A Universe of Stories
“The universe is not made of atoms— it is made of stories.”—Muriel Rukeyser
I began Alive in Truth on September 5, outside the Austin Convention Center, which served as a temporary shelter for roughly 5,000 evacuees from New Orleans. I had been working there for 72 hours when I met a woman named Antoinette.
No, actually Alive in Truth started earlier. When I was a young child, in a white family living in a black area of New Orleans. When I saw six year-old black children cowering from the Doberman pincher we walked, and adult men turn and put distance between themselves and the dog.
Or even earlier. My paternal grandmother was born three months premature, to a frail mother. She was raised by a black wet-nurse, and still crows with glee—96 years later—about how superior the milk was.
It began when I was a child raised in the affectionate, gregarious call-and-response that flows between strangers on the streets of New Orleans. The city’s background noise is narration; a palette of baby, sweetheart, how y’all, hey my love, your feet hurt? The care-giving service economy and economic inequity of that city have visible roots sunk down to slavery times. Yet somehow, a river of expression and storytelling remains genuine between people of different backgrounds. For a city that can resemble an apartheid state, there’s a bizarre—and liberating—freedom of talk. As a child, I learned to nod, smile, and say “How you doing?” to every person I encountered, black or white—then listen to their answer.
This project also started when I discovered that my aunt Kathy had refused to leave the city. She refused the FBI, the Coast Guard, and FEMA, when they came to persuade—then demand—that she leave the shotgun double where she chain-smokes and holds court amidst her antiques. It also started when I learned that a cousin of mine was providing tents, generators, latrines, and telecommunications to the Gretna Police Force. The same Gretna Police Force that turned away the tide of people who fled the city when Mayor Ray Nagin unlocked the Superdome doors. My cousin was on the Gretna side of the bridge—dry land—when the river of starved people were met by policemen in riot gear, with machine guns. And told to turn around.
I met Antoinette on her second day in the shelter. A muscled woman in her forties who has borne seven children, Antoinette needed medical and psychiatric care, but she was enraged and terrified. I followed my instinct to wrap my arms around her, and rock. After some time, she whispered her story. She had glass in her feet, needed nitroglycerin, and couldn’t sleep. We got to the medical triage. They asked her questions, and she whispered her answers in my ear. I repeated them for the sequence of doctors. She needed to be believed and seen by someone outside of the official regimen of forms and authorities, in order to begin to take care of herself.
There I realized that witness is necessary. Healing happens not only for the trauma survivors, but also for those who receive and protect their stories. It is a relationship.
Over the next few days, as evacuees got more settled, Alive in Truth coalesced as an all-volunteer listening and oral history project.
Kevin Layton, an evacuee to Austin who is now living in Idaho, says, “I’ve been waiting two weeks for someone to stick a microphone in my face so I can tell everybody what I’ve seen and stop thinking about it.”
Due to Red Cross privacy policies, we can’t go into the shelters, so we hang out on the sidewalk, talk to folks, and find out who wants to connect. No volunteer listens for more than two hours at a time, and each team talks with a therapist afterward. Interviewees are given our phone numbers, and are welcome to change, add to, or retract their words at any time. Most ask us to make their accounts public immediately, so we transcribe them and post them on our Web site.
It is important that people be given the space to tell a whole story, in their own way—the story of who they are before, during, and after the disaster. I hesitate to break out quotes from a complex, many-layered telling, because that is part of the violence of media accounts: The person becomes a symbol rather than a self. Yet for the purposes of introducing some New Orleanians, here is what we have heard:
The boys that was shooting guns off the rooftops was for loud noise. They wasn’t trying to hit the helicopters! The helicopters was passing overhead for five days and the boys was using the guns like firecrackers to let them know they were there, to get their attention.
—Clarice Butler, 66, home health aide
We waited long for the helicopter, sitting in squalor, maybe about a week, or two weeks. God allowed me to walk through the water, you know, and, I had my dad with me. I had my old lady with me. My dad a crippled man. My old lady a handicapped lady. At times I didn’t know if I was gonna make it through, sir. But I kept hearing the voice, I kept hearing the voice saying, “Soldier, I didn’t brought you this forward to leave. I will not leave you and I will not forsake you. All you do is hang on. Hold on and keep moving on! I will take care of the rest.” God kept my love alive.
—Soldier Man, 46, street preacher
To answer those that would ask, well why didn’t they leave? We didn’t have no money. We didn’t have no cars. I would not leave until I knew each one of my children was alright, and they were all across New Orleans…. I had two children here, two children here, three children there, two grandchildren here. I had to make sure all my children was gone. … I have to find all my children because they keep me strong and they the reason I’m living.
—Antoinette, 44, blackjack dealer
Babies were floating by on a mattress, and a baby fell off the mattress. And nobody couldn’t find him. They had a bunch of men trying help find him. I come up with the baby. It feels good, you know, to save lives, because I have seen people get killed and die, but I have not seen that many people at one time. … The people were the cause of the people getting saved.
—Rickey B., 42, construction worker
I hesitate to say anything “collectively.” The individual is what matters. But collectively these accounts point out something that is missing from too many media accounts: the humanity of New Orleanians. In part, the tragedy in New Orleans happened because of classism, racism, and the fact that in a critical moment, the military was directed to protect property and control theft, rather than to save lives.
Too many media images were about the criminality of the victims, rather than about the criminality of a government’s failed response; about the anarchy of the population rather than the absence of organized relief. When they did get to “restoring order,” the armed forces terrorized some. They assisted some. Some troops did the best they could. Some abused their power. All were stuck in a situation few could make sense of. Every story is different.
On the backside of the Convention Center the National Guard was cool, with air conditioners, alright? I said, “Sir, uh, we just c- Okay.” And we knocked on the door and said, “Man, we just came to tell you that you need to come get this lady, this man’s mama, ’cause she’s dead.” And he told me, one of the National Guards, told me, ‘They got a bunch of people around here dead. If you don’t get away from this door, we gonna shoot you.’ Just like that. I just looked at him, because. … We had to back up, because they had declared martial law, so they could do what they want. He coulda shot me.
—Wayne G., 45, singer
I give Uncle Sam’s boys an A+. They got me off my roof in a helicopter, took me to the airport, gave me food and water. I give those boys all the credit they are due. I didn’t experience no trouble by the National Guard.
—Gerard M., 57, business owner
This project is about New Orleans, rather than the whole battered Gulf Coast, because what happened in New Orleans didn’t happen elsewhere. The disaster in New Orleans highlighted the impotence of sound bites and images, broadcast without context. The power of commercial media to cast a victim as a perpetrator, based on class and skin color. The gross oversimplification of characters portrayed, which thwarted response times and empathy.
The futility of watching awful events unfold on a television screen and being a passive viewer, unable to intervene, was another part of the national trauma. How will we talk about this?
I was tired of seeing that damn cameraman. I’ve seen you everyday for four days. I said, “Get out of here! Why don’t you do something! Save us! Get us out of here!” And the cameraman made me understand what was going on. He said, “I can’t leave it alone. If I leave it alone, y’all will never be saved. News is like a little baby. Everybody’s excited when it first comes out but everybody forgets it after a week or two. I have to stay here or else they will forget about you. Y’all will die here if I don’t keep the cameras rolling.”
I was in the Convention Center for five days. I had two little babies in my arms, two, three-month-old babies that looked like they was three weeks old. And I went up to a police officer. I said, “Ma’am, can you please take these two little babies and just let them ride around in the car with you, get an hour of air conditioning? Or better yet, take them to Trinity Hospital? They’ll take them there.” You know what she did? She dropped a bottle of water out the window of the car and said, “Write to the press.”A bottle of water.
—Michael V., business owner
The first-person accounts that we are collecting are not just about trauma, they’re also about heroism. My heart breaks and heals in ungraceful cycles through the course of an afternoon spent listening. So very many people took total responsibility for other people. Old folks and young folks risked their lives to save lives, and used whatever resources—a boat, a two-by-four, a garbage can, a plastic kiddie pool—they could find. Like medical responders and rescue workers, many victims worked without rest for days on end. The ingenuity, bravery, and heroism of the majority of evacuees, of all ages, must be recognized and inscribed in our national memory.
I had to swim all the way to a bridge, and I had to carry my little cousin on my back. Nobody else didn’t want me to bring them in the water. I was getting tired, but they had trees nearby so I could rest. I had to hold on to the trees. The water was so high, I could get to a branch and hold on. And she had on a lifejacket, so if she slipped off, she was gonna be all right, all I had to do was grab her. But that was a long way to swim, all the way to a bridge! Maybe like twenty or thirty-five minutes. I never swum that long before!
—Cleo W., 17, high school junior
The hurt, it comes and goes, you know. At night, I got a joy tear, but I also got a sad tear too.
If the Red Cross says they don’t need any more volunteers, what they mean is that they have their positions—door greeter, shower boss, kitchen server—basically filled. What they don’t mean is that everyone who needs a helping hand is holding one. What they don’t mean is that they’ve provided childcare to the grieving mother, or a new pair of dentures to everyone who lost their false teeth. Find someone sitting on the sidewalk crying. Sit down next to them and ask what they are feeling, and how you can help. Show up without a time limit. Let them teach you something they know. Find out if there are immediate needs you can resolve: a ride to the bank, help with the computer. Ask if they want to talk. Hear their anger at being abandoned; empathize with their losses. Don’t wait for a Red Cross badge. Just go.
A vibrant drive for self-expression, humor, accuracy, honesty, and meaning are part of what the evacuees offer us. I’ve also been offered dinner, marriage, a full tank of gas, a brass locket broken permanently open, funny jokes, and friendly phone calls.
Me personally, it makes me feel good to tell you about it because I want the world to know how they turned their back on their citizens.
I kept my heart strong with my higher power: God. Without him, I couldn’t have did it. I feel like a big burden is off me now.
The Lord’s placed everybody where he wanted them to be at for a reason. He’s giving all us the opportunity to start all over again. Now you know, a lot of people, they’ll go back to New Orleans and try to do the same things they was doing. They don’t want to change. But far as myself, I think the Lord has given me nine chances. I don’t have no more. I don’t have no more chances with God.
After telling his story, a 57-year-old man named Column says, “I have a present for you.” His present is an a cappella gospel song. He softly sways, taps his bright-white new tennis shoes, and sings:
By the rivers of Babylon,
Where we sat down,
And there we wept
When we remembered Zion.
Oh, they carried us away in captivity,
And required from us a song,
How can we sing Lord God’s song
In strange, strange land?
Sing it aloud, on and on
Sing the song of freedom, sister, on and on
Sing the song of freedom, brother, on and on
Shout the song of freedom
So, let the words of my mouth
And the meditations of my heart
Be acceptable in Thy sight,`
O My Lord…
“Now we’ve had our spiritual breakfast,” he says. “We can get back to work.”
Abe Louise Young is a poet, journalist, a
d teacher living in Austin. She
directs “Alive in Truth: The New Orleans Disaster Oral History and Memory Project,” an all-volunteer effort (www.aliveintruth.org). The National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, based in New York, is currently compiling a report on the human rights violations that took place in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (www.nesri.org).