iving in the Mississippi watershed means to know flooding as a sobering reality. It may not get the media attention conferred on a earthquake or a hurricane — rivers tend to swell slowly, often unpredictably — but when a river breaches the result is often quick and violent.
Water looms large in the region’s history, haunting the fears of generations of Southeasterners. Floods do more than remind people of the devastating power of nature. They’re also a statement about human intrusion. This swampy, cane-rich territory is not “ours.” It never was. That didn’t stop waves of new settlers who used imported slaves to help tame the reptilian territory. This slave population would soon become a key part of America’s engine of economic progress. The intersection between water, land and people has always contained as much division as resilience.
Author Toni Morrison captured aspects of the contradiction in her 1999 contribution to “Inventing the Truth,” a book about the art of memoirs. “You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”
Whenever floods strike, we’re made to remember the natural state of things, as well as ponder our history. Disasters create a transcendent survival bond. But it’s a bond with social fractures.
Since I moved to New Orleans in January, flooding has tugged at my imagination. When the city is hit with monsoon rains — usually in mid-afternoon — gutters overflow and roads become thick streams navigable only by boats. All it would take would be a single sustained downpour and we’d all be washed into the Gulf of Mexico — or so it seems.
Yet people keep building: a waterfront Four Seasons Hotel is set to open in 2017. Builders build even when Baton Rouge and Lafayette, a mere two hours up-river, are partly flooded, as they were in late August. Rivers in places never considered prone to cresting rose to historic levels. Tens of thousands of people were displaced.
But New Orleans paid little heed. Life continued undisturbed. For those who live here — I include myself — the most important thing about the suffering was that it wasn’t ours. You can only empathize if you escape.
The August flooding did take me back to 2011, when the Mississippi reached record levels. At the time I was teaching in the Arkansas town of Lake Village, a few miles from the local levee. The last time the river had risen so much was in 1927, the year the Great Mississippi Flood displaced some 600,000 people. Lake Village was leveled while nearby Greenville was annihilated.
More than a third of the 1927 flood’s homeless were African Americans, most of who ended up in ramshackle camps where relief was slow and hard to find. Many gave up and joined the northbound exodus that became known as the Great Migration, a century-altering event.
Memories of 1927 brought anxiety if not paranoia to rural Lake Village. Prison workers hauled sandbags to the river as rumors spread that alligators had crawled over the levee and were roaming town streets. Meanwhile, those on the Arkansas side of the river accused those on the Mississippi side of scheming to blow up their part of the levee.
Enough has been written and said about the ways in which the devastation and flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 divided New Orleans and the country. “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” Kanye West said at the time, setting off national controversy. Yet the remark reflected the genuine sense of abandonment felt by tens of thousands people, in particular African Americans.
During Katrina, I was at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. Seated beside me was a freshman relocated from Xavier University of Louisiana. His story didn’t grab me. I was too busy focusing on classmates with whom I knew I’d be spending four years.
This August, as water battered Baton Rouge and Lafayette, I didn’t drive north to volunteer. I knew but I didn’t act.
Thankfully, the August flooding seemed to bring out the best in people. Not that the rest of the country, in the clutch of mass shootings, paid much attention.
Yet natural catastrophe begs an important underlying question. The land and its people are the country, “indivisible,” says the Pledge of Allegiance. The states most regularly affected by flooding — Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee — are also ones that helped lay the historical groundwork for what is known as the United States. These states, their shortcomings included, helped nourish and shape the culture, politics and economics of the country we live in today.
History and collective responsibility should also be indivisible. Apathy, inaction, division — each insults not only those who suffer but also history itself.
In “Take Me to the River,” Arkansas-born Al Green’s 1974 hit, the singer soulfully appeals to his god for a new baptism, a cleansing of prior sins. He’s lost his money and his cigarettes. All love seems in vain. Nothing sounds purer than surrendering to the waters.
It’s a temptation the American South faces every year. But one it resists while determined to uphold its complex place in history.