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Come Hell Or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disasterby Michael Eric Dyson
Synopses & Reviews
When Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, hundreds of thousands were left behind to suffer the ravages of destruction, disease, and even death. The majority of these people were black; nearly all were poor. The Federal government's slow response to local appeals for help is by now notorious. Yet despite the cries of outrage that have mounted since the levees broke, we have failed to confront the disaster's true lesson: to be poor, or black, in today?s ownership society, is to be left behind.
Displaying the intellectual rigor, political passion, and personal empathy that have won him acclaim and fans all across the color line, Michael Eric Dyson offers a searing assessment of the meaning of Hurricane Katrina. Combining interviews with survivors of the disaster with his deep knowledge of black migrations and government policy over decades, Dyson provides the historical context that has been sorely missing from public conversation. He explores the legacy of black suffering in America since slavery and ties its psychic scars to today's crisis.
And, finally, his critique of the way black people are framed in the national consciousness will shock and surprise even the most politically savvy reader. With this clarion call Dyson warns us that we can only find redemption as a society if we acknowledge that Katrina was more than an engineering or emergency response failure. From the TV newsroom to the Capitol Building to the backyard, we must change the way we relate to the black and the poor among us. What's at stake is no less than the future of democracy.
"The first major book to be released about Hurricane Katrina, Dyson's volume not only chronicles what happened when, it also argues that the nation's failure to offer timely aid to Katrina's victims indicates deeper problems in race and class relations. Dyson's time lines will surely be disputed, his indictments of specific New Orleans failures defended or whitewashed. But these points are secondary. More important are the larger questions Dyson (Between God and Gangsta Rap, etc.) poses, such as 'What do politicians sold on the idea of limited governance offer to folk who need, and deserve, the government to come to their aid?' 'Does George Bush care about black people?' and 'Do well-off black people care about poor black people?' With its abundance of buzz-worthy coinages, like 'Aframnesia' and 'Afristocracy,' Dyson's populist style sometimes gets too cute. But his contention that Katrina exposed a dominant culture pervaded not only by 'active malice' toward poor blacks but also by a long history of 'passive indifference' to their problems is both powerful and unsettling. Through this history of neglect, Dyson suggests, America has broken its social contract with poor blacks who, since Emancipation, have assumed that government will protect 'all' its citizens. Yet when disaster struck the poor, the cavalry arrived four days late." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"The horrors endured by mostly poor, mostly black New Orleanians — trapped in deadly floodwaters or left to rot for days on end in the Superdome — are now well established. And so Michael Eric Dyson might seem to be arguing a closed case: that the drowning of a Southern city and the Bush administration's lethally botched response to Hurricane Katrina reeked of race and class bias. In this scorching... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) iteration of that argument, Dyson visits all the stations of the cross: the disproportionate number of poor blacks who were placed in extremis or killed outright by Katrina and the levee failures that followed; the rapper Kanye West's cri de coeur — 'George Bush doesn't care about black people' — during an NBC telethon; former first lady Barbara Bush's infuriating comment about things 'working very well' for evacuees in the Houston Astrodome since they were 'underprivileged' anyway; the racial inequities built into the economy of both New Orleans and the nation overall; the exuberant haste with which media outlets embraced stereotypes that cast African Americans as rampaging looters and rapists. The aggregate effect may not be powerful enough to win converts from among those who think the catastrophe didn't expose ugly fault lines, but it should at least spur an exchange of prisoners from the camps now deeply entrenched on both sides of the question about what Katrina told us about race and racism in America.
There's less original reporting here than analysis; 'Come Hell or High Water' draws heavily on press accounts of the Katrina debacle. But the annotation is thorough, and Dyson — the University of Pennsylvania professor who wrote 'Is Bill Cosby Right?' — weaves it all together with prose that is resonant and rightly angry. The book's account of FEMA's stunning ineptitude is especially well detailed. And a more original chapter that parses popular culture for insights into America's current racial and cultural climate is an agreeable digression, flawed only by Dyson's inclination to treat rap jingles — some transcribed at length — as oracular.
Dyson's lapses are mostly minor ones. His long diatribe against the syndicated columnist Cynthia Tucker seems like filler, a settling of accounts run up over his Cosby book, in which Dyson chided the comedian for seeming to blame blacks for not standing up to social problems associated with poverty and disempowerment. Dyson repeats the now discredited notion that a loose barge caused the Industrial Canal's flood walls to fail. And had New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin not recently declared that Katrina was partially the product of God's wrath against President Bush for occupying Iraq 'under false pretenses,' Dyson might be accused of going on a bit about religion. But his conclusion is a sound one: that it would be great to see the 'prophetic anger' of the black church recommitted to the struggle against poverty.
A more serious gripe is that, to make his portrayal of racist oppression all the more compelling, Dyson himself warms to some false and unintentionally demeaning stereotypes about the hurricane's victims. For one thing, the equation between poverty and immobility in the face of the approaching storm isn't nearly as neat as he implies. A lot of the people who stayed behind to ride out Katrina — rich and poor, black and white — turned down rides out of town or had cars of their own, making the city's low rate of vehicles per capita a less reliable tool for analyzing the debacle than Dyson suggests.
Dyson elsewhere speaks glibly of 'the sheer social misery of much of postindustrial urban Southern life.' That won't play well in many New Orleans neighborhoods, least of all the storied Lower Ninth Ward, a proud, mostly low-income enclave that witnessed some of the worst flooding. It may be true in a physical sense that the Lower Ninth 'crouches behind a pile of dirt' (to quote a Washington Post article that Dyson stitches into his text), but that dirt is the levee that the residents of the Lower Ninth wish had been piled higher. Rich whites in Lakeview, another flooded area, lived behind similar earthworks. And the ugly overtones of this image are off the mark. The Lower Ninth was not a crouching dog in a junkyard part of town, though some parts of New Orleans might have fit that description. Dyson is on firmer ground when he remembers the Lower Ninth's rich cultural and racial pedigree, its '"second-line" parades, characterized by churning rhythms and kinetic, high-stepping funk grooves.' The reality of the pre-Katrina Lower Ninth lies somewhere between a dirt-pile dirge and high-stepping funk. The community is, or was, a complex weave of homeowners and destitution, of social pathologies — also to be found in rich parts of town — and proud churches, Mardi Gras Indian tribes and other less formal but deeply embracing kinds of camaraderie.
Neighborhoods such as that answer a question that must baffle people who have watched New Orleans's ordeal from a distance: Why would anyone be fighting, as many are, to return and rebuild such a place? In fact, the traditions and culture of the Lower Ninth Ward are a reason why the agents of Disneyfication will have a harder time gentrifying New Orleans than post-Katrina developers might hope. Those traditions and culture are also a reason why New Orleans is worth saving.
Jed Horne is a metro editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. His book about Hurricane Katrina will be published in August."
Reviewed by Jed Horne, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
"There's less original reporting here than analysis....But the annotation is thorough, and Dyson...weaves it all together with prose that is resonant and rightly angry." Washington Post
"If Dyson's account at times seems a bit rushed, the book still comes not a moment too soon....Dyson poses questions about a failure in race and class relations, questions that extend far beyond the New Orleans crescent." San Francisco Chronicle
Readers will discover what Hurricane Katrina revealed about the fault lines of race and poverty in America — and what lessons must be learned from the flood — from bestselling Rhip hop intellectualS Michael Eric Dyson.
A searing assessment of the meaning of Hurricane Katrina combining interviews with survivors of the disaster and the historical context that has been sorely missing from public conversation.
Displaying the intellectual rigor, political passion, and personal empathy that have won him acclaim, Dyson offers a searing assessment of the meaning of Hurricane Katrina. He warns that society must acknowledge that Katrina was more than an engineering or emergency response failure.
About the Author
Michael Eric Dyson, an ordained Baptist minister, is the author of Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves & Demons of Marvin Gaye, The Michael Eric Dyson Reader, Open Mike, Holler if You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur, Why I Love Black Women, I May Not Get There With You, Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line, Between God and Gangsta Rap, Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X, and Reflecting Black. Now the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, he lives in Philadelphia.
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