AFTERWORD I BY ABE LOUISE YOUNG A Universe of Stories “The universe is not made of atoms it is made of stories.”Muriel Rukeyser Ibegan 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 work ing 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 laterabout how superior the milk was. It began when I was a child raised in the affectionate, gregarious call-andresponse 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 bizarreand liberatingfreedom of talk. As a child, I learned to nod, smile, and say “How you doing?” to every person I encountered, black or whitethen 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 persuadethen demandthat 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 bridgedry landwhen the river of starved people were met by policemen in riot gear, with machine guns. And told to turn around. Imet Antoinette on her second day in the shelter. A muscled woman in her forties who has borne seven children, Antoinette needed medi cal 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 All photos by Abe Louise Young 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 wel OCTOBER 7, 2005 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 29
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