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Katrina’s Diaspora

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Future historians will regard the destruction of New Orleans as something significantly more than the single most costly natural disaster in the nation’s history: it marks the beginning of an entirely new form of American culture.

Every major diaspora in history has resulted in radically new hybrid cultures of dislocation. In the United States, for instance, the exodus from the Mississippi Delta at the beginning of the twentieth century caused seismic alterations in the fundamental nature of life in Chicago, in New York, and in political, literary and musical culture across the nation. The Great Migration was “one of the largest mass movements in American history:

Beginning in 1913, a series of calamities devastated the cotton crop. First, world cotton prices plummeted, then boll weevils infested huge areas, and finally in 1915, severe floods inundated the Mississippi Valley.

Already suffering under racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws, many black sharecroppers and tenant farmers fell deeply into debt or lost everything. At the same time, World War I had slowed foreign immigration to the cities of the North while increasing demand for industrial goods. The result was a severe labor shortage in many northern and western cities.

In what became known as the Great Migration, blacks poured off the farms in search of urban jobs. Between 1915 and 1920 as many as one million African Americans moved to northern cities. Nearly another million joined them in the decade that followed. In addition, tens of thousands of blacks went west, especially to California, while several hundred thousand moved to southern cities.

And America became an entirely different, and I would argue much greater, country. Now the last thing I wish to do is to put a Panglossian spin on this hideous tragedy; the changes, then and now, rest on a mind-numbing substrate of destroyed and displaced lives. I simply wish to point out that this new diaspora — and that is what it is; a vast number of the homeless will not return to New Orleans — will change the nation in ways that we cannot imagine. Although we can try.

Imagine if Maine, the whitest state in the union, were to take in a significant number of black refugees from Louisiana. (This would be an interesting irony, given that Cajun culture grew out of the expulsion of the Acadians from the North East.) I wouldn’t want to predict the precise shape it would take, but I guarantee we would see a culture undreamed of. You’re not alone if you find it hard to imagine jazz funerals in Rockport, but being hard to imagine has never deterred reality.

Easier to picture will be the ensuing tensions. And you don’t in fact have to strain your imagination too hard. Oddly enough, Maine became a favorite place for Somalian refugees to settle in the last decade: there was a deliberate “sahan” — an internal migration — from initial settlements in places like Atlanta, Georgia. The xenophobes weighed in immediately, and still do; consider this charming conversation at Free Republic. Lewiston suffered neo-Nazi demonstrations — and equally fervent counter-demonstrations on the part of locals.

Refugees from Louisiana do not have a lot in common with Muslims from Somalia, but I suspect the racial tensions will be depressingly similar. I’m certain that future historians of Lewiston, however, will look to the Somalian influx as a turning point in the culture of that stagnant mill town, and I have a strong liberal faith that their assessment, in retrospect, will not be entirely bleak.

The Louisiana diaspora will dwarf this micro-experiment, and will have radical repercussions throughout American culture. If I tend in one direction, I suppose it’s more towards Pangloss than towards Barbara Bush (whose genteel pessimism is really just Free Republicanism in drag); for those of us who see the great immigrant/migrant narrative as the shape of American renewal, there is at least some hope to accompany today’s horror.
ed: JH

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  • http://blogcritics.org/author.php?author=Cerulean Cerulean

    It’ll be something, although I think American culture is a lot more homogenized now than it was then.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    I don’t see a problem with racial tensions. The largest number of refugees went to Texas, whcih despite the impression northerners have, is one of the most racially integrated unbigoted states around. There are strong black communities in all the major cities ready to accept and help evacuees. As a result it looks very much like a great many of the evacuees are going to stay here in Texas and will end up much better off than they were in New Orleans.

    Dave

  • Ira C.

    Dave. Did you really intend to say in your previous post that “The largest number of refugees went to Texas, which despite the impression northerners have, is one of the most racially integrated unbigoted states around” and then turn around in your very next phrase and say “There are strong ‘black’ communities in all the major cities ready to accept and help evacuees”? What about the white communities…do you honestly believe they are as ready to accept and help evacuees???

    Also, if Texas was integrated, why are there White communities and Black communities, Latino communities and Asian communities. You might want to visit Toronto, Ontario if you want to see a city that is truely integrated. You’d be hard pressed to find a black community or a white community. There are virtually no White night clubs and Black night clubs in the city or surrounding towns. The very mindset of most people there are so much more humble and inclusive. When referring to some one, they don’t automatically say “the black lady” or “the black kid”, they say “this lady” or “that kid”. Do we say “the white guy” when we refer to someone who is white? No, we just say “the guy”. MINDSET

    I was born in rural Cincinnati, raised in Columbia, Maryland; a young city planned by Jim Rouse that’s about as integrated as you’ll find in America, and lived in Atlanta, GA for 4 yrs. I’ve lived in Washington D.C. for the past year and a half.

    Texas, the South, America has not come quite as far as many people think.

  • Ira C.

    The good news if any can come of this tragedy, is that this is another opportunity to prove that America has changed. After 911, there was that feeling of everyone coming together as one country united and indivisable. Well how long did that last. When will we be able to stay on that brotherly love caravan indefinately, and unconditionally. When will we truely believe in our hearts that I am no more important a person than a poor black boy living in the ghetto, or a poor white girl living in a run down trailer park — no less important a person than the new CEO of Ford Motor Company, or the CEO of Haliburton.

    We may have come far from lynchings and involuntary slavery, but do you really think that is saying much?

    Why is America not yet ready for a Black President? Why are you not ready for your daughter’s black fiancee, or your son’s hispanic boyfriend?

  • http://www.diablog.us Dave Nalle

    >>Dave. Did you really intend to say in your previous post that “The largest number of refugees went to Texas, which despite the impression northerners have, is one of the most racially integrated unbigoted states around” and then turn around in your very next phrase and say “There are strong ‘black’ communities in all the major cities ready to accept and help evacuees”? What about the white communities…do you honestly believe they are as ready to accept and help evacuees???< <

    Yes, I did mean to say it, and white communities are certainly helping too. But the fact is that without already established strong african american communities in Texas the state would not be as racially diverse or as accomodating of evacuees who are mostly black.

    >>Also, if Texas was integrated, why are there White communities and Black communities, Latino communities and Asian communities. < <

    Because people like to identify with their own racial groups. There are communities and they are integrated, but within those communities there are different races which form 'communities' of their own. You ought to know how this works. People like to maintain cultural identity and associate with others who share that identity, even when they are in a relatively harmonious racially mixed environment.

    >>You might want to visit Toronto, Ontario if you want to see a city that is truely integrated. You’d be hard pressed to find a black community or a white community. There are virtually no White night clubs and Black night clubs in the city or surrounding towns.< <

    Toronto has such a small black population compared to any city in Texas that the comparison just doesn't work.

    >> The very mindset of most people there are so much more humble and inclusive. When referring to some one, they don’t automatically say “the black lady” or “the black kid”, they say “this lady” or “that kid”. Do we say “the white guy” when we refer to someone who is white? No, we just say “the guy”. MINDSET< <

    That's how people say it here too. But sure, everything about Canada is inherently better than everything about the US, especially Texas - right?

    >>I was born in rural Cincinnati, raised in Columbia, Maryland; a young city planned by Jim Rouse that’s about as integrated as you’ll find in America, and lived in Atlanta, GA for 4 yrs. I’ve lived in Washington D.C. for the past year and a half.< <

    I've lived in or near all those places too, oddly enough. Of the three I found suburban Maryland to be probably the single most racist and bigoted place I've ever been in the US. Atlanta, on the other hand, has done remarkably well overcoming a history of racial inequality and is thriving because of it.

    >>Texas, the South, America has not come quite as far as many people think.<<

    Actually, I’d say it’s come much farther than most people think.

    Dave

  • Doug Hannan

    But sure, everything about Canada is inherently better than everything about the US, especially Texas – right?

    I wonder if you realize how petulant that remark makes you sound.