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.