a flood that’s washed away that nuanced privilege of shaping one’s own destiny, or was this right slowly being stripped away while, as the rapper Kanye West said, we were too horrified to watch or were at the mall shopping?
As some residents return to their houses and businesses in New Orleans in the following weeks and others, renters not owners, remain forever barred from places they once called home, this catastrophe too will gradually be reduced to images that we may or may not want to evoke for a while. However, never again can we justifiably deny the existence of this country within a country that is always on the brink of massive humanitarian and ecological failure. No, it is not Haiti or Mozambique or Bangladesh, but it might as well be.
Edwidge Danticat was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and is the author, most recently, of “The Dew Breaker.”