Katrina’s Apathy

There is no such thing as an easy read when considering any section of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. In searching for a particular part to digest more fully, I couldn’t help but lean towards something with a more clear background. Something factual. Something historical. Reflecting on previous blogs, I decided to center on the four pages devoted to Hurricane Katrina. Being in grade school at the time of the actual event, there were vague images circulating through my head: muddy floodwaters risen to the peaks of houses, people huddled in a large arena, people who have lost their homes or even their loved ones. Nearly eleven years later, I had to look up what FEMA was, the conditions of the super dome, and various statistics, to get a better understanding of what I was actually reading.

The section is made up of small paragraphs full of quotes of anonymous interviewees of CNN. Some are clearly from the victims’ point of view, shedding transparent light on the situation. However others are completely disconnected, from a privileged outsider’s view–a relief worker, a resident of Texas, viewers of the news. Through the contrast, Rankine sets up criticism against not only on how Hurricane Katrina was handled but also how it is treated and talked about between the classes, the haves and have nots.

The first quotation that struck my attention was one that initially reminded me of an impatient white person: “Faith, not fear, she said. She’d heard that once and was trying to stamp the phrase on her mind. At the time she couldn’t speak it aloud. He wouldn’t tolerate it. He was angry. Where were they? Where was anyone? This is a goddamn emergency, he said.” (83) If the man is white, I read his anger stemming from an expectation of justice. If his population is the victim–which he so rarely is–it appears more comic, that he isn’t used to feeling abandoned. And then I thought to myself, but what if I have it backwards? I read it again and the woman character, as she changed from black to white, it moved from hesitance to encourage a white man to fearful of the angry black man. And as a man of color he seemed to now be saying, “Out of all the injustice I have seen, all the pain, all the hurt, this national natural disaster is when I thought someone would notice enough to label it a ‘goddamn emergency.'” It is still a cry out for justice, but not a self-centered one. Just the phrase “where were they?” sounds like a collective question, though in a white voice I hear the same words inquiring after only himself. And it is this collectiveness, this asking for the people around you and not just yourself that also points to class, to a less privileged, individualized lifestyle. With this discrepancy of expectation in mind I read two pages later: “And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, she said, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.” (85) When looking back on the actual conditions of the super dome, I grapple with the appalling apathy and the inhumane perception of these hurricane victims who just happen to be of a lower class than those working on the relief. In an article posted by CNN last year marking a decade since Katrina, the arena was compared to a concentration camp. Where is the justice, the “working very well for them” in that?

Being so young in 2005, I had no idea there was any kind of neglect that could have been prevented. But in reading Citizen there was so much that read like white authorities washing their hands of the situation. “And someone said, where were the buses? And simultaneously someone else said, FEMA said it wasn’t safe to be there,” (84) sounds like a quick interchange between a CNN reporter and someone in the background. There’s the privileged expectation of the outside reporter–buses should be there–and the underprivileged truth–government pulls out and leaves the people to fend for themselves. And then there’s a lack of followup: “We never reached out to anyone to tell our story, because there’s no ending to our story, he said. Being honest with you, in my opinion, they forgot about us.” (84). Hearing that I also think, what privileged audience wants to hear that people’s stories haven’t been finished or resolved yet? What government wants to admit their failings and broadcast it? “we are drowning here / still in the difficulty / as if the faces in the images hold all the consequences” (85) These lines of poetry, protruding from a mostly prose text, uses the white space to create the pause, to not brush over the fact of the present term “still” when talking about the difficulty. And “the images,” the victims, are framed for their lack of resources to save face for the white authorities.

Before the section closes there is a part that repeats itself a couple times, something between prose and poetry: “He said, I don’t know what the water wanted. It wanted to show you no one would come. He said, I don’t know what the water wanted. As if then and now were not the same moment.” (85-86) The speaker personifies the water, preying on the vulnerable, the people it’s easier for other people to forget about. But more than anything is that last sentence: “As if then and now were not the same moment.” This is loudest cry to recognize that while slavery is in the past, while the Civil Rights Movement is in the past, while Katrina is in the past, the failure of our government, our country to maintain justice is the same. It may look different, the waters may have dried up, but the privileged people are as comfortable being ignorant and/or apathetic towards the those they’d rather not think about.

While the criticism of the differing views of classes and the failure of the government’s relief of Katrina’s destruction are more distinct entities to blame, I see Citizen giving the common American citizen their due. First we have a voice from someone more closely affected, most likely a citizen of Texas: “What I’m hearing, she said, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas” (84) compared to a victim’s account later down the page: “It’s awful, she said, to go back home to find your own dead child. It’s really sad.” I hear that last sentence and there is no way to imagine the pain in the mother’s face, but I can hear her heaving sobs. And yet, this Texan thinks it is “scary” that people might come to where she’s at and not want to go back home. She takes no time to empathize, to wonder what they might be coming home to, like that mother did. Instead she thinks about her own convenience and what else? Her own safety? Whether the “they” she refers to are underprivileged people or people of color–or, good heavens, both–there is a clear separation of herself from them…from hurricane survivors! Why not open your doors? Why not provide real relief?

From here I read the reactions of the apathetic privileged citizens through the descriptions of the media. “Then his aestheticized distancing from Oh my God, from unbelievable, from dehydration, from overheating, from no electricity, no power, no way to communicate” (85). I read this as someone watching too many violence or horror films and how people become desensitized. That the news is carried through a medium that also feeds the consumer entertainment, the coverage on Katrina grows into a spectacle that becomes less and less important the further you live from it. What can it affect you? If anything, it should be affecting the head, the heart, the human soul. Not only class but geographical distance becomes a privilege and the reality of the crisis becomes foggy as fact looks more like fiction. And then the media turns fact and fiction on its head: “The fiction of the facts assumes innocence, ignorance, lack of intention, misdirection; the necessary conditions of a certain time and place.” (83) “… and the fiction of the facts assumes randomness and indeterminacy.” (85) Citizen repeats this phrase “the fiction of the facts,” calling out the authorities covering for each other, to blind the people, to keep them ignorant and apathetic, to not dig too deep into the chaos of Katrina, to keep the classes apart and disconnected. They may try to wash their hands of it, but Rankine won’t let their hands ever completely dry. The residue of what was left undone remains.



One thought on “Katrina’s Apathy

  1. So sorry that I’ve been taking far too long to comment on this marvelously acute analysis of Rankine’s witness of Katrina. The “fiction of the facts” is constructed and disseminated, it seems, by much of the media coverage which assumes the position of spectator (not witness). The spectator remains removed, savely distanced, and need not wonder about his or her own culpability or implication in the death and devastation of an entire group of the population. The witness, on the other hand, “responds” emotionally, even if such emotional response is difficult and uncomfortable. What your blog reflects upon is the absence of empathy for the mostly black and poor victims of Katrina (a lack of empathy symbolized by then President Bush’s decision to watch the catastrophe from a plane, from above–to never meet with the actual victims in person, on the same level).


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